Operation Flintlock in Niger

Nathan DieckOperation Flintlock was part of the Bush administration’s Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative. It was designed to address the specter of terrorism in the Sahel region, between the Sahara desert to the north and the savannas to the south, by building the capacity of local militaries and preventing terrorist organizations gaining a foothold there. It also signaled the increased importance that the Pentagon assigned to Africa with the development of AFRICOM, the U.S. military command for Africa. AFRICOM attempts to combine military train-and-equip programs with humanitarian and development work that has normally been the purview of civilian agencies. Operation Flintlock continues to be a yearly fixture of the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative, with this year’s exercise set to include participation from Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso.

With its counter-terrorism initiative, the United States focused on Niger because of its vast territory in the Sahel region, where the organization al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was thought to operate.

In August 2009, Niger President Mamadou Tandja altered the constitution so that he could remain in power for three more years after the end of his second term. In February 2010, a coup d’etat removed Tandja from office and replaced him with a junta called the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy. Elections are currently scheduled for January.

Nathan Dieck is a masters student at American University’s School of International Service. He served in the Peace Corps in Niger from 2006-2008 and was present during one of the visits of the U.S. military in its Operation Flintlock in the region.

Mike Lally: What were you doing in Niger?

Nathan Dieck: I was a community education volunteer in a major city in the south of the country; I worked with the regional government authorities on education and education advocacy. Personally, I spent most of my time developing parent teacher associations, so I worked with administrators and communities more than in the classrooms.

Mike Lally: How did locals initially view your work? Did this change over time?

Nathan Dieck: In general I was pretty well-received in the communities I worked in. As you are aware, Peace Corps is pretty good at that, so I learned the local languages and understood the culture reasonably well and all that good stuff. I think that people knew I worked hard and that I was interested in helping people who needed help; certainly my co-workers respected most of what I was doing, and beyond the usual aid worker experience of being viewed as a pile of free money on two legs, I think so did the communities. I was never really associated with the U.S. government – everybody knew I was an American volunteer, of course, but I think in Niger at least Peace Corps has done well at minimizing the perception that it is an organ of the U.S. government. I remember there were groups of Americans we weren’t allowed to spend lots of time with in pursuit of this perception – the Marines at the embassy, when in uniform, first and foremost.

Mike Lally: Were there other organizations in the area, or had the community been exposed to other foreigners or development workers before?

Nathan Dieck: The city I lived in was not a major NGO hub, but there were tons of projects. Niger has food emergencies almost annually, and they are consistently in the bottom two or three on the HDI, so when I say not a major NGO hub, I just mean that it wasn’t a place where a lot of NGOs were based; every INGO I can think of had a field office there. There were plenty of aid workers, missionaries and the occasional expat entrepreneur; State and USAID people came out before insecurity caused my area to be named off-limits to them.

Mike Lally: When did you first become aware of Operation Flintlock? Can you describe in detail what you witnessed of Operation Flintlock?

Nathan Dieck: I became aware that the U.S. government had officially recognized the possibility of Islamic extremism finding a foothold in the poor countries of the Sahel around maybe the end of 2006 or the beginning of 2007, and that the Bush administration was increasing development aid and was doing things to reinforce the counter-insurgency capabilities of area militaries. At the time it was obvious that this was the new incarnation of Cold War-style Domino Theory. I think it had to have been early in 2007 when DOD came to my town. I didn’t know it was happening – I think I was as surprised as anybody when the Air Force C-130 came in to land at the airport. Apparently, they blitzed the whole region; the Army refurbished some schools, medics went out to at least a couple of villages and did trainings for community health workers, and the special forces guys took Nigerien paratroopers up and pushed them out of airplanes for a couple of days.

Mike Lally: What was the reaction of locals to Operation Flintlock?

Nathan Dieck: The whole thing was extremely high profile. It made the news, uniformed soldiers were out in public at the airport, it was the whole domino-theory hearts-and-minds thing. I think the whole project was very positive, friendly; they had uniforms but not guns and it was all smiling faces. The development and diplomatic stuff went front and center, I don’t think the counter-insurgency training got talked about at all. All I know that happened on that side was the paratrooper training; everybody was talking about how “we” the Americans were actually doing drops. I can’t quite describe the degree of attention that plane got every time the engines started turning; it was probably inevitable. But if there were classroom sessions on how to fight insurgents, I never heard about them (I’d bet anything there were but I can’t prove it).

I think people didn’t recognize what was going on as part of a larger context. I think it was well-received, the C-130 was the biggest show in town for the duration. They were broadly of the opinion that we were doing good. I don’t think that there were perceptions either that we were there to shore up Tandja’s government; this was before he went crazy and started trying to make himself president-for-life, though. There was no real talk that I heard of an underlying political significance, to us or to them. I think they assumed it was just another aid project (you know – you bring in foreign doctors to help our doctors and foreign teachers to help our teachers, so why wouldn’t you bring foreign soldiers to help our soldiers?). I never sensed that there was a feeling that military aid meant something different than any other kind of the plethora that occurs there.

Mike Lally: Were your interactions with locals affected by Flintlock? How?

Nathan Dieck: My work was somewhat inconvenienced by Flintlock. Mostly, the problems were self imposed by the organization; the Peace Corps is absolutely serious about not getting associated with broader U.S. foreign policy and particularly hard-power components of our policy like DOD and the CIA, so I was instructed in no uncertain terms to not be seen around what was happening. I know friends in smaller villages where there was no hiding from it were explicitly instructed by our bureau to leave town and not return until the army had left. DOD didn’t seem unduly interested in the education sector at all, so I never bumped into them and I mostly ignored them until they went away.

