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This Christmas morning we're looking ahead to where the U.S. military will be deploying its troops in the coming year. For an Army brigade from Fort Riley, Kansas, the destination is Africa. Some 4,000 soldiers from the base will begin helping to train African militaries. The idea is to help these African troops beat back a growing terrorist threat posed by al-Qaida.
As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the American troops are heading over in small teams.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The Dagger Brigade returned to Kansas last year from a deployment to Iraq, where it trained and advised that country's security forces. Now the unit's commander, Colonel Jeff Broadwater, is preparing to do the same kind of mission but in a different place. So Broadwater is scouring his brigade for unique skills.
COLONEL JEFF BROADWATER: We're fortunate enough to have some African speakers. Swahili.
BOWMAN: Swahili is spoken in much of East Africa. And the colonel says he's also happy to have a handful of soldiers with first-hand experience on the continent.
BROADWATER: We do have some soldiers, you know, either came over from Africa and went to school here and then joined the military or came over with their family.
BOWMAN: And that's just by chance.
BROADWATER: Yeah, that's just by chance that they were assigned.
BOWMAN: Assigned to a brigade that is expected to deploy in small teams beginning next spring throughout Africa. The soldiers will take part in military exercises and train African troops on everything from logistics and marksmanship to medical care. Meanwhile, the Defense Intelligence Agency is already placing more of its military spies in Africa.
The top American commander for Africa, General Carter Ham, says this is all new. Here he is during a recent appearance in Washington.
GENERAL CARTER HAM: Africa has not been a part of the world in which we have focused a lot of attention, certainly not during the majority of my career.
BOWMAN: American Green Berets have trained African troops in the past. But General Ham says this new effort is more comprehensive and necessary, given emerging security threats on the continent.
RICHARD DOWNIE: There are a lot of issues right now in Africa that are causing concern to the United States.
BOWMAN: Richard Downie is an African expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and he points in particular to Mali.
DOWNIE: Particularly the spread of terrorism; you have al-Qaida's local franchise in Africa controlling two-thirds of that country right now.
BOWMAN: Al-Qaida and its affiliates are now operating in a wide arc from Nigeria through Mali, Libya, and into Somalia. General Ham says there are indications the groups are all starting to work together.
HAM: What I worry about more than anything is a growing linkage, which I think pose the greatest threat to regional stability across Africa, certainly into Europe and to the United States as well.
BOWMAN: And to counter that terrorist threat, the Obama administration wants to rely on African forces. That means giving them proper equipment and training. That's where the troops from Fort Riley, Kansas come in.
BROADWATER: We've been really just basically trying to understand a little bit more about Africa.
BOWMAN: Again, Colonel Broadwater, the brigade's commander.
BROADWATER: The history of those areas and then the culture, so when we actually do deploy to those countries, we have a little bit better feeling for what's going on.
BOWMAN: But what's going on in the continent, says Africa expert Richard Downie, cannot be addressed by just providing military training and equipment. There are underlying causes of unrest and extremism - poverty, lack of health care and education, and predatory governments. Downie says those are the challenges the U.S. and other countries must tackle.
DOWNIE: Terrorism is really a symptom of a lot of other problems that really the military is not the best organization to solve.
BOWMAN: Better organization, says Downie, would be the State Department and the Agency for International Development.
But the military is the organization with the biggest budget, which is why the Dagger Brigade from Fort Riley will be able to take part in nearly 100 separate training and military exercises next year, in nearly three dozen African countries. Some of those efforts by the Army teams will last a few days, others a month or more.
These soldiers will not be allowed to take part in combat missions with African forces. That would require high-level Pentagon approval. But after 10 years of war, the American military is not eager for any new combat operations.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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