U.S. troops from Fort Bragg, North Carolina are joining the more than 400 service members from over 10 African partner and allied nations to participate in a joint military and law enforcement exercise held annually in the Sahel and West Africa.
Flintlock, U.S. Africa Command’s largest annual special operations exercise, has been held annually since its inception in 2005, with the exception of 2021. Senegal, which was slated to host last year’s exercise, was unable to do so following concerns by participating nations over the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year’s exercise will be held in Cote d’Ivoire Feb. 15-28.
According to the exercise’s press release from AFRICOM, the exercise is designed to strengthen key regional partner nations’ abilities to counter violent extremist organizations, collaborate across borders, and provide security for their people. It focuses largely on rebuilding regional security, a goal that is grows increasingly important as local governance and stability continue to crumble.
“Malign actors and terrorists who seek to expand their influence here also threaten stability throughout the world,” the press release noted. “By bringing together the considerable talent of African and international partners, we are collectively stronger and more capable of solving the foundational issues affecting regional and global stability.”
According to a United Nations report released Monday, both Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa are continuing to make strategic advances based on the regional instability following the four coups carried out in 2021.
Referring to the two terrorist organizations at-large, experts cited in the report stated that the groups “successfully exploited local grievances and weak governance to command growing numbers of followers and resources, notwithstanding internal divisions and rivalries.”
This latest report comes just weeks after the standing government in Burkina Faso was overthrown in a military coup that unseated President Roch Kabore and dissolved both the government and parliament.
Coup leader Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba was named the interim president of the Patriotic Movement for Preservation and Restoration, the state’s new military government. According to the 37-page constitution the new regime put forward, Damiba can claim the titles of president of Burkina Faso, head of state and supreme leader of the armed forces.
The coup in Burkina Faso marks the first coup of the year and the fifth in 13 months.
Neither Burkina Faso nor Mali, which faced its second coup in a year in May 2021, will be participating in this year’s Flintlock exercise in consideration of the developing situations within their borders.
Participating African nations include Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Niger, while Western partners include Canada, the U.S., France, Norway and the United Kingdom. U.S. troops from various units and branches will be participating, with medical and preventative medicine troops from Air Force Special Operations joining Green Berets from 3rd Special Forces Group. Additional logistic and support units will also be representing the U.S. in this year’s exercise.
“Flintlock is a pretty extraordinary exercise when you look at the scope and the complexity of all of the Western and African partners,” Public Affairs Director for Special Operations Command Africa, Maj. Andrew Caulk, told Military Times.
“Every year the training improves and evolves to what we’re seeing across the Sahel but also things that we learn and develop in terms of the exercise construct.”
This year, Caulk said, some of the focus will be on understanding how African partner nations communicate with each other and within their own forces operationally and how to improve the command and control capabilities.
“One of the challenges of the Sahel — the tactical forces are well-trained and are very effective in the tactical fight, one of the harder pieces is with command and control,” Caulk said. “How do we get intelligence into the generation of operations, and how can we do long range support and resupply to promote outpost operations, because those are the ones most attacked.”
While Caulk shared that the 2022 exercise will be smaller in scope following last year’s cancellation, the hope is to build it back up to its full size by 2023 while still working off operational necessities noted in previous years and exercises.
“We continue to reinvent the exercise with additional elements that bring in the challenge level up a little bit in order to progress the forces’ skill not just in the tactical fight but to provide those other joint functions like logistics and life support to make the campaign in the Sahel and across the West of Africa more sustainable,” Caulk said. “We’ve built these elements into Flintlock in the last few years and will continue to do so.
Caulk noted that this year’s exercise in particular will be attempting to address some of these operational elements by imposing the requirement that all African partner nations had to self-deploy their troops. So while Western forces are also deploying themselves, African counterparts are watching and learning how to strengthen their capacity to figure out the logistic and movement side of things.
This has also led to certain international partners taking a more active role in the exercise, a sign that Caulk says bodes well for regional operations.
“We also, this year, have seen that our western partners have stepped up more, so for instance, the Canadians are actually leading the support side of the training site, which is something that the U.S. has primarily provided in the past, which can increase investments from our western partners both in the exercise and in the region as they look to engage with our partners and help to create some more stability,” he said.
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran, Penn State alumna and Master's candidate at New York University for Business and Economic Reporting.