Africa’s ancient and open trade corridors, which once helped goods move across the continent, now aid the free movement of militants, Amanda Dory, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, said in an interview.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
Q: Are borders in parts of Africa coming under pressure from insurgent groups?
Dory: The trade routes through the Sahel into the Maghreb that have existed for thousands of years for commerce of all types over time are increasingly being used for a variety of trafficking in items of concern, whether arms or persons, and most recently in the increased flow of extremists moving into and out of the region.
Q: What are your concerns about how well these borders are policed?
Dory: The ability of the states in the region to adequately project power from their capitals into the largely remote border areas is quite limited. Their ability to monitor the border, whether it’s people at the border or the ability to do surveillance, that’s a hurdle in and of itself. And then the ability to project border security to the right places is not there in substantial quantity.
Q: Are you seeing fighters from Africa going to Syria and returning?
Dory: We’ve seen a flow out of north Africa and to a lesser extent from Europe and the U.S. to Syria. All of the governments in north Africa are concerned about the potential for return flow and we share that concern.
Q: How are governments in the region handling this return flow?
Dory: Governments are starting to think through and understand how to track the fighters as they’re leaving and how to treat them when they return. Is it a law enforcement matter, or a religious reintegration matter, are questions they’re dealing with.
Q: How does the U.S. military approach training of local forces?
Dory: We are thinking about the security sector holistically, and increasingly over time recognizing that the militaries in many cases are reasonably well respected in the countries we are working with. Often it’s the law enforcement and police that are the weaker of the institutions and they’re the ones who engage most directly with the population. And that’s an excellent place to start when you’re working on countering violent extremism.
We are seeking a balance that’s tailored to the country in question when it comes to the type of engagement we pursue. Within the military engagement we spend a lot of time with training of all types, including peacekeeping training that the U.S. has been engaged in for decades.
Q. What types of hardware and equipment do African nations request from the U.S.?
Dory: There’s growing interest in countering violent extremism and counterinsurgency types of engagement, especially an interest in the software of how do you think about and deal with an insurgency. That’s different than what people typically imagine we do in terms of equipment, training and hardware.
Over the last few years there’s really been an emphasis on how do you approach this problem conceptually and work with professional military educational institutions to develop their strategy and doctrine dealing with insurgencies within their borders and in their neighboring countries.
Q: What lessons has the U.S. military learned from the wars and counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how are they being applied in Africa?
Dory: One of the things we’ve had success with is civil-military support teams. You go through the process of engaging with local chiefs and populations, how to develop rapport and respect and teach how you understand what their needs are. How to understand respect for the military as an arm of the government. That’s one of those areas the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan import very directly.
Q. How do you develop rapport and long-term relations with African governments and militaries in the absence of permanent bases?
Dory: It’s understood that developing relationships takes time, and spending time with your interlocutors makes a huge difference in terms of effectiveness. Even though there are no permanent formations sprinkled across the African continent, there’s a fair amount of thought going into having teams come and depart, and the same individuals returning over a period of time.
The approach of special operations forces including language training and spending time understanding the environment is spreading to general purpose forces.