COLUMBUS, Ga. — It was a rare sight, especially on American soil. Seated around nested U-shaped tables in the heart of the city’s renovated ironworks were senior military officials representing nearly three-quarters of Africa’s 54 UN-recognized countries.
They were there last week for the African Land Forces Summit, a week-long, U.S.-brokered annual conference that brings together army officials from across the continent and other countries that maintain a presence in Africa. This year’s edition focused on sharing ideas about how to improve institutions and training practices for African militaries, with a “resilient institutions build resilient leaders” tagline.
But the attendance list looked different than previous years — due to military leaders overcoming their institutions.
Missing was Ethiopia, who hosted the 2020 ALFS conference in Addis Ababa, amid its grinding civil war with separatists in its northern Tigray region — a conflict that has devolved into massive human rights violations by all forces involved.
Missing was Guinea, where Green Berets were training their local counterparts in September 2021 when their students left mid-exercise and overthrew the country’s president.
Missing was Mali, where a U.S.-trained special forces officer has toppled the country’s government twice since August 2020, derailing counterterrorism operations there.
Missing was Sudan, whose top general dissolved a transitional government and seized power last October.
The summit’s setting, Fort Benning, has a controversial past when it comes to foreign training. It’s where the former School of the Americas, now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, trained thousands of Central and South American troops — some of whom went on to commit coups, massacres and other crimes. In recent years, the institution has opened a human rights center.
U.S. Army officials speaking to reporters at the summit described their efforts to try to ensure that security cooperation efforts with Africa don’t enable human rights violations or coups. There isn’t yet a WHINSEC equivalent for African countries, so much of the training cooperation happens in Africa through the service’s Security Force Assistance Brigades or special operations forces.
“[We] follow the lead of our civilian policymakers,” said the service’s chief of staff Gen. James McConville, who added that parts of partner training are intended “to make sure they’re following the rule of law [and] that they’re respecting civilian control of the military,” as well as human rights.
Maj. Gen. Andrew Rohling, who commands the Southern European Task Force–Africa, said that if “the countries don’t follow that, then we...don’t do training. [That’s why] you don’t see Ethiopia here.”
The Army’s top general agreed, saying, “Those who don’t share the same values [and] that don’t share the same interests...don’t get the ability to get the benefits of our training.”
All about ‘strategic access’
McConville also reflected on how the event supports U.S. strategic goals in Africa, including “interests in establishing strong relationships with our allies and partners in the region.”
In addition to the meetings’ help towards coordinating shared security goals like defeating extremist groups, such as Somalia’s Al Shabab and African branches of ISIS, Rohling sees a benefit to enabling leader-to-leader discussions.
“What you’re seeing here over the course of our time at Fort Benning this week is how...we help move forward strategic access and influence...in Africa,” Rohling said, referring to one of Africa Command leader Gen. Stephen Townsend’s top priorities. “[McConville and I] just met [here] with three of the land force commanders in Africa.”
He pointed towards extensive partnership work with Morocco, Tunisia, Kenya and other countries as key for U.S. interests, but noted that the summit is a chance to improve military ties with “those [with whom] we don’t have the strongest relationship[.]”
“Events like this are where we’re trying to strengthen those relationships...we’re trying to find open doors, ways to cooperate, ways to move resources in those countries,” explained Rohling.
The SETAF-AF commander also thinks that the merger of U.S. Army Europe with U.S. Army Africa last year has eased multinational training and cooperation between the U.S. and African countries, including an early March exercise in Kenya that included troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
“Before the merger, that would have been a very complicated and drawn out process to get those forces to participate in that exercise,” said Rohling. “Now with one commander in charge of [Army troops in] both theaters, it’s easy to use forces in both areas.”
The African commanders at the conference saw strategic access as a two-way street, taking opportunities to pose challenging policy questions.
The top general for a multinational task force confronting the Boko Haram extremist group, Nigerian Maj. Gen. Abdul Khalifah Ibrahim, expressed his frustration with bureaucratic red tape that prevents a key vein of U.S. security cooperation funding from being used to assist his troops. Section 333 train-and-equip funds can only be used in bilateral cooperation with individual countries, excluding multinational organizations like Ibrahim’s task force. The forum provided an opportunity to broach the subject.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.