FORT RILEY, Kan. -- Here on the Kansas plains, thousands of soldiers once bound for Iraq or Afghanistan are now gearing up for missions in Africa as part of a new Pentagon strategy to train and advise indigenous forces to tackle emerging terrorist threats and other security risks so that American forces do not have to.
The first-of-its-kind program is drawing on troops from a 3,500-member brigade in the Army's storied First Infantry Division, known as the Big Red One, to conduct more than 100 missions in Africa over the next year. The missions range from a two-man sniper team in Burundi to 350 soldiers conducting airborne and humanitarian exercises in South Africa.
The brigade has also sent a 150-member rapid-response force to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa to protect embassies in emergencies, a direct reply to the attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year that killed four Americans.
"Our goal is to help Africans solve African problems, without having a big American presence," said Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee Magee, a West Point graduate and third-generation Army officer whose battalion has sent troops to Burundi, Niger and South Africa in the past several months, and whose unit will deploy to Djibouti in December.
The American commando raids this month against terrorist operatives in Libya and Somalia underscore the spreading extremist threat in Africa, and a renewed urgency to choke off insurgent cells before they can grow, according to counterterrorism specialists. Teams from the brigade here have already helped train forces in Kenya and Tanzania, which are battling fighters from the Shabab militant group in Somalia.
"Africa is one of the places," President Obama said at a news conference three days after the commando raids, "that you're seeing some of these groups gather. And we're going to have to continue to go after them."
For that reason, it is no surprise that the military's Africa Command is the test case for this new Army program of regionally aligned brigades that will eventually extend to all of the Pentagon's commands worldwide, including in Europe and Latin America next year. These forces will be told in advance that their deployments will focus on parts of the world that do not have Army troops assigned to them now -- creating a system in which officers and enlisted personnel would develop regional expertise.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said in an interview that the goal was to field an Army that could be "engaged regionally in all the combatant commands to help them shape their theaters, set their theaters, in order to sustain and execute our national security strategy."
Even as soldiers prepare for tasks as far-ranging as combat casualty care in Chad or radio training in Mauritania, in a recent visit here they were also conducting target practice in their M1A2 battle tanks on a sprawling firing range, to keep their skills sharp for a future land war against an unforeseen foe. Chad and Mauritania are both combating Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an offshoot of the main terrorist group.
But with the United States military out of Iraq and pulling out of Afghanistan, the Army is looking for new missions around the world. "As we reduce the rotational requirement to combat areas, we can use these forces to great effect in Africa," Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the head of the Africa Command, told Congress this year.
Missions that were once performed largely by Special Operations Forces, including the Army's Green Berets, are now falling to regular infantry troops like members of the Second Armored Brigade Combat Team here at Fort Riley, nicknamed the Dagger Brigade.
This summer, nearly two dozen of the brigade's soldiers deployed to Niger, in West Africa, to help train troops for United Nations peacekeeping duty in neighboring Mali. The Americans set up tents on a government-owned farm two hours north of the capital, Niamey, shooing away the goats, cows and chickens.
For 10 weeks, they weathered sandstorms and temperatures that soared beyond 110 degrees to teach the Nigerien troops marksmanship, patrolling skills and medical care. The troops drilled in the morning, rested from the midday heat, and then resumed classes in the evening. Among the worries in Niger is the threat posed by Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group with ties to Al Qaeda.
"We're never going to teach them anything about Boko Haram they don't already know, but we can help them develop their capacity as a military," said Maj. Bret Hamilton, 38, an Iraq and Afghan war veteran who led the team in Niger.
The Americans' credibility with their counterparts in Niger was cemented just as the training began. Terrorists using suicide car bombs attacked a Nigerien military compound and a French-operated uranium company in the country's north, not far from the training site. Some diplomats and training forces from other countries retreated to the safety of the capital, but the Americans stayed put and helped the Nigeriens bolster their defenses.
"We're trying to build a rapport and a lasting relationship with them," said Sgt. First Class Christopher Bunnell, 31, a platoon leader from Lake Station, Ind.
Before deploying, the troops in Kansas receive six days of cultural training and instruction from Africa-born graduate students at nearby Kansas State University. "The soldiers trained are able to ask about things not in their books," said Daryl Youngman, an associate professor at the university who oversees the instruction.
Some Africa specialists say that if the goal is to build a cadre of regional specialists, this training seems lacking. "There needs to be a concentrated effort for these forces to have sustained regional language training and expertise," said Lesley Anne Warner, an Africa analyst with CNA's Center for Strategic Studies in Alexandria, Va., who has studied the regional brigade concept. "Not having such training defeats part of the rationale for having regionally aligned forces."
In a separate three weeks of training in South Africa last summer, 350 brigade soldiers trained with troops there using mock exercises. The soldiers worked together to analyze an enemy and how it would react, and in the end seized a rebel base.
For the South Africans, it was a chance to learn tactics and techniques that American troops refined in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the Americans, it offered an opportunity to gain new insights on African counterinsurgency.
"When the tire meets the tar, that's when you actually learn the most lessons," Brig. Gen. Lawrence Reginald Smith, the South Africa force commander there, said in a telephone interview. "What we bring to the table is knowledge of the indigenous people and the rebels who come from those people, including how they act."
Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 18, 2013 2:01 PM