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A US-sponsored military exercise involving 44 African armies has been hailed a success, but its future is uncertain, writes Kevin Ritchie
Johannesburg - The people of Carana are safe. Now they can start rebuilding their lives after a devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake ripped through their homes on the fictitious little island off the east coast of Africa.
They’re safe thanks to the efforts of a multinational AU force - four of them, actually - speaking a mixture of French, English and even a bit of Portuguese and some Arabic too.
This is what Africa Endeavor 2013 sought to achieve. It’s an annual communications exercise for participating African armies and forces – paid for and arranged by the US Department of Defense, or more specifically, the US Africa Command (Africom).
First held in Pretoria and hosted by the SANDF in 2006, Africa Endeavor 2013 was the eighth edition of the exercise and was hosted by the Zambian Defence Force at Chambe air force base, just outside the capital Lusaka.
This year, says exercise director Commander Bryan McRoberts USN, it has gone bigger, better and further than ever before.
“I’m extremely pleased with the results. There has been a tremendous improvement and achievement in the three years I’ve been involved as exercise director.”
There were 329 people involved in the 10-day exercise, drawn from 44 African armies and defence forces, including the AU, the Economic Community of Central African States (Eccas) and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), as well as delegations from Canada, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, and the US Air Force, army, navy and marines.
The exercise, which is unique both because of its geographic scope – across an entire continent – and the breadth of participants, takes a year to plan, and then it’s all down to a 10-day practical, culminating in the pressure cooker of a three-day live exercise.
There, four syndicates – split into north, south, east and west Africa – are given the situation and told to get the necessary people to a specific place by a specific time.
In between, there will be at least 120 different incidents, forcing them to adapt and implement their plans as the scenario evolves.
There is an entire hamlet of tents pitched in the grounds of Chambe air force base, festooned with power cables and antenna wire. The exercise though, isn’t just beaming radio and computer messages back and forth among them, but also out to Libreville in Gabon, to a Cameroonian navy ship in the Gulf of Guinea, to AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and to Libya and the Seychelles.
In the process, English speakers are trying to communicate with French, Portuguese and even Arabic speakers. Some are officers, others are soldiers. They speak different languages, have been trained by different countries and have different military traditions.
Some have cutting-edge technology, while others haven’t moved far beyond Marconi’s original invention.
For McRoberts, it’s exactly this which makes Africa Endeavor both challenging and rewarding.
“The impact often extends well beyond the exercise,” he said at the completion of the exercise on Thursday.
What he was most proud of was the AU’s recent response to the crisis in Mali. A Senegalese lieutenant-colonel had been tasked to get the AU response together. The Nigerian contribution from Ecowas had been the communication team, and when the handover took place from the colonel to the team, it was seamless because of the lessons learnt at Africa Endeavor.
Getting to Zambia began in earnest in February this year when the participants met in Livingstone, in the south of the country.
There the various countries nominated their senior officers to begin the management of a process that would not just chart the exercise but also the training that had to take place, the protocols that would have to be set up to ensure the security of the radio and IT networks, and even a technical working group to ensure the inter-operability of everyone’s equipment.
McRoberts and his Africom colleagues are at pains throughout to stress that this is not a US-dominated exercise, but one in which all the participating countries are involved, from planning to execution and even monitoring and evaluating. In fact, this year AU procedures were used as the overarching guide for the entire exercise.
If anything, it’s enlightened self-interest; as exercise public affairs officer Major Paula Kurtz USAF explains, a stable continent is in everyone’s best interests.
“We cannot make a difference on the African continent alone, we must work with our African partners and other key allies where our interests converge. One African proverb says: ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together’. We choose to go far, we choose to go together.”
The US also pays for the exercise in its entirety, just one of the many it conducts in Africa every year. The others, though, are regional and bilateral with individual countries.
And, despite the largesse, not everyone is welcome. The official line is that the State Department tells the Defense Department who can come and who can’t.
The policy, says Lieutenant-Colonel Derek West USAF, until recently the US defence attache to Zambia, is that any relationship with any African country must be underpinned by that country’s civil control of its military, observance of the rule of law and respect for human rights. So Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Sudan and Eritrea are currently excluded.
