US training program in Burkina Faso seeks to stabilize ‘core region’

Washington, DC National Guard to guide the Armed Forces of Burkina Faso through ‘significant’ security challenges

After signing a comprehensive training partnership in February, the District of Columbia National Guard and Armed Forces of Burkina Faso are working to put flesh on the bones of the agreement that the U.S. says is intended to help stabilize the security situation in a fragile democracy.

Following the program announcement, D.C. National Guard soldiers and airmen had an opportunity to work with members of the Burkina Faso Armed Services during the Exercise Flintlock, an annual military drill with U.S. allies in the Sahel region of Africa, that took place from February 18 to March 1.

DC National guard in Burkina Faso
Major General William J. Walker, Commanding General, District of Columbia National Guard with members of the Armed Forces of Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou, January 31, 2019. Image: DC Air National Guard/Tech. Sgt. Arthur Mondale Wright

This week, the D.C. National Guard and the Burkinabe armed forces discussed cooperation across the entire security spectrum.

During a roundtable discussion at the Pentagon on Wednesday, May 1, D.C. National Guard Commanding General Major General William J. Walker said his unit has more West African-born soldiers and airmen than any other of the 54 National Guards, and this could help with the understanding of the region.

“This week, with the Burkina Faso armed forces, the State Department and District of Columbia National Guard, we have discussed roles and responsibilities to support emergency and disaster response, counter illicit trafficking, peacekeeping operations, border security, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and health and medical engagements,” Walker said.

“The goal is to make a difference and have an impact not only in Burkina Faso but in the region in support of broader U.S. national defense strategy objectives.”

Burkina Faso army leaders conduct operational planning
Burkina Faso army leaders conduct operational planning at base camp Loumbila on February 24, 2019 during Exercise Flintlock 19. The Burkina Faso team were in charge of providing command and control for all multinational western partners in Loumbila during the exercise’s scenario days. Image: US Army/Sgt. 1st Class Caleb Barrieau

At the operational level, the D.C. National Guard will provide Burkina Faso with civilian expertise.

“We have special agents from the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives], the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration], the FBI, the United States Secret Service, United States Marshal Service. It’s about strengthening their security capabilities, their security apparatus,” Walker explained. “Where they also need our help is in the medical field.”

According to the commanding general, the training mission’s priorities will be outlined by the Burkinabe themselves and the U.S. ambassador, Andrew Young.

“We have capabilities, but we can’t direct what we’re going to do,” Walker said. “The Burkinabe Armed Forces and the ambassador will give us that strategic direction and guidance on what do we bring first.”

Members of the D.C. National Guard are expected to travel to Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou to help the embassy celebrate the U.S. Independence Day holiday on July 4.

Major security challenges in Burkina Faso

One of the poorest countries in the world, Burkina Faso has been battling an escalating wave of attacks over the last three years, beginning in the North region near the border with Mali.

The former French colony lies in the heart of the sprawling, impoverished Sahel, on the southern rim of the Sahara desert.

Attacks have spread to the East region, near the border with Togo, Benin and Niger, and to a lesser extent, the west of the country.

Most attacks are attributed to the jihadist group Ansar ul Islam, which emerged near the Mali border in December 2016, and to the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM), which has sworn allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Burkina Faso SPEAR unit training
Burkina Faso Special Program Embassy Augmentation Response unit moves a “terrorist” during a simulated attack in Ouagadougou, February 27, 2019. Trained and equipped by the US State Department’s Anti-terrorism Assistance program, SPEAR manages emergencies involving US diplomatic facilities or personnel. Image: US Army/Staff Sgt. Anthony Alcantar

Burkina Faso is facing “significant difficulties” but “standing tall” in the face of security challenges, Young said during the roundtable.

“Over the past several days, a joint plan we laid out where the expertise from the District of Columbia National Guard might fit into the national strategy of Burkina Faso to confront this surge in terrorist attacks and a strategy to confront them,” he said.

According to a recent Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project analysis, violence by armed groups in Burkina Faso has spiked, with 499 fatalities reported from 124 direct civilian targeting events between November 1 and March 23, representing a 7,000% year-on-year rise.

Additionally, conflict events involving armed groups and reported fatalities from armed clashes have both risen by more than 200%, according to ACLED.

Burkina Faso soldiers
Burkina Faso soldiers train in identifying a enemy at Bobo-Dioulasso during Exercise Flintlock, February 27, 2019. Image: US Army/Spc. Dracorius White

In the past month, Burkina Faso launched an operation to address insecurity in the eastern part of the country. According to Young, the country has put 20% of their military into this fight.

“In addition, they’re bringing in some of the troops that they’ve long contributed to international peacekeeping. They’re pulling them back and putting them into the national fight. And those troops should be available, I think, this last month to help supplement the security forces of Burkina Faso in the fight against terrorism,” Young said.

“Burkina Faso needs us now, but this is the sort of partnership over the next decade that will help us contribute to a stable stabilizing this core region for a generation to come.”

Burkina Faso soldiers raid a hotel
Burkina Faso soldiers raid a hotel in the final training exercise of Exercise Flintlock 2019 near Po, Burkina Faso, February 27, 2019. Image: US Army/Pvt. 1st Class Luke Steward

To assist Burkina Faso in its fight, Young said the U.S. has helped to train and equip “counterterrorism companies” and “counterterrorism logistic companies” in two of the country’s four military regions.

“We’re intending to continue to do that to help equip these partners as they confront this fight,” Young noted.

He added that the United States has civil-military support elements that have counterparts in the Burkina armed services.

“Those are Burkinabe-trained civil-military engagement specialists who, when an operation takes place, work with the host population they’re out to defend to explain the operations, to address concerns,” Young explained.

“I think those are the sorts of lessons that the United States has learned over our long engagement in various parts of the world that we share with our Burkinabe partners who haven’t had that experience.”

Burkina Faso soldiers train
Burkina Faso soldiers train near Po in preparation for participating in Exercise Flintlock 2019, February 17, 2019. Image: US Army/Sgt. 1st Class Mary S. Katzenberger

Young noted that the State Partnership Program is an important piece in a broader integrated strategy for the country, that includes projects like investments through the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

“This is advancing very, very well for a second investment contract, in that they’ll be in the neighborhood of about several hundred million dollars of direct jointly determine investment in the economy of Burkina Faso. That can move forward as we advance security,” he said.

“Those things work together to stabilize the country, to go after the core drivers of insecurity and to help promote a stable and prosperous and more effective economy.”

U.S. Army Colonel Craig Hummer, National Guard Bureau division chief for International Affairs, said that the Burkina Faso partnership is the 14th on the African continent and the 12th in sub-Saharan Africa.

“As this constellation grows, it will allow for us, the United States, to expand our competitive space on the continent,” he said. “And those adversaries, or competitors, that might seek to influence our partners, they’re less likely to do so.”

US counter-terrorism assistance to G5 Sahel member states almost doubles to $111 million

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