Mike Lally: You mentioned some people thought you were a CIA spy afterwards, was this a widely held theory or view? How was your ability to work with locals or gain their trust affected?

Nathan Dieck: The CIA thing was big. My educated friends understood very well that I was me and the soldiers were the soldiers and their presence was making me a bit uncomfortable. I think they had the sophistication to realize that just because I was an American I wasn’t with the other Americans. Among less-sophisticated folks including the urban poor and a lot of rural residents, we are all one big village of Americans (I remember being asked by a school director once if I would do him the favor of handing President Bush a letter the next time I saw him).

Many of those people assumed while this was going on, and for a time afterwards, that I was somehow involved: That I was a soldier myself, or that I was involved somehow in what the Army was doing. A few people called me the CIA man – and I think they meant it as a joke. I was a big young guy in a country with mandatory military service for males, and so I occasionally got asked if I was in the military or whether I was in Peace Corps in lieu of military service. But I never was accused, in jest or otherwise, of being a CIA agent in the entire time I was there until the army showed up, and it stopped to the best of my recollection a few weeks after they had left when all the excitement had died down. During the time, though, it came up at least four or five times, including a couple of times with strangers on the street. I think people just got to thinking about American military power with this plane overhead all the time and while they were in that mind they were imagining how the Hausa speaking white man who had been here before and spends lots of time traveling and asking questions might fit into that context.

Mike Lally: Did you feel as if your safety were at all in danger?

Nathan Dieck: I never thought this change in perception put me at risk – they (AQIM) started kidnapping people after I’d left – it was mostly joking (I had one friend and one crazy man on the street both around this time feel the need to angrily reproach me about the American crusade against Islam; one of my chief concerns was that the sudden appearance of American soldiers in town may have brought that fear home, which I know is one of the biggest concerns about AFRICOM and one that I think hasn’t been addressed carefully enough). I think I could have walked around with one of those black “CIA” hats they sell on the mall and it would have been mostly okay. Americans are (or at least were a few years ago) about the most popular kind of foreigner and they were all big George Bush fans due to his foreign aid policies.

I was more worried, as I said, about professional risk: I won’t repeat all the reasons you already know why being an NGO or development worker and getting lumped in the public perception in with a country’s foreign policy or defense policy is bad, but that’s the line I was thinking along at the time.

On the one hand, I still sense we are largely popular there, but on the other hand, the anti-American groups there seem by all accounts to be becoming more extreme, and I’ve read a couple of authors who assert that (just like in places like Nicaragua) governments are cheerfully taking our training and resources to fight al-Qaeda and are turning them against local opponents (both armed and unarmed). It was going to happen, of course, but in African countries where the governments often don’t have total control over their territory, if al-Qaeda points out to the Nigerien Tuaregs that American arms and training have enabled this new government onslaught, it doesn’t matter if the government in Niamey is stable because they have a whole region of the country where the pro-American government can’t really reach and they enjoy a measure of safety and support.

Mike Lally: Would you say the impact of Flintlock was overall positive or negative on the community you were in? Why?

Nathan Dieck: I reject all these ridiculous claims that AFRICOM is a tool of American neocolonialism or a tool for stealing Nigerian and Sudanese oil, but the whole domino-theory counterinsurgency strategy in Central America and East Asia during the cold war kind of blew up in our faces and the uptick in violence against Americans and Europeans, especially in Mali, should make us all worry that an effort to establish security for America in the Sahel may have precisely the opposite effect.

If you asked the people in the town where I lived what Flintlock and all the related activities are doing for them, they’d be largely positive about it. I think most of them only got a free air show, but the kinds of projects that the exercise really publicizes are the kinds of things that (by design of course) the locals will approve of. I don’t know for sure that they have the sophistication to recognize that teaching your army how to fight al-Qaeda is also teaching your army how to fight a pro-democracy movement, and why it therefore could easily be linked to your president’s attempts to remain illegally in office. I also think that Niamey was close to a long-term and sustainable peace with the Tuaregs in the north prior to the start of our military aid; people once again have alleged everything under the stars, but my opinion is that after they started getting U.S. military aid (chronologically – maybe also because of this, I can’t say), Tandja started to crack down on the Tuaregs until they decided to go back to war; he then used his U.S.-trained counter-insurgency forces to bring peace under more desirable terms. Please understand, this is just my conspiracy theory and what I’m afraid happened; I have no facts beyond what appears in the news. So I think that our involvement is likely bad overall for the democratic development of Niger, if not necessarily for the quality of life of most inhabitants. You can look at the situation from a lens of “screw them, it’s making us safer” except I think it’s actually increasing the perception of American colonial ambitions in the Sahel and consequently militant anti-Americanism there – so in short I’m concerned that we’re actually diminishing our security through these activities designed to build it up.

As I hope I’ve made clear, I’m not against either AFRICOM or Flintlock per se. On the balance, I think it’s high time that DOD recognized that Africa is not just an addendum to a more traditional military command, and that it faces its own realities and problems. I am particularly delighted that AFRICOM’s stated mission appears to recognize that we can do better both by Africans and Americans if we try to prevent the situations from which conflict arises from developing. What I think the issue is, as I’ve said here, is that AFRICOM is taking a very narrow view of “prevention” – that the strengthening of security apparatuses is a quick, obvious, and flawed way of preventing a group like al-Qaeda from gaining a foothold. As I stated, I don’t think it can work on its own in the long run, and that the way Flintlock and related projects are being carried out is going to make a sustainable answer harder, not easier, to implement.

Mike Lally is an intern with Foreign Policy In Focus.