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OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by. Welcome to the Flintlock 2020 conference call. At this time all participants are in a listen-only mode, and if you should require assistance during the call, please press “*” then “0”. As a reminder, this conference is being recorded. I would now like to turn the conference over to our host, Marissa Scott; please go ahead.

MODERATOR: Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and thank all of you for joining this discussion. Today, we are very pleased to be joined by the U.S. Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Michael J. Dodman, and U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Dagvin Anderson, Commander, Special Operations Command Africa or SOCAFRICA. Our speakers will discuss the upcoming SOCAFRICA-Sponsored Flintlock 2020 Joint Military Exercise in Mauritania. Ambassador Dodman speaks to us from Nouakchott, Mauritania and Brigadier General Anderson is on the line from Stuttgart, Germany.

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador Dodman and Brigadier General Anderson, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 45 minutes. At any time during the call, if you would like to ask a question, you must press “1” and “0” on your phone to join the question and answer queue.  If you would like to join the conversation on Twitter, please use the hashtag #AFHubPress and follow us on @africamediahub.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to the U.S. Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Michael J. Dodman. Ambassador Dodman.

AMB. DODMAN: Thank you so much Marissa, and greetings to everybody on the call from beautiful Nouakchott, Mauritania. I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to talk today about Flintlock 2020 and as well, about how important we think this exercise is to the priorities that the United States has here in Mauritania, and of course throughout the Sahel.

I’d like to start by thanking Brigadier General Anderson and his team at SOCAFRICA for the great collaboration that we’ve had for well over a year, working to put together this event that begins next week. At the same time we’ve had excellent coordination with our Mauritanian posts, who are working very closely with us to welcome over 1200 participants here in Mauritania for the exercise and then another 300 who will be participating in Senegal. I’ve had the chance over this past year to see how large and complex it is to plan an exercise of this scale; to me, as a civilian, it raises the question: Why do we actually do exercises like this, given everything that is involved in putting them together? And I’ve come through this process, and having the part of the process last year for Flintlock ’19, I couldn’t believe that all of us who were involved in this exercise, all of us who were involved in promoting stability, security, and prosperity in the Sahel – that means the State Department, the Defense Department of the United States, many other governments, our partners here in the region, civil society here in the region – we do this all because everybody appreciates the importance of stability in the Sahel. The importance, obviously, to the countries of West Africa and the Sahel, but certainly the importance to the United States, to Europe, and to the other partner nations who are participating in Flintlock.

The questions of stability in the Sahel are complex; we know that. The interests of stability are all based on a whole-of-society approach, an approach that doesn’t just involve the military but looks at questions of justice, education, basic services, economic development, good governance; all of these things are linked, and all of those are important to the governments in the Sahel, that are working to stabilize the situation. And, getting back to Flintlock, it is this whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach that I’ve been really impressed is so important in Flintlock, and I think you’re going to see it play out over the next few weeks here. I imagine the Brigadier General has more to say about the exercise.

From my perspective here in Nouakchott, I can say that President Ghazouani and the Mauritanian government have been very strong partners of Flintlock for many years; they hosted Flintlock in 2013, they’ve had outstations here in Mauritania in many years since, including last year, in Atar there was an outstation. So they really are committed to the success of exercises like Flintlock, but that’s only one piece of a broad security partnership that the United States and Mauritania have. Here in the embassy in Nouakchott we’re very proud that the close security partnership that we’ve had between our two militaries and our two governments over the last decade, at least, has helped to contribute to Mauritania’s achievement in addressing counterterrorism and addressing extremism here in Mauritania.

We’re looking forward to expanding that long-standing partnership that we’ve had with Mauritania, and taking it to a new level – not just with Flintlock this year, but with Mauritania taking over the presidency of the G5 Sahel, which they will do at a summit here in Nouakchott later this month.

