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Niger is at the heart of the U.S. military initiative to train local troops in northwestern Africa.View Africa Map
Jason Beaubien, NPR
U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Jonathan Sparkman instructs troops in Niger on use of a .50-caliber machine gun.
The United States is stepping up its military activity in Africa in an effort to combat terrorism and protect vital oil reserves off Africa's west coast.
The U.S. military has been leery of the continent ever since the debacle a decade ago in Somalia, when 18 American peacekeepers were killed in Mogadishu. Officials say they are now trying to train African armies to keep the peace and promote stability on the continent so U.S. troops won't have to.
NPR's Jason Beaubien has a two-part report produced in conjunction with Jane's Defence Weekly.
As Beaubien reports, this is the new face of the American military in Africa: U.S. Marines, Special Forces and Navy Seals fly in, train local troops for several weeks, and then fly out again.
This program, the Pan Sahel Initiative, has trained troops in four West African countries: Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania. Soon it could be expanded to eight nations around the Sahara Desert.
"Our interest is to help Africans help themselves, [to] help train their militaries better," says Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander of the U.S. military's European Command, which oversees most of Africa.
U.S. officials worry that the predominantly Muslim area, known as the Sahel, could become a base for Islamic terrorists. The most prominent terrorist group operating there has been the radical Islamic Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known by its French initials GSPC.
In an example of the U.S. cooperation envisioned under the program, dozens of the Algerian-based GSPC were killed in a joint operation in March. With the assistance of U.S. Navy P-3 surveillance planes, troops from Chad cornered the terrorists in a remote part of the Sahel.