South Africa wasn’t at this year’s exercise despite being one of the biggest contributors to peacekeeping and peacemaking in Africa.
McRoberts said the SANDF had been invited, but declined.
West suggested that the reason was because Shared Accord, the annual exercise between the SANDF and the US military, had just been held in the Eastern Cape, ending only on August 5, the day before Africa Endeavor began in Lusaka.
Shared Accord saw 700 soldiers and US Marines work with the SANDF, hosting medical, dental and optometry clinics, as well as live firing exercises, including simulated attacks, parachute drops on Grahamstown and a beach assault by the Marines on East London.
For the soldiers who were in Lusaka, the 10 days of Africa Endeavor were critical for the way forward.
Nigerian army Lieutenant-Colonel Olatokunbo Bello, representing the AU, said the exercise would provide a foundation for the AU’s own disaster relief exercise scheduled for Gaborone at the end of next year, in itself a critical milestone ahead of the mooted establishment of the Africa Standby Force in 2015.
This year was the first time the AU was actually involved in Africa Endeavor. Last year it sent observers. The US has been involved in Africa throughout, operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo and helping with the logistics for the AU intervention in Mali. “This speeded up our response time,” said Bello.
“The AU consists of various regional security arrangements comprising different nationalities. For all that to come together, you need a basis for communications. The success of operations depends on logistics and communications; without either you can’t succeed. Africa Endeavor provides that.”
Zambia, the host of this year’s exercise, won’t disclose the size of its army, but it has been a keen participant ever since the first Africa Endeavor in 2006 and has contributed a battalion of troops to peacekeeping in Sudan and officer observers to Rwanda, Angola and Mozambique.
“All that was left for us,” says Colonel Francis Chitambo, the Zambian delegation chief, “was to host it.
“It’s an achievement for us, as a country and as a defence force.”
The future of Africom, and Africa Endeavor, hangs in the balance though. As the exercise was wrapping up, reports were emerging of Pentagon cuts, including the possible shutting down of Africom entirely.
The authoritative military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported that military responsibility for the continent could be handed back to the US’s Europe Command and Central Command (Middle East). Kurtz and West refused to comment on speculation, but later that afternoon at Arrakan Barracks, the home of the Zambian Army, Africom’s Brigadier-General Joseph Martin warned that things would be different from next year.
“We need to be innovative with fewer resources,” he warned, adding that Mali, the DRC and Nigeria were proof that security conditions can change rapidly.
He could have added Egypt too.
“Ultimately, Africans must solve African problems.
“We must engage one another across language and culture, and work together to solve challenges. Africom will be there to build capacity,” he said.
Command prioritises Africa:
US Africa Command was established in 2008 as one of six American military commands across the globe.
Based in Stuttgart, Germany, Africom is a 2 000-person headquarters unit. It doesn’t have its own operational soldiers or equipment but draws as and when needed from the US Air Force, Navy, Army and Marines, who each have their own Africa commands, based in Europe.
Africom’s staff are drawn from all arms of the US military as well as civil servants from nine different government departments. Permanent staff in Africa include the defence attaches in 38 African countries and liaison officers at the AU, Ecowas, and the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping and Training Centre in Ghana.
The command’s priorities, says spokes-woman Major Paula Kurtz, are to counter violent extremist organisations, ensure maritime security, stop illicit trafficking, strengthen African defence capabilities and be able to respond to any crisis. Africom is designed as a key component of US foreign policy, “strengthening democratic institutions, spur economic growth and investment, advance peace and security on the continent and promote opportunity and development”.
Its five-year history though has been controversial, according to the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes, starting with the backlash after then president George W Bush announced his intention to headquarter it in Africa, sparking fears of a militarisation of US policy towards Africa.
Advertised as a predominantly humanitarian and disaster-relief initiative, Africom has been increasingly involved in active military operations, according to Stars and Stripes, including Libya during the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, hunting al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia and Mali, and flying drones in Niger.
* Kevin Ritchie, deputy editor of The Star, was in Zambia as a guest of Africom.