Just yesterday we had here in Nouakchott Under Secretary of State David Hale, who is the Under Secretary for Political Affairs. I really consider that a historic visit; Under Secretary Hale was the most senior visitor we’ve had from the State Department to Mauritania in over a decade. We had some excellent discussions yesterday with the Mauritanian leadership and with the leadership of the G5 Sahel, which has their headquarters here in Nouakchott. Talking about how to build a strong relationship between United States and Mauritania, a relationship that in fact dates back 60 years, and we celebrated its 60th anniversary this year. Under Secretary Hale said yesterday after meeting President Ghazouani, “We are very encouraged by Mauritania’s democratic transition in the election last year. We’re very encouraged by the economic opportunities that are here in Mauritania. We’re very encouraged by President Ghazouani’s reform agenda and his pledge to improve justice and prosperity for all American citizens, and of course we’re looking forward to expanding the security partnership.”

I think there’s more than enough for me to start things off. I definitely look forward to getting questions and diving into some more after we hear from Brigadier General Anderson.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador Dodman. Brigadier General Anderson, your opening remarks.

BRIG. GEN. ANDERSON: I just appreciate the opportunity to engage on this and to be part of this great team and to work with Ambassador Dodman and his team in Mauritania and the partners across West Africa. This is a huge and very important exercise and an important opportunity for us to engage with our partners and to work with them. This is a place where they can come together, not just us as the United States; the United States provides an opportunity to bring these partners together and to share expertise, and I think we are the preeminent force when it comes to counterterrorism and looking at this, and so I do think there are things that we offer, but what was really offered by Flintlock – and I think the real value of it – is the interaction between the partners, and their ability – really, it’s not too often do they get the ability to come together like this – and to share information, to share intelligence, understanding, training, techniques, things that they’re using and may work for them that others may not be aware of, or to understand how the threat is evolving in their country, so that others can learn. And I think this interaction and these relationships are what really is the ultimate goal and the product that comes from this exercise in Flintlock that is so valuable.

As Ambassador Dodman said, this is an incredibly complex problem, the counter-VEO efforts that these countries put into; this is not strictly a military effort. It takes a whole-of-government approach; it’s a multi-faceted approach. It’s not just a U.S. or western effort; it takes partnerships across the international community, and it takes close partnership within the region in order to be effective. And these complex problems, they’re wicked problems to deal with, and it’s sometimes hard to confront these especially for some of these smaller nations in the Sahel and in West Africa. And so when you look at that, you’ve got to understand we can’t be solved alone. You need to harness the wisdom of crowds, bring those – others may offer what you can learn from them, and how do you then adapt that to your situation? And you’ve got to look beyond just the first- and second order-effects of the solution. What are the fourth- and fifth- order effects? How do you delve to the deeper issues that are causing some of these – the instability or the extremists to be able to take root? And how do you get after those problems? It’s not easy, and in order to do that, you have to be creative. You have to be innovative, and innovation doesn’t mean all-new technology; it means taking what you have and using it in new ways. I think Flintlock brings people together and it allows them to engage in those types of situations and give them a scenario to work through, but it also allows them to talk about what they’re facing and how they’re engaging, and I think that’s the most important part. How do you leverage that and use these for creative solutions that can be taken back to each of these individual countries, and then work within the international community, work within their governments, to find solutions to these deeper issues that Ambassador Dodman addressed.

I think that, like I said before, to me the biggest outcome of Flintlock, and what we strive to develop, is building these relationships and engaging other partners, working with them so that they can assist each other. I know one of the great things we’ve got this year is Morocco is providing support, they’re providing airlift in order to support the exercise, which is fantastic that they’re pitching in to help support that. I think that shows what capabilities other nations can bring to help a common threat that they’re all facing. And so when you look at this building relationships, it goes to the long-term commitment that we need from the international community writ large in order to confront these issues and confront the violent extremism that is growing in the region. We can see that it’s continuing to deteriorate; how do you address that problem? It takes multiple nations coming together to face that common threat. And I think Flintlock’s been a caretaker of that, or a promoter of that, over the years. It’s been ongoing since 2005, and that continual engagement is an opportunity for us to bring together multiple people from our government. It’s not just the DOD (Department of Defense), but from – like Ambassador Dodman said – from the Department of State, USAID, and others – as well as folks from across the region, in order to address these issues.

So I’ll turn it back over to you, and I look forward to any questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador Dodman and Brigadier General Anderson. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: the Flintlock 2020 Joint Military Exercise in Mauritania.

