AFRICOM’S OPERATION FLINTLOCK: NEW PARTNERS AND NEW QUESTIONS
In the midst of a major drive to increase security in Africa’s Saharan and Sahel nations, American, African and European military forces have just concluded the latest version of Operation Flintlock (May 2-23), one in a series of multinational military exercises designed to foster and development international security cooperation in North and West Africa. The latest exercises came at a time of growing concerns over large-scale drug trafficking in the region and kidnappings carried out by elements of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The maneuvers are conducted as part of the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP).
1200 soldiers participated in the latest maneuvers, including 600 U.S. Marines and Special Forces, units from France and Britain and smaller European contingents from Germany, Spain and the Netherlands (L’Essor [Bamako], May 5). African countries with military representation included Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, Nigeria, Chad, Senegal, Tunisia and Morocco. The exercises were headquartered out of a Multinational Coordination Center set up at Camp Baangre in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou. Malian Special Forces received training in responding to hostage-taking operations (as carried out by AQIM). Many of the Malian participants were veterans of fighting Tuareg rebels in northern Mali.
The new participant in these exercises was Spain, once a formidable colonial power in Africa. Though the Flintlock command center in 2008 was at the Spanish-American joint use naval base at Rota, this was the first time Spanish troops joined the exercises. There were suggestions in 2008 from AFRICOM leader General William Ward that Rota might make a suitable permanent headquarters for AFRICOM—whose HQ is currently based in Stuttgart, Germany—as no African nation appears prepared to host it on the continent (El Pais, April 16). Other than the Spanish garrisons in the tiny coastal colonies of Ceuta and Melilla, it has been 16 years since the Spanish ended their military presence in Africa by withdrawing an air detachment in Equatorial Guinea (El Pais, May 24). The Spanish Defense Ministry withheld details on its participation for fear the mission might be mistaken for a rescue team going after two Spanish citizens currently being held hostage by AQIM (El Pais, May 24).
Senegal was another new participant, sending 38 Special Forces soldiers. Their commander, Major Cheikhna Dieng, said their presence was part of Sengal’s preparations for al-Qaeda infiltration efforts (Agence de presse Sénéglaise, May 11). Senegal is over 90% Muslim. Despite the stated objective, there were apparently some concerns that the Senegalese Special Forces trained in Operation Flintlock might be deployed against separatists in southern Senegal’s Casamance region, where elements of the Mouvement des forces démocratiques de Casamance (MFDC) have been engaged in a low-level conflict with the government since the 1980s (Agence de presse Sénéglaise, May 11).
Despite having the largest and most effective military in the Sahara region, Algeria has always been a small player in the exercises. Despite its efforts to draw Algeria into coordinated counterterrorism efforts, Washington’s reluctance to provide Algeria advanced military equipment due to Israeli objections has caused dissatisfaction in Algiers, which is now looking to its old Cold War supplier, Russia, for sophisticated military supplies it cannot obtain from the United States (El Khabar [Algiers], May 24; Khaleej Times [Dubai], May 4).
The exercises began a week after Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso, and Niger established a “Joint Operational Military Committee” at Tamanrasset on April 20, tasked with improving regional security and military cooperation. Libya initially signaled it would join, but later withdrew (see Terrorism Monitor, April 23).
TAJIK-UZBEK RAILWAY DISPUTE UNDERLINES FRAGILITY OF NATO’S AFGHAN SUPPLY LINES
Developing supply lines to NATO forces in land-locked Afghanistan has required both logistical and diplomatic creativity. The shortest and technically easiest supply line runs from the port of Karachi through the Khyber Pass, but this is also the most insecure. One of several supply lines currently in use brings supplies by rail through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan into Afghanistan.
According to the deputy head of Tajik Railways, over 300 rail cars containing aviation fuel, oil and lubricants destined for NATO forces are parked on sidings in Uzbekistan (Eurasianet.org, May 26; Central Asia Online, May 26). They are among some 2,200 to 2,500 freight cars bound for Tajikistan that are being held on Uzbek territory (RFE/RL, May 26; Ferghana.ru, May 25). Tajik Railways say the delays began in February and are now preventing Tajikistan from exporting its fruit and vegetables (Daily Times [Lahore], May 26).
Unlike other disruptions to NATO’s Afghanistan supply lines, this latest difficulty has little to do with militant attacks or political disapproval of the NATO or American mission in Afghanistan. The basis of the current dispute is Tajikistan’s plans to construct a major hydroelectric power plant in Roghun, a measure that Uzbekistan claims would worsen regional water shortages. Many of the rail cars being held in Uzbekistan hold construction supplies for the power plant. Others hold much-needed reconstruction materials destined for Khatlon Province, which suffered heavy floods in early May. Rail wagons headed for Khatlon have been held up since May 18 (Ferghana.ru, May 25). Uzbekistan has said only that the delays are “technical.”
On May 7, Uzbekistan imposed temporary restrictions on passenger and cargo transport to Tajikistan due to an outbreak of polio in Tajikistan (RFE/RL Tajik, May 25). In addition, floods along the Uzbekistan line to Termiz (the Uzbek rail terminus at the Afghan border where NATO supplies are offloaded for road transport into Afghanistan) were reported to have wiped out 11 kilometers of track. Uzbekistan says it does not have sufficient funds for repairs but has refused Tajik Railroad offers to rebuild that section at its own expense (RFE/RL Tajik, May 25).
Lieutenant-Colonel Goetz Hasske, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) brushed off the impact of the delay, saying it was “not affecting logistics in the area. We have several border crossing points that we can use and we may have to reroute some shipments” (Moscow Times, May 26).
Fuel is the most vital of the NATO supplies being shipped into Afghanistan. As such, fuel tankers are the most targeted vehicles crossing into Afghanistan. Units of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) conduct regular attacks on tankers passing through Pakistan. While NATO is downplaying the impact of the supply obstruction in Uzbekistan, the delays raise further questions as to the reliability of Uzbekistan as a supply-chain partner beyond the immediate problem of replacing 300 tankers of fuel. On the bright side, the expected September completion of a connection between Afghanistan’s limited rail network at Marzar-i-Sharif and the Uzbek line at the border town of Termiz will enable some shipments to bypass Tajikistan (AFP, May 29).
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