US military trains African armies ahead of Boko Haram campaign

US military trains African armies ahead of Boko Haram campaign
A US special forces soldier stands in front of Chadian soldiers during Flintlock 2015, an American-led military exercise, in Mao, February 22, 2015.

MAO, Chad - Under the glare of the Saharan sun, a US special forces trainer corrects the aim of a Chadian soldier as he takes cover behind a Toyota pick-up and fires at a target with his AK47 - a drill that could soon save his life.

Chad is sending hundreds of troops to fight Boko Haram in neighbouring Nigeria as part of a regional offensive against the Islamist group, which killed an estimated 10,000 people last year in a campaign to carve an Islamic emirate from the north of Africa's largest oil producer.

At the end of the exercise, a US trainer shows the 85 Chadians the paper target peppered with bullet holes - many of them outside the drawing of a gunman. "Not so great," he says and orders them to do a round of push-ups -- in which American, Italian and Belgian trainers all take part, laughing.

The annual 'Flintlock' counter-terrorism exercises are a decade-old US-sponsored initiative to bolster African nations' ability to fight militant groups operating in the vast ungoverned spaces of the Sahara with training.

"Even before the conflict with Boko Haram, we were preparing to face a group like them," said the commander of the Chadian troops, Captain Zakaria Magada, whose Special Anti-Terrorist Group (SATG) is equipped and trained by the United States.

"Boko Haram is just a militia of civilians. We are an organised army. They cannot face up to us."

Chad's armed forces are among the most respected in the region - a reputation forged during decades of war and rebellions, and honed in a 2013 fight against al Qaeda-linked Islamists in the deserts of northern Mali.

But many of its troops are still raw. In the first days of Flintlock, trainers from the US army's 10th Special Forces Group walked them through basics like adjusting the sights of their weapons and properly cleaning them.

The trainers say there is a limit to what can be taught in 3 weeks of Flintlock but the objective of the exercise - which this year groups 1,300 troops from 28 countries - is building relationships among African nations and Western partners.

Efforts to construct a regional African taskforce to tackle Boko Haram have been hampered by lack of cooperation between neighbouring countries. With that in mind, planners built into this year's Flintlock a cross-border scenario about tackling a militant group modeled on the Nigerian militants.

"It is all about African nations finding African solutions to their problems," said Major General James Linder, head of US Special Operations Command Africa. "We cannot do that for them."

While France has deployed some 3,000 troops in Africa to combat Islamic militants, the US military has retained a lighter footprint: providing equipment and training to allies while participating in a few targeted missions, such as the hunt for Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony.

Amid calls for the US army to become more directly involved, Linder says its focus on capacity building is part of a long-term vision. By 2050, Africa is forecast to have 2.7 billion people - a third of the world's population, he says.

"The global community needs stable countries in Africa and that can only happen through African nations themselves," he said.

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