For those of you listening to the call in English, please press “1” and “0” on your phone to join the question queue. If you are using a speakerphone, you may need to pick up the handset before entering “1”and “0”.  For those of you listening in French and Portuguese, we have received some of your questions submitted in advance by email and you may continue to submit your questions in English via email to afmediahub@state.gov.

With that, we’ll go directly to our questions. The first question goes to Eric Schmitt of the New York Times. Operator, please open the line.

OPERATOR: Eric Schmitt, please, press “1” and “0”.

MODERATOR: Okay, operator. We’ll go…

OPERATOR: Alright.

MODERATOR: Please continue.

OPERATOR: Eric Schmitt, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you very much for doing this. Can you just address the question – I think General Anderson you touched on it briefly – just on the growing threat, and juxtapose that with the current plans the United States is considering to withdraw forces in West Africa. Thank you.

BRIG. GEN. ANDERSON: So the threat, obviously, I think if people have been watching it, is spreading south, and I think that’s what you’re addressing there. As we look at what has happened in Mali, we’re seeing this continue to grow. We’re seeing it spread down into Burkina Faso and the northern area there in the Soum province, and take root, and unfortunately what we’ve seen is a very deliberate effort by these VEOs, that this is not just localized violence. Maybe a few years ago this was some factions that were acting on local grievances. I think what we have seen is al Qaeda and their affiliates – JNIM and AQIM – have been able to galvanize these local grievances into a larger effort.

And so we’re seeing more people in the region identify with al Qaeda, and we’re seeing them move and act in a very deliberate fashion, and so when they came down into the Soum region they did some probing attacks initially, in the attack infrastructure, then they came in and did complex attacks against the security forces; were able to drive the security forces out of some of that northern region. With the infrastructure and the bridges damaged or destroyed that limited the ability for the government to respond and to get forces up there. And then we saw them eliminate political leadership through various means, whether that was through assassination, as we saw with the mayor of Djibo who was killed on the road going down to Ouagadougou or elimination of other tribal leaders. Then we’re able to establish control, and then after that have targeted and isolated key economic centers in order to control the economy of the area. So what we’ve seen is a very deliberate effort, through that region, that leads us to believe there’s more here than just local grievances, that there’s something driving this effort.

We’re seeing now some cooperation here between ISIS Greater Sahara and JNIM, which is the al Qaeda affiliate, which is the only area that I’m aware of that ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates are cooperating. Now, why they’re cooperating is largely due to local affiliations and personal connections, but that’s an interesting phenomenon that we’re watching. So we’re seeing this threat continue to move south, out of the Azawad area, in northern Mali, down towards Burkina Faso, down into Burkina Faso, and somewhat down towards Littoral [coastal] States.  We just had an attack in Benin recently, which is – I can’t characterize it entirely, but concerning that it’s getting down possibly towards Littorals and working into the Tillabéri region there north of Niamey in Niger.

So as we watch that, that’s not concerning to me, but obviously the largest force in the area is the French. The French are working with the European partners to try to increase that footprint in West Africa and in the Sahel to counter this. We have a very small footprint there that we’re working in order to support our partners and support the efforts that the French are leading in the West in order to counter this effort. So all of this we’re watching carefully as we see and we know that al Qaeda’s intent is to create some sort of safe haven somewhere in the world, and they have shown the will, in the past, to attack us, as they did in 9-11, and we know they have the intent to try to attack the west of the United States in the future. I can’t tell you when that will be, or exactly where; I don’t see that they have the capability yet, but that is their goal.

Now, that said, I’m not sure that I would characterize it as plans to withdraw; I know that the Department of Defense is doing a global look at our posture and looking at how they can find savings to recapitalize into high-end weapons and into future pipe, knowing that we’re not going to get a larger budget, and so they’re doing that review, and that review is they’re doing it through Africa, and that’s where they have started doing that. But I don’t see any signs that we’re leaving Africa, and there’s no decision that’s been made by the Secretary yet as to what that footprint will be if you continue to look across the entire DOD enterprise and how to rebalance the force in order to be able to address the threat that’s being posed by China and Russia, as well as balance that with the VEO threat that’s ongoing, not only in Africa but other parts of the world.

