One year ago, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Damiba was a military leader on the rise. The 41-year-old officer had just overthrown Burkina Faso’s democratically-elected government and was about to be sworn in as the West Africa’s nation’s new president. Wearing a red beret and military fatigues, he appeared on TV and threw down a gauntlet. “To…gain the upper hand over the enemy, it will be necessary… to rise up and convince ourselves that as a nation we have more than what it takes to win this war,” he said.
Just nine months later, an upstart underling—34-year-old Captain Ibrahim Traore—decided Damiba did not have what it takes to win the war and toppled him. Traore, now the youngest world leader, recently shored up his popularity by ordering a withdrawal of French forces fighting a long-running Islamist insurgency by groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Burkina Faso.
When Damiba seized power last year, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) admitted that the United States had mentored him over many years. Damiba’s putsch was just the latest in a recent spate of coups in West Africa by U.S.-trained officers. But when Rolling Stone asked AFRICOM if Traore was the latest to follow in this tradition, they couldn’t say. “We are looking into this,” said Africa Command spokesperson Kelly Cahalan, noting the command needed to “research” it. “I will let you know when I have an answer.”
Four months later, AFRICOM still hasn’t provided an answer. In fact, the U.S. government appears unwilling to address its role in mentoring military officers who have sown chaos in the region; men who have repeatedly overthrown the governments the U.S. trains them to prop up.
For decades, U.S.-trained officers —from Haiti’s Philippe Biamby and Romeo Vasquez of Honduras to Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan— have overthrown U.S.-allied governments all over the world. Rarely, however, have so many coups been so concentrated in a region over such a short period of time.
Last fall, after returning from a trip, alongside other top State Department and Pentagon officials to the Sahelian states of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, Ambassador Victoria Nuland was upbeat. “We went to the region in force. We were looking, in particular, at how the U.S. strategy towards the Sahel is working. This is a strategy that we put in place about a year ago to try to bring more coherence to our efforts to support increased security,” she said during an October conference call with reporters.
After Rolling Stone pointed out that U.S.-trained military officers had conducted seven coups in these same countries—Burkina Faso, three times; Mali, three times; and Mauritania, one time—since 2008, Nuland was less sanguine. “Nick, that was a pretty loaded comment that you made,” she replied. “Some folks involved in these coups have received some U.S. training, but far from all of them.”
The fact is the leaders of all of these coups have received significant U.S. training. Before Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Damiba overthrew Burkina Faso’s president last year, for example, he twice participated in an annual U.S. special operations training program known as the Flintlock exercise. He was also previously accepted into a State Department-funded Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance course; twice attended the U.S.-sponsored Military Intelligence Basic Officer Course-Africa; and twice participated in engagements with a U.S. Defense Department Civil Military Support Element.
In 2014, another U.S.-trained officer, Lt. Col. Isaac Zida—schooled via a Joint Special Operations University counterterrorism training course at Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base and a military intelligence course that was financed by the U.S. government—seized power, during popular protests against a presidential power-grab, in Burkina Faso. The next year, yet another coup in that country installed Gen. Gilbert Diendéré, another prominent Flintlock attendee.
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