GARMISCH, Germany — More than 230 Special Operations Forces, or SOF, and interagency partners from across Africa and Europe met over the last two weeks in Garmisch, Germany to discuss the future of SOF cooperation in Africa.
The two-week combination of exercise Silent Warrior and the annual Special Operations Command Africa Commander’s Conference concluded Nov. 20. The events provided a forum for military members from 19 African partner nations and representatives from nine European SOF units to dialogue with every directorate at Special Operations Command Africa while developing an operational picture of threats in Africa and devising cooperative plans for the year ahead.
“We are not at war in Africa, but many of the people in this room, the leaders from African militaries and SOF units, are on the front lines of the counter terror fight every day,” said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, the Special Operations Command Africa commander. “Our job over the course of these two weeks is to study the problem in depth, determine root causes and devise comprehensive, cooperative strategies to enable African states to work together.”
During the first week of exercise Silent Warrior, participants focused on understanding the capabilities each partner brings to a combined plan. Briefings and subsequent discussions ranged from tactical combat casualty care capabilities to command and control relationships, information operations, the role of intelligence fusion centers, civil-military outreach activities and capacity building, and SOF interdependence.
The closed-door meetings were conducted in the spirit of academic freedom, with partners providing critical feedback and honest assessments of capabilities, resources, deficiencies and needs.
All agreed, the growth of violent extremist organizations in African rural areas must be addressed before groups move into population centers. “If we don’t fight the small fires now, we will be fighting large fires in the near future,” said Col. Lambert Tshweneetsile, the deputy director of special operations for the Botswana Defence Force, during a discussion on information sharing between directorates.
Participants built on the lessons of Silent Warrior during the second week as Special Operations Command Forward commanders led regional break out sessions to study threat groups and understand the challenges facing African militaries.
“We need to devise a multi-dimensional approach to countering ISIS and other groups,” said Col. Chakib Fatih, an operations officer with the Moroccan 2nd Parachute Infantry Brigade. “We must address terrorist groups in the spheres where they seek influence: social, economic, media and religious…government working with police, gendarmerie, in the community and online in order to be proactive to face this problem.”
On the final day, the Special Operations Command Forward regional groups presented their “way forward concept” to the entire conference. Discussion leaders challenged the break out groups to craft strategies to make the Theater Special Operations Command and forward units more operationally effective while providing value to African partners. The findings from these sessions will also be shared with U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Special Operations Command leadership to inform headquarters staff on the insights provided by African partners and event participants.
“Our operations necessarily include a variety of civilian agencies and governmental bodies from African countries. The root causes of instability make top-down institution building key to addressing these threats,” said Bolduc. “No single organization has all the tools required. The military, and SOF in particular, is only one aspect of a comprehensive approach to countering violent extremism.”
“The goal of these discussions is to devise proactive operations to limit the number of emergency, or contingency-type operations, SOF are called on to address,” Bolduc added. “Together we can get in front of the problem by increasing effective governance to vulnerable populations and promoting economic growth across the region. Extremist networks thrive on instability. We’re building the institutional, military and responsive cross-border networks to provide a positive counter narrative to these threat groups.”
For many, the perspective African partners — those closest to the fight — provided to attendees helped to frame just how complex combating violent extremist organizations in Africa can be for multi-national forces.
After recounting how dense underbrush hinders the movement of tracking teams in Central Africa, Col. Michael Kabango, the commander of Operation Lightning Thunder, the counter-Lord’s Resistance Army mission, with the Ugandan People’s Defence Force added, “You cannot solve a problem if you do not understand the environment you are operating in. You must first overcome the environment before you can overcome the enemy.”
Regardless of the challenges ahead, the Ugandan colonel was hopeful following the in-depth exchanges, “The situational awareness we have gained here will drive the next military operation (and) change the sequence of events for our cooperation.”