So I don’t think it’s fair to characterize it as a withdrawal from Africa, but I would say there’s a rebalancing, and relook at what’s going on within the Department of Defense and that is ongoing right now. That’s about as much detail as I have at the moment.

MODERATOR: Thank you, General Anderson Just…

AMB. DODMAN: This is Ambassador Dodman in Nouakchott. If I could jump in, I’d like to add a couple things. First of all, obviously there’s nothing I can say as to the threat assessment; as General Anderson pointed out there, we are all concerned about what is happening and how the situation is developing. From the State Department side, we are definitely increasing the level of engagement. We’ve got – I mentioned Under Secretary of State Hale, who was here yesterday – that was just the end of a larger visit that started in Dakar and included stops in Bamako and in Ouagadougou. We’ve got Secretary Pompeo who is headed to Africa this weekend; we have got a lot of increasing efforts on the diplomatic side to try to work with our partners, to focus on some of the root causes of the instability here, in terms of governance questions and in terms of improving the conditions – as General Anderson said, the conditions for the affected population that have enabled some of this extremism.

Another important point to add is that the State Department and USAID are both extremely engaged throughout Africa, but certainly here in West Africa, throughout the Sahel, with very large programs to deal with some of the underlying root causes, to improve governance, to improve economic opportunities. But also focusing very much on the security assistance side; a very, very large portion of U.S. government security assistance around the world, and certainly in the countries of the Sahel, goes through the State Department, and we are absolutely continuing to provide that assistance directly to the military and law enforcement in the country on a bilateral basis, but also to build up the capabilities of this new G5 Sahel joint force that the five countries in the Sahel have put in place to try to address some of the threats. Just wanted to add that perspective.

MODERATOR: Thank you, thank you. Our next question goes to Lara Seligman of Foreign Policy. Operator, please open the line.

OPERATOR: The line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I wanted to just follow up on Eric’s question and ask: As you know, I think there in uptick in violence from last year’s Flintlock to this year’s, particularly in places like Burkina Faso, and Mali. So can you characterize more specifically that uptick in violence, and what exactly you’re doing differently to both support the French and support the local partners, and maybe some differences in what you look out for and how you’re approaching the threat this year? Especially as you prepare to perhaps have a lighter footprint.

BRIG. GEN. ANDERSON: So I would agree that the violence has definitely increased in Burkina Faso, and that we’re seeing that violence come down, especially in the northern provinces of Burkina Faso. There’s been a significant uptick in those attacks across the region. There’s been an uptick in the Mopti region of Mali, as well as the Liptako region on the eastern side and the Tillabéri region of Niger, so that violence is starting to move south. I think at the same time what we’re seeing in the further northern parts of Mali is a reduction in violence, and I don’t think that’s because we’re having successes there by any means; it’s because there’s probably less regions for them to attack up there, so they’re consolidating their control up there and continuing to push south.

What we’re doing is working with the partners, because ultimately this is an African problem; this is really as much a Burkina Faso problem, Niger, Mali, and how do we help them deal with this issue? And I think Ambassador Dodman really hit this on the head; he said that this is not solely a DOD effort. This is an effort that involves USAID, Department of State; Department of Justice is out there helping them with their judicial system, and I can’t speak in detail on those, but the key is that this is not purely a DOD/military solution or military effort in order to stop it. It does take a whole government effort.

Now, that said, we’re working with our partners. We are primarily, in Niger, partnered with their forces to address this, and I would say that where they’ve had some additional attacks, the forces we are partnered with and working with are standing and fighting; they are inflicting some losses on the VEOs as they come across, and we’re seeing some success in the training programs we’ve had and the partners that we’re working with in order to counter this. I think what’s happening, and you addressed that it’s being done differently, and I would say the French, again, are the lead in this, and talking with the commander of Op Barkhane, General Blachon they are changing their approach to this, and they’re changing it from more CT (Counter Terrorism)- centric, where they’re just trying to eliminate the leadership, to working more a partner-centric approach, working with the Malians and Nigeriens and Burkinabes in order to increase the capabilities of the partner nations and not just rely on French CP capabilities that develop the capabilities of those partners.

