On January 8th, Marines from 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment arrived in Italy to assume their role as the latest rotation of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Africa (SPMAGTF-Africa). SPMAGTF-Africa is a security cooperation element assigned to US Marine Corps Forces, Africa (MARFORAF). It works with US partners in Africa and regional organizations to help develop security force capabilities and otherwise help those entities counter various threats on the continent. Developing professional security forces is also seen by the US military as a means to promoting good governance and national development.
A KC-130T Hercules carrying Marines and sailors with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa 13 takes off from NAS Sigonella on route to a security cooperation engagement in Burundi on February 16, 2013.
SPMAGTF-Africa was originally established in the summer of 2011 from numerous Marine Corps Forces Reserve units, and eventually came to consist of almost two hundred personnel. Forward deployed to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy, where the unit remains stationed today, the task force had the ability to self-deploy with two assigned KC-130T aircraft. These aircraft also gave the task force a limited crisis response capability.
Initially known as SPMAGTF-12, because the planned first deployment would come in 2012, the unit subsequently deployed Theater Security Cooperation Teams to numerous Africa nations that year to help assist in the development of those countries’ security forces. In total, two groups of reserve Marines rotated through the unit in 2012. This was followed by two more in 2013. In 2013, members of SPMAGTF-Africa were called upon to support the airlift of Burundian Army personnel to Central African Republic in support of the African-led International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA) there. The Marines were already in Burundi helping to train military logistics elements in that country before being called upon to help with Operation Echo Casemate.
This new SPMAGTF-Africa rotation for the task force is notable in that it is the first to involve active component Marines. All previous rotations had been made up of reserve component Marines. As the US draws down in Afghanistan, Marine Corps units are more free for assignment to rotational task forces like SPMAGTF-Africa, SPMAGTF-Crisis Response, and the rotational element now deployed to Australia. SPMAGTF-Africa provided the model for these new task forces and will continue to play an important part in ongoing US military engagement with partners in Africa.
Aid workers in CAR have reported that more than five hundred people have been killed in CAR since last week in fighting between the mostly Muslim ex-Seleka rebels and Christian anti-balaka militias, said to be loyal to ousted President Francois Bozize. Current President and former leader of the Seleka group has Michel Djotodia has repeatedly denied reports suggesting a rapid downward spiral toward sectarian strife and possible genocide, saying in the past said that the violence was an expression of “revenge” by the people for abuses by the previous leadership. More recently he continued to blame the former regime for the violence, saying effectively that the citizenry of CAR was either with him or against him.
Burundian National Defense Forces and the US Marines with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa 13 worked together in Burundi on December 10 as they prepared to embark to the CAR to join the MISCA mission.
The violence has showed no signs of stopping. The UN said earlier in the week that it estimated four hundred people had been killed or injured in fighting since the previous Thursday, that almost a half a million people had been displaced since the overthrow of Bozize in March, and that some 2.3 million people, half of the country’s population, were in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. These were among the factors that prompted the decision by the UN Security Council on December 5th to give a UN mandate to the African-led International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA) and authorize a French intervention in the country. The African Union had also said it would be looking to increase the size of MISCA, and today officially authorized an increase in the size of the force to a total of 6,000 personnel. Despite the immediate efforts, the situation remains dangerous. Two French soldiers were killed on the 10th in fighting with armed groups in CAR.
The US and United Kingdom have both been working to rapidly move French and African forces into CAR. The Royal Air Force has been flying missions from France to CAR, while the US has deployed personnel to Uganda, Burundi, and CAR to coordinate efforts to help deploy African peacekeepers into the country. The first US mission from Burundi to CAR was reportedly flown yesterday. US Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Africa are in Burundi acting as a logistics support element for the operation there. They had already been deployed in Burundi as part of an existing effort to train logistics companies for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). It remains unknown at this time who is the force provider for the command element in Uganda or the security element in CAR.