Pentagon taking new tack in counterterrorism fight in Africa

Backed by a new policy geared toward quelling African-based terror groups, the Pentagon is going on the offensive on the continent, setting up what could be the template for the next-generation of U.S.-led counterterrorism operations worldwide. 

The approach that U.S. counterterrorism forces take in Africa will likely be less defined by night raids and other direct action missions that dominated operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Rather, American special operations troops and supporting forces will be focused on indirect missions, characterized by cooperative efforts in military training and logistics support to partner nations in Africa. 

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That is the tack U.S. special forces are taking in assisting Ugandan troops tracking down rebel leader Joseph Kony, who heads up the Lord's Resistance Army rebel group that has been waging an insurgency against the Uganda government since the early 1990s. 

House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said using American military power to supplement, not take over, ongoing counterterror missions in Africa will be key as the Department of Defense hones in on other groups on the continent. 

“We are past the point in history where a foreign military can impose itself on a country and succeed. It just doesn’t work," Smith said during a speech on U.S. national security interests in Africa at the American Security Project think tank on Tuesday. 

In areas like the Horn of Africa or the Trans Sahara, American counterterrorism forces "recognized the need for local allies," Smith said. "Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Djibouti are all essential to creating that success.”

The Pentagon has two major special operations task forces on the continent, known as Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara and Joint Special Operations Task Force-Horn of Africa. 

The task forces in country are under the command of Special Operations Command-Africa, which is the special forces wing of Africa Command headquartered in Germany. 

American forces will need all the help they can get from African partner nations, as disparate terror groups on the continent have begun to consolidate their forces and expand beyond the localized-type threat each individual group posed to those partner nations. 

Al Shabab, the East African faction of al Qaeda, has been carrying out terrorist attacks against African Union forces in and around Somalia since the 1990s. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb has been carrying out operations in the northern and western parts of the continent, beginning in early 2000s in places such as Mali, Mauritania and Niger. 

Those al Qaeda affiliates recently combined forces with the African-based Islamic fundamentalists group Boko Haram to expand its attacks against government targets along Africa's eastern shores. 

Leaning heavily on regional partnerships to stymie these terror groups may not only be a function of the Pentagon's shift in counterterrorism strategy, but also a product of the fiscal realities facing the department. 

"Indirect action engagements are likely to become even more important going forward, as budgets become tighter and the imperative to operate jointly is matched by the growing requirement to work with partners," Jacqueline Davis, executive vice president at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, told House defense lawmakers on Wednesday. 

But moving more toward indirect action-types of missions in Africa and elsewhere may be a difficult shift to make inside U.S. special operations units, given the extreme focus on direct combat operations American special forces have been tasked with over the past decade of war. 

"In recent years, some of those skills may have been atrophied," Christopher Lamb, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University's Center for Strategic Research, said during Wednesday's hearing of the House Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities. 

"We have, what 80 to 90 percent of the force in just two theaters?" Lamb said. "So that the language and cultural skills and the context such as they are have atrophied. In that sense [U.S. special operations forces] are a little less agile."

The strategic focus on building up and supporting local militaries in Africa and elsewhere to combat terrorist threats in those regions will help U.S. special forces sharpen those skills in the future.