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Ranging from 14-year-old boys to men pushing the limits of Chad's male life expectancy, 46 years, some had zero experience and others were combat veterans of Chad's decades-long civil war. They wore everything from Vietnam-era tiger-stripe uniforms to gym clothes, along with flip-flops, boots, dress shoes or no shoes.
Gary's team trained a group of 160 men equipped with 23 AK-47 assault rifles. Some aimed with the wrong eye and fired wildly, but most learned to shoot and clean the guns. Brian's team worked with a more experienced battalion of 200 men outfitted with weapons, radios and 13 Toyota trucks. They appeared enthusiastic but still lacked basic skills. So, the Americans started demonstrating tactics using GI Joe action figures in the sand, until one day the Chadians appeared ready for a platoon-size attack on "the Cardboardians," a row of cardboard torsos set in tires.
"The biggest thing is making sure they don't shoot each other," said Jasper, striding through the brush preparing for a live-fire drill.
A squad of Chadian soldiers, crouching low, began moving toward the target. But suddenly, before the signal had been given, a machine gunner on their flank started shooting. His ammunition ran out before the assaulting squad got into position -- leaving them dangerously vulnerable. Jasper shook his head and ordered the squad that misfired to practice again without ammo.
"Bang! Bang! Bang-bang-bang!" the Chadian soldiers shouted.
Douglas Farah: Africa's Counterterror Exercises
What are the tradeoffs in training troops whose primary loyalty will be to an abusive president and his small ethnic group, as is the case in Chad, with president Deby, who has not a democratic bone in his body? Will the Chadian troops (and those in surrounding nations such as Niger, Mali, Maurtiania) actually get better at patrolling their borders and facing the growing threat of armed Islamic groups in the region? Or will they focus their new-found skills on cracking down on internal dissent, patrolling the capital and generally becoming slightly more sophisticated in their repression?
These are complicated questions that need to be thought about and addressed as Africa becomes ever more relevant in the counterterror efforts. There is no doubt that sub-Saharan Africa is an increasingly attractive recruitment ground for al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as the Algerian Salafist Group for Call and Combat and the "al Qaeda in Nigeria" cells that appear to have been planning to attack U.S. targets in Lagos and Abuja. African are also appearing in Iraq and elsewhere in the jihadi struggles.
What are acceptable tradeoffs between two vastly different goals and approaches in combatting the spread of terror, or armed groups, in states that hover on the brink of disintegration and failure? Should bringing democracy, as President Bush is so fond of talking about in the Middle East, be the priority? If so, arming and training militaries that have histories of atrocities and repression could be counterproductive. Or is the terrorist threat primarily military in nature, necessitating a rapid increase in the capacity of armies that are underpaid, undertrained and underarmed? If so, then the move toward democracy would be postponed.
Training is sporadic, spread over a moving group of units whose members come and go, therefore necessitating starting at the beginning almost every time out. Command and control is not a concept easily understood.