While the U.S. Army School of the Americas is infamous for training right-wing guerrilla forces across Latin America, less well-known are the Pentagon’s military training programs in Africa, including the Flintlock exercises for the G5 Sahel nations, nearly all of which have experienced military coups in the last 13 years.
On Thursday, Malian Vice President Assami Goita, a colonel in the Malian Army, completed his second coup d’etat in just nine months, overthrowing the interim government he helped install and declaring himself the country’s interim president. A Western-trained soldier, Goita’s is just the latest in an increasingly long list of coups d’etat in Africa by soldiers trained by U.S. Africa Command since its creation 13 years ago.
Since it was created in 2008, troops trained by AFRICOM have been directly responsible for at least seven successful coups d’etat in Africa, nearly all of which have occurred in West Africa, and one that was directly carried out by AFRICOM forces. Here are some of them:
- Mauritania, 2008. In August 2008, after Mauritanian Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz overthrew the Mauritanian government of President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, a spokesperson for U.S. European Command told U.S. military publication Stars and Stripes that the U.S. had a “bilateral relationship” with Aziz and had coordinated security cooperation programs with him. Aziz had also assisted in a previous coup three years earlier.
- Libya, 2011. The U.S. part of the NATO-led war in Libya in March 2011 to overthrow longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi was dubbed Operation Odyssey Dawn, and was AFRICOM’s first major military operation. The war eliminated the U.S.’ biggest opposition in Africa, with Gaddafi being responsible for why no African nation would agree to host AFRICOM headquarters.
- Mali, 2012. Amadou Sanogo, who led a coup against President Amadou Toumani Touré, had traveled to the U.S. several times for advanced military training via the International Military Education and Training program, including at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. Driven by anger over Toure’s handling of a Tuareg uprising in northern Mali, Sanogo’s coup ironically created a vacuum allowing Tuareg control to expand rapidly, leading the country to ask for French military assistance the following year. The French mission, Operation Serval, eventually grew into the five-nation War on Terror style Operation Barkhane.
- 2013, Egypt. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the minister of defense and commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military, led the coup that deposed Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Mohammed Morsi. El-Sisi has received extensive training from the U.S. military, including a basic training course at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1981 and graduating from the U.S. Army War College in 2006. When Morsi was overthrown in July 2013, Washington avoided acknowledging it as a coup.
- 2015, Burkina Faso. Gilbert Diendéré, the former military aide to the longtime Burkinabe ruler Blaise Compaore, briefly deposed the interim government before being thrown out by a popular mass uprising. Diendéré has participated multiple times in AFRICOM’s Flintlock all-domain training exercises the U.S. uses to school members of the G5 Sahel nations’ armies, including Niger, Chad, Mali, and Mauritania, many of which have also seen their own coups over the last 20 years.
- 2020 and 2021, Mali. Goita has worked for years with U.S. Special Operations forces and also trained in Germany and France, officials said after the August 2020 coup. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at the time attempted to deflect blame by saying that “We don’t train armies to be putschists,” but wound up admitting that “90% of the army has been trained by our mission.”
War on terror spurs army training
AFRICOM grew out of War on Terror missions begun by the Pentagon in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including the Pan-Sahel Initiative, which became Operation Juniper Shield, also known as Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara; and Operation Enduring Freedom – Horn of Africa. As a result, although AFRICOM was formally organized into a separate U.S. command based in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2008, there were already forces scattered across more than a dozen African countries that had been trained by U.S. forces.
he War on Terror created a hammer-and-nail-type situation, in which Washington suddenly became conscious of a vast number of paramilitary groups and of many of them being based in religiously-identified communities, many of which were also Muslim. The U.S. itself undoubtedly created many of these networks itself by providing a crucible for various types of fundamentalism in the Mujaheddin insurgency it backed against the Soviet-backed socialist government of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Various Islamist insurgencies in the 1990s across the world, from Algeria to Chechnya and Kosovo, sprung out of fighters returning from Afghanistan with the motivation to carry the fight against secularism or European influences into their home countries.
Money poured into training programs and armaments for militaries in fragile states the U.S. judged to be at risk of a repeat of Afghanistan, where the Taliban fundmantalist group had seized power after the Soviet exit and provided safe haven for terrorist groups like al-Qaeda to plot their attacks against the United States. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) passed by Congress gave the U.S. military wide leeway to carry out strikes in undeclared war zones if they believed the targets to be from or linked to al-Qaeda.
The U.S. isn’t the only country to do this, though: the European Union also runs training programs in many of the same African nations, as do several member states, such as France, which operates its own programs in conjunction with former African colonies. China and Russia also train personnel from interested African nations.
‘Fabergé Egg Militaries’
Experts say that these comprehensive training programs create the very problems they aim to avoid: prestigious, highly-trained, well-armed military forces see the opportunity to impose their will on the vulnerable governments they’re supposed to be protecting from Islamist takeover. The Western connections these officers bring with them ensure that once in power, their cadres will have friends in high places, globally speaking, and in many cases Western governments win either way: a more stable government provides a new partner for lucrative business deals, and whether more stable or less, they get an opportunity to expand their military presence in yet another part of the globe.
One U.S. military academic criticized these kinds of militaries as “fabergé egg militaries: expensive and easily broken by insurgents.”
However, in recent years the U.S. hasn’t looked away from this technique, it’s actually turned further towards it. The demands of Washington’s new focus – great power confrontation with Russia and China – has the Pentagon considering shifting troops away from training missions in Africa and toward European and Indo-Pacific bases. In response, the U.S. is ramping up a surrogate training program known as 127-Echo, with a $100 million annual budget.
Maj. Gen. James Hecker, vice director for operations from the joint staff at the time, told House lawmakers in early 2019 that 127-Echo “provides us viable surrogate forces designed to achieve U.S. CT [counterterrorism] objectives at relatively low cost in terms of resources and especially risk to our personnel … The small-footprint approach inherent in 127 Echo … in addition to lessening the need for large scale U.S. troop deployments, fosters an environment where local forces take ownership of the problem.”