In Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire last month, 1,300 U.S., NATO, and African troops met for tactical training and mock raids as part of Flintlock 2023, an annual exercise sponsored by U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, or SOCAFRICA. Among the countries participating was Burkina Faso, which has been restricted from receiving substantial U.S. security aid since an officer trained by Americans at previous Flintlock exercises overthrew his democratically elected government in a coup last year.
U.S. military officials have spent the last month trying to explain this curious state of affairs to Congress and the press. Flintlock provides a “critical training opportunity” for special operations forces from the U.S. and Africa and a chance to “exchange best practices,” Rear Adm. Milton “Jamie” Sands, the chief of SOCAFRICA, told The Intercept and other reporters on a conference call last month. He didn’t mention that, by the Pentagon’s own assessments, militant Islamist attacks in the Sahel have spiked and security has plummeted across West Africa since SOCAFRICA began Flintlock trainings in 2005. “The Sahel now accounts for 40 percent of all violent activity by militant Islamist groups in Africa, more than any other region in Africa,” reads a recent report by the Defense Department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
The four-star general in charge of U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, meanwhile, told the House Armed Services Committee that only a small percentage of U.S.-trained officers overthrow their governments — while admitting he didn’t know the exact number. This prompted far-right Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., to ask, “Why should U.S. taxpayers be paying to train people who then lead coups in Africa?”
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Milton “Jamie” Sands, a SOCAFRICA commander, visits a training site for Flintlock’s Distinguished Visitors Day near Volta, Ghana, on March 14, 2023.
Photo: Spc. Mario Hernandez Lopez/U.S. Army
Flintlock attendees have conducted at least five coups in the last eight years. Since 2008, in fact, U.S.-trained officers have attempted at least nine coups (and succeeded in at least eight) across five West African countries, including Burkina Faso (three times), Guinea, Mali (three times), Mauritania, and the Gambia.
Flintlock attendees have conducted at least five coups in the last eight years.
Before he toppled Burkina Faso’s democratically elected president in 2022, for example, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba attended Flintlock exercises in 2010 and 2020, according to AFRICOM. A fellow Flintlock 2010 attendee, Gen. Gilbert Diendéré, overthrew the government of Burkina Faso in 2015.
Just a year after he attended Flintlock 2019, Col. Assimi Goïta headed the junta that overthrew Mali’s government. After staging that coup, Goïta stepped down and took the job of vice president in a transitional government tasked with returning Mali to civilian rule. But nine months later, he seized power for a second time.
Another alum of Flintlock 2019, Col. Mamady Doumbouya, served as a Guinean unit commander during the exercise, according to AFRICOM. In 2021, members of Doumbouya’s unit took time out from being trained in small unit tactics and the law of armed conflict by Green Berets to storm the presidential palace and depose their country’s 83-year-old president, Alpha Condé. Doumbouya soon declared himself Guinea’s new leader. The U.S. ended the training and distanced itself from the coup.
“Core values is what we start off with,” Gen. Michael Langley, the AFRICOM chief, told the House Armed Services Committee last month.
“Do we share those values with Col. Doumbouya?” asked Gaetz.
“Absolutely, in our curriculum,” Langley answered, causing Gaetz to do a double take. The Florida Republican and the AFRICOM four-star continued to spar:
Gaetz: We do? He led a coup. OK, well, that’s a very telling answer. In Burkina Faso, did we share core values with the leader that we trained there who led a coup?
Langley: It’s in our curriculum.
Gaetz: Leading coups is in our curriculum?
Langley: We stress core values. We stress civilian-led governance.
Gaetz: Wait, hold on, is leading coups in our curriculum?
Langley: Absolutely not. Civilian led—
Gaetz: My question is, do we share core values with the coup leader in Burkina Faso who we trained?
Langley: Holistically, we teach whole core values with respect for civilian governance. … We’ll continue with our persistence in assuring that they harbor democratic norms, democratic values, and [are] apolitical.
When asked about concrete steps taken to ensure that Flintlock 2023 attendees don’t overthrow their governments, SOCAFRICA’s Sands said, “While we always focus on the rule of law, we’ve really developed a much more thorough plan and integration for effects on that.”
Maj. Anya Nikogosian, the lead legal planner for Flintlock 2023, explained in a statement that her team “added significant rule of law facets” to the exercise, which emphasized that operations should be conducted “within the frameworks of … domestic laws, enabling civilian prosecution of terrorists, and enhancing the trust of the African people in their governments.” Details provided by SOCAFRICA suggest that Flintlock 2023 did provide training to facilitate better coordination between militaries and civilian law enforcement in counterterrorism investigations this year but offered no measures specifically aimed at preventing coups.
“If the U.S. says it is concerned about the consequences of coups, then U.S. military officials should speak plainly to their partners about the importance of civilian rule of the military and the legal implications coups have on U.S. assistance,” Sarah Harrison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group and formerly associate general counsel at the Pentagon’s Office of General Counsel, International Affairs, told The Intercept. “AFRICOM’s efforts do not seem to address this head on.”
Erica De Bruin, author of “How to Prevent Coups d’Etat: Counterbalancing and Regime Survival,” said that while Nikogosian and Sands seemed to argue that additional training was the answer, the reality is generally more complex. Often, she said, militaries are faced with situations in which human rights and civilian control are in opposition, such as presidential orders to centralize executive power or otherwise harm civilians. “In the face of such tension,” De Bruin told The Intercept in an email, “military officers often default to self-preservation — staging coups to preserve the cohesion, reputation, or material interests of the military as an institution.”
Langley insisted that a “very small number” of U.S. trainees overthrow their governments, but Gaetz, citing The Intercept’s coverage of coups by U.S.-trained West African officers, pointed out that AFRICOM actually has no idea how many coups its charges have conducted, nor does it keep a list of how many times such takeovers have happened. “AFRICOM does not maintain a database with this information,” AFRICOM spokesperson Kelly Cahalan told The Intercept.
When Captain Ibrahim Traoré deposed Damiba in Burkina Faso last September, The Intercept asked Cahalan if Traoré had also received U.S. training. “We are looking into this,” she said, noting the command needed to “research” it. “I will let you know when I have an answer.” Six months later, AFRICOM has yet to offer one.
Gaetz told Langley that he, too, wants answers. “I think we should at least know how many countries we train the coup plotters in, how many is too many, because … we could use our resources far more effectively than doing this,” he said.
De Bruin, who also directs the Justice and Security Program at Hamilton College in New York, says there’s a very simple step the United States could take in terms of putsch prevention. The “best tool the U.S. has to prevent coups is responding swiftly and consistently to condemn coup attempts that do occur, and [to] sanction coup-installed governments,” she told The Intercept. “The fact is that the U.S. continues to respond inconsistently to coups, often looking the other way when it suits foreign policy goals.” This contradiction, De Bruin said, “encourages militaries to keep staging them.”
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