And then the other piece is they’re working to bring in other international efforts of other European nations in order to come in and assist with that in order to divide that, and they’re trying to facilitate that opportunity, because, again, this is an international effort and it takes more than just any one country to do this, and I think getting the additional support from the Europeans is vital. I think it’s very important to get them engaged. It’s obviously clearly a threat to European stability but also a threat to the United States, so how do we partner appropriately to do that. And so I think that’s some of the things that are being done differently.

We’re staying engaged with our partners in Niger; we’ve got some folks in Burkina Faso as well, providing some support and helping to advise their military leadership. But the key there, again, and we stay very much engaged with our international partners in the French, and we work with the French quite closely. And so that relationship, where we are collaborating and working with the French very closely is a critical partnership, and we help enable them. But again, we’re helping enable their lead in the Sahel and helping them with the international effort. So I think that’s some of the changes that are being made. But again, we’re very much in the supporting role here and supporting our partners, both western European and African partners, and help build their capacity.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Just a reminder to our participants to press “1” and “0” to get into the question queue. The next question goes to Embassy Lomé in Togo, where they’re hosting a listening party. The question is from Theo Andalette from Radio Victoire. Why did the U.S. decide to abandon the fight against terrorism in the Sahel, when experts are saying extremists defeated in the Middle East are now joining units of the Sahel via Libya? Question to you, Ambassador Dodman.

AMB. DODMAN: Okay, thanks. I would say following up on Brigadier General Anderson’s comments, we have absolutely not abandoned the fight against terrorism in West Africa or in the Sahel, or frankly, anywhere in the world. It is something that we remain very engaged in; we continue to modify what we’re doing. We try to stay on top of the situation and try to build up the capacities of the countries in the region, who are the ones who are really going to be the key to defeating the threat that comes from extremists.

There is increasing focus in Africa on not just al Qaeda but the [INAUDIBLE] of ISIS, of Daesh; and the international coalition that was very active in the success in Syria and Iraq on ISIS, and now is actively looking at the situation as it evolves here in Africa and trying to make sure that we can, as well, as a united coalition, be engaged in trying to support the capacities of the countries that are impacted here.

We’ve got an interesting situation in Mauritania, where there has been a relatively good record on dealing with terrorism and dealing with extremism. I think it’s important, as Mauritania takes over the leadership of the G5 Sahel, as I said, later this month, for the next year, that will be an opportunity for Mauritania to be able to work even more closely with its partners in the region to talk about what led to the successes in Mauritania, which dealt very much with focusing on some of the concerns of the impacted communities, maintaining the presence of State throughout the country, and actively working to prevent extremism from taking root or trying to address those who were radicalized; so we’ve had some lessons to be shared here among the partners, but absolutely the United States continues to be engaged in this effort. Over.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question goes to Lindsey Hilsum of ITN Channel 4 News out of the UK. Operator, please open the line.

OPERATOR: Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hello, Lindsey Hilsum here. Brigadier General, I wonder if you can give us some more details of what will actually happen in Flintlock, what the exercise is comprised of in Mauritania, and what will they comprise of in …

BRIG. GEN. ANDERSON: I’m sorry. I think I lost the end of that question there.

QUESTION: I was asking, can you give us some more details of what the exercises will actually comprise in both Mauritania and in Senegal?

BRIG. GEN. ANDERSON: Sure, so a lot of the exercise will focus on small unit tactics. They’ll do live-fire, mounted/dismounted movements, reconnaissance; they’ll do some close quarters battle drills, other types of things. Investigations that will help them continue to develop the intelligence that they need, such as post-blast analysis for explosions, those type of things. How border patrol do investigative interviews. And then I think one of the key pieces that we really want to focus on is intel sharing and the importance of sharing information intelligence on the threat. These VEOs, violent extremist organizations, they don’t respect borders. They don’t follow them. They cross these borders, but they use the same tactics and techniques and procedures. They have similar footprints when they go in, and so being able to share that intelligence and that understanding across s these partners is absolutely vital, and in order to share intelligence, in order to have that, you’ve got to build the trust, and to build the trust you have to create a relationship. And so I think that’s ultimately what Flintlock does, is it brings people together in order to talk and communicate, to build that relationship that creates trust, and then you can start doing the intelligence sharing that is absolutely vital in order to counter the violent extremists, especially when they’re crossing borders in these very porous areas, porous borders in remote areas. I think that’s an important piece of Flintlock, and as a matter of fact I would say that’s the most important piece, in my opinion. I’ve mentioned it several times.

