Army failure to prepare training could impact North Africa efforts

The Pentagon failed to properly prepare US Army troops in Africa to train foreign partner forces, a declassified inspector general investigation has found.

al-monitor A Tunisian soldier holds his position during an exercise along the frontier with Libya in Sabkeht Alyun, Tunisia, Feb. 6, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi.

Aug 9, 2019

The Pentagon failed to prepare Army units for the cultural difficulties of training local forces in Africa, leading to units reverting to their old tactics, according to a declassified inspector general’s report, a potential blow to efforts to train US-aligned forces in North Africa.

Failure to properly instruct advisers, which stemmed from poor oversight of American units deployed to the region and a lack of cultural preparation, could contribute to African countries being less ready to wage the terror fight, the findings indicate, as the Pentagon puts a top priority on containing potential spillover from the Libya conflict and the spread of Islamic State elements in North Africa.

“The RAF [regionally-aligned forces] has not been consistently prepared for its deployments to Africa, which has degraded the effectiveness of the RAF’s missions,” the report stated. “Security cooperation is a key element of USAFRICOM’s theater campaign plan … therefore, ineffective RAF training could disrupt or delay the execution of USAFRICOM’s strategy for the continent,” referring to the Pentagon’s top command in Africa.  

The regionally-aligned forces, known by the acronym RAF, is an Army-led effort to develop units that were tailored to the individual needs of theaters of war like Africa, dividing an assigned group over more than a dozen countries. US Africa Command has said the units perform “a significant share” of building up militaries on the continent.

Yet Defense Department training in Africa did not appear to stick with local units either, as the Pentagon’s so-called regionally aligned forces were "trying to train the partner nations to US military standards instead of training the partner nation to standards more widely followed in the region,” the report stated. The Defense Department "has tried to force partner nations to adapt to the [department’s] abilities instead of strengthening the partner’s abilities. This approach has resulted in the partner nation reverting to its own practices after the RAF leaves.”

The Pentagon’s inspector general recommended that smaller units with clearer guidance would do better in dealing with this mission set, such as the Army’s new Security Force Assistance Brigades, known as SFABs, that have been rumored for potential deployments in the Middle East and Africa.

“It should be of concern that service members were being deployed to Africa and not ready,” a former special forces commander told Al-Monitor. “It’s not in the Army’s DNA to be regionally aligned, to become focused on a certain part of the world. I think you have the perfect storm, a conventional unit being deployed to an austere place, it’s a recipe for failure.”

The news comes as Pentagon officials have threatened that the Islamic State (IS) could resurge in North Africa and the Middle East with a lack of consistent American pressure and advisory assistance, even though the Defense Department has focused on training US allies to fight al-Qaeda, IS and other extremist groups on their own.

Al-Monitor reported in June that Gen. Paul Selva, then the Defense Department’s second-ranking military officer, had seen a small spike in IS numbers in Libya as an eastern warlord marched on the capital city, forcing a detachment of US Marines to leave the country. The State Department and the Pentagon submitted a joint engagement strategy for North Africa to Congress the same month, according to House records.

Elsewhere, in Syria, US President Donald Trump’s December withdrawal announcement “decreased the support available to partner forces at a time when they needed training and equipping to respond to [IS] insurgent cells,” the American-led coalition fighting the militant group told the Pentagon’s inspector general in a report released on Tuesday.

The former special operations commander said Marine Corps special operations forces “have been really good” in training up Tunisian counterterrorism units battling al-Qaeda, including a deadly battle against militants alongside the Western border with Tunisia confirmed by The New York Times.

But it’s not clear what effect the SFABs, conventional Army advising units, are having, though influential lawmakers such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Ok., have called for the units to deploy to Africa.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR, reported last week that the training elements were often staffed by soldiers who were pressured or ordered to join — as the units aren’t closely linked to promotion through the Army’s combat ranks – and recruitment emphasized physical fitness over actual advising skills.

The Army has also failed to give enough heads up to advisers before they deploy, as a group set for an October departure still does not know where it is supposed to go, SIGAR reported. Once the training units got into the fight in Afghanistan, they were often hampered by scant American military resources, such as limited helicopter flights and vehicle trips to the battlefield, and significant bureaucratic hurdles via a long approval process.

“The organizational culture of the Army is resistant to those kinds of missions,” the former special forces commander said. “It just makes it very difficult to be successful.”

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