WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Army brigade will begin sending small teams into as many as 35 African nations early next year, part of an intensifying Pentagon effort to train countries to battle extremists and give the United States a ready and trained force to dispatch to Africa if crises requiring the U.S. military emerge.
The teams will be limited to training and equipping efforts, and will not be permitted to conduct military operations without specific, additional approvals from the secretary of defense.
The sharper U.S. focus on Africa comes against a backdrop of widespread insurgent violence across North Africa, and as the African Union and other nations discuss military intervention in northern Mali.
The terror threat from al-Qaida-linked groups in Africa has been growing steadily, particularly with the rise of the extremist Islamist sect Boko Haram in Nigeria. Officials also believe that the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which killed the ambassador and three other Americans, may have been carried out by those who had ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
This first-of-its-kind brigade assignment -- involving teams from the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division -- will target countries such as Libya, Sudan, Algeria and Niger, where al-Qaida-linked groups have been active. It also will assist nations such as Kenya and Uganda that have been battling al-Shabab militants on the front lines in Somalia.
Gen. Carter Ham, the top U.S. commander in Africa, noted that the brigade has a small drone capability that could be useful in Africa. But he also acknowledged that he would need special permission to tap it for that kind of mission.
"If they want them for [military] operations, the brigade is our first sourcing solution because they're prepared," said Gen. David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Army Forces Command. "But that has to go back to the secretary of defense to get an execute order."
Already, the U.S. military has plans for nearly 100 different exercises, training programs and other activities across the widely diverse continent. But the new program faces significant cultural and language challenges, as well as nagging questions about how many of the lower-level enlisted members of the brigade, based in Fort Riley, Kan., will participate, since the teams would largely be made up of more senior enlisted troops and officers.
A full brigade numbers about 3,500, but the teams could range from just a few people to a company of about 200. In rare cases for certain exercises, it could be a battalion, which would number about 800.
To bridge the cultural gaps with the African militaries, the Army is reaching out across the services, the embassies and a network of professional organizations to find troops and experts that are from some of the African nations. The experts can be used during training, and the troops can both advise or travel with the teams as they begin the program.
"In a very short time frame we can only teach basic phrases," said Col. Matthew McKenna, commander of the 162nd Infantry Brigade, which will begin training the Fort Riley soldiers in March for their African deployment. "We focus on culture and the cultural impact -- how it impacts the African countries' military and their operations."
Thomas Dempsey, a professor with the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said the biggest challenge will be the level of cultural, language and historical diversity across the far-flung continent.
"How do you train for that in a way that would be applicable wherever they go?" said Mr. Dempsey, a retired Army colonel. He said he's not sure using a combat brigade is the right answer, but added, "I'm not sure what the answer is. The security challenges differ so dramatically that, to be honest, I really don't think it's feasible to have a continental training package."
The Pentagon's effort in Africa, including the creation of U.S. Africa Command in 2007, has been carefully calibrated, largely due to broad misgivings across the continent that it could spawn U.S. bases or create the perception of an undue U.S. military influence there. As a result, the command has been based in Stuttgart, Germany, rather than on the African continent. At the same time, many African nations are eager for U.S. training or support, as they work to build their militaries, battle pirates along the coast and shut down drug trafficking, kidnapping and other insurgent activities.
Col. McKenna acknowledged the challenge, but said the military has to tap its conventional fighting forces for this task because there aren't enough special operations forces to meet the global training needs. He said there will be as many as a dozen different training segments between February and September, each designed to provide tailored instruction for the particular teams.
The mission for the 2nd Brigade -- known as the "Dagger Brigade" -- will begin in the spring and will pave the way for Army brigades to be assigned next to U.S. Pacific Command and then to U.S. European Command over the next year.