But as we do that, these different exercises, different things that we do as these small units, again, build awareness, build trust. The other piece that we’re looking at doing is how we can bring in other partners in order to assist each other. So what can we do, like the Moroccans coming in to help provide airlift. That’s a great opportunity for other nations in the region to provide assistance. Some of the other nations, such as Senegal, has a very capable military; can they provide some additional training to their neighbors? What can they do to assist? And again, Flintlock brings these partners together, allows them those training opportunities, and allows that relationship and trust to be built.

And I think these are important because ultimately, that’s what leads to stability, and that stability is what we need. The stability builds resilience, and that’s what builds that resilience to the VEOs and the expansion; they prey upon the fact that there’s not governance in an area, or there’s local grievances that they can exploit, and so by building this resilience and building this trust and building the ability for these African nations to go engage, and provide security to these regions, is vital.

So I think that’s what, in my opinion, what is the most important part of Flintlock, and those are some of the specifics that we’ll be working on. We’ll run through a scenario, we’ll work on some of that cross-border communication and how to share information and how to do that on a cross-border type operation, and then how they go through and solve that problem, and they’ll require some international cooperation in order to do that. So that’s how we’ve constructed the scenario.

MODERATOR: Thank you. The next question goes to Halima… Oh, yes, please, Ambassador Dodman. Go ahead.

AMB. DODMAN: Sorry, could I just jump in with one additional piece?

MODERATOR: Yes.

AMB. DODMAN: I can’t add anything on the strictly military side, but one important piece of the Flintlock exercise every year, and certainly this year, is in addition to bringing 1500 military into Mauritania and Senegal from thirty-some partner nations, we’re also bringing over 100 largely civilians, not all civilians, but civilians here from the partner countries for a two-day seminar, looking specifically at that question of civil-military interface. How do you make sure that populations are interacting well, civilian populations, with their military leaders? How can you increase the trust within there? It really gets at the question of building up the strength of communities and building up the respect that law enforcement has within the various countries, and it’s a key part of making sure that the extremists don’t have the ground to take root. So we’ll be doing that as well. We’ll be heavily involved from the State Department and USAID side in that feature of the effort. Over.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador Dodman. The next question goes to Halima Gikandi of the World Radio Program. Operator, open the line.

QUESTION: Thank you. The question is for General Anderson. An Inspector General report that was made public yesterday mentioned that U.S. AFRICOM this past quarter switched its counter-terrorism strategy in West Africa from a degrade to a containment strategy. Can you explain what that means and why that was, and whether that counts as a downgrade?

BRIG. GEN. ANDERSON: I’m not sure I would characterize it as a downgrade. I think it’s a shift in strategy, and so what we’re looking to do is how do we shift to partners who may contain the effort and work with the French who are working on the degrade piece of it. So I think it’s more of defining what role we have. We have a very small footprint in West Africa; it’s mostly a Special Ops footprint, but we have some support there as well with ISR airlifting from PR CASEVAC (Personnel Recovery Casualty Evacuation) type assets, but for us it’s really about working with our partners, helping them in order to be able to address the threat and then be able to contain that threat, and being able to address that. The French, who are operating primarily in Mali, are really the ones that have the composite of force. They’ve got well over 4,000, 5,000 folks. They’ve added some additional forces recently. They’re the ones that are going after al-Shabaab and ISIS Greater Sahara. They’re the ones that are looking to degrade that threat, and they’ve got the force in place to do that. So I think it’s more an alignment of what we have in place and how we’re there.

I think you said that it’s a degrade or a downgrading; I’m not sure what verbiage that came from, if it came from the report. I apologize, I haven’t read that report in detail, but I would characterize it more as an alignment of what our footprint is there and what we’re actually tasked to do, and so we don’t have the forces in the U.S. to degrade the threat, but we do have the forces that can provide the advice and the assistance to our partners and help contain the threat, keep that threat from moving further south, and allow the French and the European partners then to go in and degrade it. Over.

