In the African Desert, an Oasis of Cooperation and Partnership
Senegalese soldiers pull security during a live fire training event during exercise during Flintlock 2013, Nema, Mauritania, March 08, 2013. Flintlock has been an annual initiative since 2005 across the Sahel in conjunction with international partners to improve their capacity and capability to protect civilians. (U.S. Army photo by Specialist Justin De Hoyos)
As reports of conflict in Africa gain notoriety, the value of exercises like Flintlock that improve the interoperability between Western and African nations becomes evident.
Mauritania, bordered by Western Sahara, Algeria, Senegal and Mali, hosted Flintlock 2013, an annual capacity-building exercise between Feb. 20 and March 9, 2013 across southeast Mauritania in Kiffa, Nema and Ayoun. More than 1,000 participants from 14 African and Western partner nations contributed in varying levels to the exercise.
Flintlock is a Joint Chiefs of Staff-directed, U.S. Africa Command-sponsored exercise conducted by the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara focusing on improving the capabilities of regional militaries to operate together, as well as conducting civil military operations aimed at improving the health and welfare of local civilian populations. Flintlock brings together participating multinational Special Operations Forces in a combined environment to develop and refine relevant tactics, techniques and procedures for today’s operational environment.
One of the biggest developments between Flintlock 2013 and previous Flintlocks is the successful integration of the African-led Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, a command and control element that integrated operations, logistics, intelligence, information operations and civil affairs into the tactical training scenario. The CJSOTF operations center was staffed by senior officers from the Mauritanian staff college, who would receive exercise information, develop plans and then deliver the plans to the appropriate subordinate unit for execution.
Improving upon tactical skill is important, but equally important is partner development among the nations involved. With events unfolding in nearby Mali, each military force was aware that they could be called upon to support their neighbor in the fight against violent extremists. Participants were able to build bonds by working together, training in the field, or sharing a meal.
“It’s an honor…a lot of the partner nations, the head of their delegations are the top Special Forces officers in their entire country,” said Col. George H. Bristol, former commander of JSOTF-TS and the commander of the U.S. contingent during Flintlock 2013. “To be able to sit at a table and share a meal with them and talk about what’s happening in their countries and be able to talk about how they grew up and the way their nations function, you realize it’s an incredible opportunity.”
“I think Flintlock is a very good way to make contact and to understand the military and understand the countries in the Sahara and the problems they face,” said Alfonso, a Spanish trainer. “That way we can train with them, we can get past these problems, and it’s a good way of understanding.”
This year’s Flintlock was also unique in its proximity to Mali and the involvement of western African nations in the conflict there, many of which were participating in the exercise; although the exercise was not specifically designed to prepare forces for that situation.
“I think probably the biggest thing with Flintlock this year is of course the extraordinary things and extraordinary times that are happening on the African continent, so that makes it a little bit more real,” said Col. Bristol. “We’re here in Nema, Mauritania, very close to the Malian border, where there are things happening that are shifting and changing some of the dynamics in western and northwest Africa.”
Noteworthy is that previous Flintlock participants are actively engaged in operations in Mali. Chadian forces, with the largest contingent of nearly 2,000 total soldiers, encountered heavy resistance from violent extremists near the Algerian border in the Ifoghas Mountains on Feb. 22. According to the deputy chief of staff of the Chadian army, Gen. Zakaria Gobongue, 65 extremists were killed in the exchange and five vehicles destroyed. Also killed were 13 Chadian soldiers. Some senior Chadian officers attribute Flintlock as one of the tools that best prepared them for the conflict.
But Col. Bristol was clear that the Flintlock exercise was in no way tied to what was going on in Mali, it was simply a coincidence.
“This exercise has been in the works for over a year, between us, the Mauritanians and numerous western partner nations and numerous African partner nations,” Col. Bristol said. “So the fact that there’s a lot of events going on in Mali and around us, it was not linked in any way. This exercise would have gone on no matter what was happening.”
Flintlock 2012 was originally scheduled to take place in Mali, but the country’s internal coup d’etat and conflict with violent extremists led to the cancellation of the scheduled exercise. A year later, with western African partner nations contributing to the multinational military efforts to eradicate the influence of groups like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Mauritania could have justified cancelling the exercise. However, according to Col. Bristol, they persevered and insisted on hosting the exercise despite numerous demands on their security forces.
“The easiest thing in these dynamic times would have been just to cancel it. That would have been an easy thing to do,” Col. Bristol said. “I think this is the right thing; it’s the right thing for the African continent, it was the right thing for the counterterrorism partnership that we have with a lot of these nations, and it’s the right thing for all of our nations to be out here training…we will all walk away from here better, and that’s going to be a good thing for the world.”
The exercise this year also put a strong focus on building the Civil Military Action capacity of the host nation, through the use of medical seminars and holding medical capability (MEDCAP) events throughout the region to allow the Mauritanian officials to provide medical aid to the local population.
Teams from the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion and the Mauritanian military carried out the MEDCAPs in locations throughout Mauritania, chosen because of the need for and lack of permanent government support. The MEDCAPs administered medical care to over 1,000 people, distributing nearly a half-ton of medical supplies, including eyeglasses.
“Through this exercise we have been able to officially train five civil military action teams and we have also done train-the-trainer type of work as well. That is something we will be able to pass on and have those professionals,” said Col. Mohamed Cheikh Ould Boide, special advisor to the Mauritanian Chief of Staff and the lead Mauritanian planner for Flintlock 2013. “This is something that we will remain very focused on because we understand the importance of having good relationships between the local population and the military; particularly in places like this, where access to real information is very hard and there’s always lots of rumors going around.”
Col. Bristol added that some people want to sum up these sorts of events as just “winning the hearts and minds,” but stated that it’s much more than that.
“You’re doing more than that, what you’re putting is a human face to what we have to do as special operations forces,” Col. Bristol said. “To be able to come into a village and say we understand where you are, we want to help you, what are some of your problems and what are some of your challenges. That we can alleviate or assist in some of those is a tremendous dynamic, and it has a lasting effect for the present and for the future.”
The Spanish military contributed trainers who worked with Mauritanian units, teaching them tactics, medical techniques, patrolling and the use of air drops for resupply, while the Dutch trainers worked with the Senegalese units.
“It’s good training …it’s a good opportunity, and they want to take advantage of this,” said Alfonso. “They take whatever you can teach them, so I think it’s a very good thing for them and it’s a very good thing for us.”
The exercise culminated in a live fire exercise in Nema, simulating a raid on a high value target in which multiple African partner nations worked together to ensure a successful mission. The event was a culmination using many of the skills trained during the exercise, from intelligence analysis to planning to tactical execution.
While technical skills are clear benefits of exercises like Flintlock, the forming of bonds among the nations’ military forces sends a message of cohesion, and they will stand united against threats.
“Each nation has a security apparatus to repel that evil. I think when you see close to 20 nations bonding together to train to repel that, it makes a strong statement to both the individual countries, to the bond that forms for the future and also to the enemy that justice will follow them wherever they go,” said Col. Bristol.