MODERATOR: Thank you. The next question goes to Michael Phillips of the Wall Street Journal. Operator, open the line.

QUESTION: Hi, gentlemen. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. Given what the U.S. has done in Syria, announcing a sudden pull-out and then withdrawing from certain areas, given the likelihood that the U.S. will cut its forces in Afghanistan, why should our partners in West Africa trust us?

MODERATOR: Ambassador Dodman, over to you first.

AMB. DODMAN: Okay, sure. I just went through this on the visit with Under Secretary Hale yesterday, talking with the Mauritanian government about that. I’ve heard directly from one of our senior officials in Washington about the engagement that we see as necessary in the Sahel to try to achieve what we’ve all been talking about for last half hour, which is a stronger African capability to respond to a threat that is threatening the stability of Africa and therefore could reach out and touch us and touch others. So it’s in our interest to make sure that the threat is dealt with here. The State Department is very concerned about this. We are upping our diplomatic engagement here; we’re focusing increased resources on helping to build the capabilities of the partners here in the region, and we’re confident that we are here for the long haul and we’re going to be successful in this effort. Over.

MODERATOR: General Anderson, would you like to comment as well?

BRIG. GEN. ANDERSON: Sure. A couple of things. One, I agree with Ambassador Dodman that this isn’t solely a military effort, and so we need to look at what other things are being brought to bear in West Africa, and I think the State Department is bringing quite a bit, as well as trying to increase their efforts here. I also think that the fact that we are still staying committed in West Africa and we’re working with the European partners to enable them is why we should still be trusted, and I think that any partner that we work with understands that when we engage, we engage to make them better. We don’t engage to exploit them; we don’t engage to put them – as some other partners may do, and I’m not talking about the partners we work closely with; some other places they may go for CP assistance – that assistance is very much transactional. And I think when they engage with U.S. forces they find very quickly that we are there to make them a better force, to improve their capabilities. We treat them very much with dignity and respect, and we treat them as equals, and that’s something that the partners value, and I think it’s a reason to trust the United States. And when we engage, we will make you a better force; we will improve your capabilities, and we do it out of shared values and shared commitment. And I guess the shared threat. So I think that’s why the United States can still be trusted, and should still be trusted, and when we commit to building a force and training a force, we do it with our best capabilities and we do it with great experience and we transfer that to our partners.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Just a reminder to our listeners to press “1” and “0” to get into the question queue. The next question goes to Nicholas Ludlam of Sky News out of the United Kingdom. Operator, open the line.

QUESTION: Hello, thank you for taking my question. I wanted to ask to what degree are some of the maybe more stable and wealthier countries around this area, like Senegal, fertile ground for the support of these VEOs, and what is being done to mitigate the radicalism that might be happening, particularly as a result of things like climate change? How is that making it worse? What are you doing to mitigate that spread?

MODERATOR: Mr. Ludlam, do you want to… yes, go ahead.

AMB. DODMAN: Yeah. So there’s no question that there are issues like climate change, or a rise population growth, there’s a very large youth bulge here, all the problems of droughts that have occurred, in addition to – certainly here in Mauritania – increasing desertification, all making a difficult situation even worse, which is why the response to instability and the response to extremism, to be frank, cannot just be military, it cannot just be focused on reinforcing borders. It has to be focusing on some of the root causes, and when you have these external shocks really that are further exacerbating the situation, of course it makes it more difficult. That’s how we all start out in the [INAUDIBLE] is incredibly complex.

Honestly, on the question of the de-radicalization, and that is an area where, as I said earlier, Mauritania has a pretty good record – just last month, the Mauritanian government convened about 500 Muslim scholars from all over Africa here for a three-day, I believe it was, conference to really sit down and dive into exactly that question: how can the religious leaders from throughout the continent, not just the Sahel countries – how can they come together with a message and strategy that is going to help to delegitimize the religious basis that the terrorist groups turn to, to try to build some of their local support. I think it’s an initiative that you’re going to hear more about over the coming months, because – sorry I keep referring to it, but with Mauritania taking over the leadership of the G5, I’m quite confident they will continue to push that sort of social approach to help make it more difficult for the extremists to win support based totally on a religious argument. Over.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Again, a reminder to our listeners to press “10” to get in the question queue. A question for Ambassador Dodman: How does a host country like Mauritania benefit from hosting Flintlock? Is it possible that hosting Flintlock makes them a target for terrorists?

AMB. DODMAN: Thanks. So again, Mauritania has hosted Flintlock, the major exercise itself, in 2013 and it’s had smaller pieces of Flintlock for many, many years, including last year. The Mauritanians clearly see it in their benefit to host this; obviously, as a host country there are many, many Mauritanian military officers and troops that will be exposed to the training, that are getting the experiences that will be passed along by the American and other countries here, special forces who are here. Build up their capabilities to be able to respond; in fact, Mauritania has developed a couple special forces units here that have a strong reputation, I would say, and are absolutely able to better respond because of the training that they’ve received directly from the United States, but also the training and exposure they receive from the Flintlock exercise, and other exercises, of course; Flintlock is only one.

But of course Flintlock brings more than just the presence of the military; I mentioned the seminar, which will bring a large number of civilians and academics. Obviously there’s the VIP element to this, with senior officials coming in, whether military officials like General Anderson or folks from the State Department and others. And obviously there’s a media component, as we’re talking about now. Some of the folks on the call, I know, will be here for the exercise over the next two weeks, and Mauritania will certainly have the opportunity to kind of show off themselves, in addition to getting exposure on the Flintlock exercise. So a few thoughts that popped into my head of how they benefit. Over.

MODERATOR: Thank – yes, please.

BRIG. GEN. ANDERSON: I’d just like to add a little bit there. I think from my perspective, I think it adds quite a bit of visibility and understanding to what’s going on and I think Burkina Faso definitely benefitted from that last year. They hosted at a critical time, and as things have continued to deteriorate, the fact that Flintlock was out there – and as Ambassador Dodman just said, that the media out there have brought some attention and understanding to what they were facing and to what the region was facing. So I think there’s benefit for folks to understand what the threat is and how great it is and what the difficulties are for these countries. And again, it’s an awesome opportunity that when you host it, these other countries are coming to you. So over 30 different countries come to visit, and it gives you that opportunity to interact and to build these relationships and understanding in a way that, as a participant, you still get some of that; as the host, you benefit greater from that. And so I think there’s a lot of benefit from hosting Flintlock. Over.

MODERATOR: Well, I’d truly like to thank both of you. We are at the end of our call, and I’d like to ask both Ambassador Dodman and General Anderson if they’d like to have any final words. Ambassador Dodman.

AMB. DODMAN: From Nouakchott, thank you Marissa and the team in Johannesburg for arranging the call. Thank you to everybody who took the time to dial in and listen through this. For those members of the media who will be here over the next couple of weeks, I hope we have a chance to engage directly. To our friends in Stuttgart and Brigadier General Anderson, I look forward to getting you here on the ground and I look forward to the launch of this, and big success. I’m quite confident. Thanks.

MODERATOR: General Anderson.

BRIG. GEN. ANDERSON: I’d just like to echo Ambassador Dodman’s remarks here. I appreciate everyone taking the time, and I really appreciate the fact that there’s this much media interest in Flintlock and what we’re doing in West Africa. I think it’s important; I think our engagements there are important, and I appreciate the fact that folks have an understanding of the threat, how it’s growing, and where it’s evolving. And I think coming out to Flintlock gives a better understanding of what our partners are doing, what they’re facing, and what they are doing as well as our European partners out there, that, like I said, this is very much a multinational effort that takes many countries and many capabilities to come together. It’s not dependent on any one of them, and the fact that we can host this and bring these folks together in order to share this and work through the senior leader seminar as well, which I think is just as critical a part of the exercise as the field training. It’s an opportunity to build those relationships, build that trust, and to understand how to address this threat together. And I think that’s the key, is that we have to do this together. It’s not something that can be done by any one nation alone. And that’s all I have, and those folks that are going to make it to Nouakchott I look forward to meeting you there and continuing the conversation.

MODERATOR: Thank you. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank the U.S. Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Michael J. Dodman, and U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Dagvin Anderson, Commander, Special Operations Command Africa, for joining us, and thanks to all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at afmediahub@state.gov. Thank you.

U.S. Department of State

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