America's African Rifles

"Every time you fire, a bad guy should bleed!" At the heart of the U.S. military's imperial venture is the training of indigenous troops around the world—and at the heart of that training is the rifle range. A report from Niger

Early last summer the United States dismantled the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, sending home L. Paul Bremer III, effectively its proconsul, and causing some observers to proclaim the end of the American empire. But imperialism has always been less about proconsuls than about local alliances and the training of indigenous troops, both of which allow the imperial authority to project power with minimum risk and fanfare. This was true for Rome, and it was particularly true for France and Britain, two thirds of whose campaigns consisted of soldiers enlisted in their colonies.

Today it is also true for the United States—and not only in places that dominate media attention, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States is training troops around the world, in Latin America and Asia and Africa. To witness it firsthand I recently traveled to the Niger River region of the Sahel, a belt of savannah and scrub on the Sahara's southern edge that has of late become an important focus for American interests.

The countries of the Sahel—which runs through Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Sudan—are among the world's poorest and most unstable, with some of the highest fertility and lowest quality of life anywhere. Governments have little control beyond their capital cities, and throughout the region are many of the ingredients that breed terrorists and their sympathizers: a population disillusioned with its political leadership; a dangerously high number of unemployed young men; Islamic orthodoxy on the rise. Sahelian Africa provides the two conditions essential for penetration by al-Qaeda and its offshoots: weak institutions and the cultural access afforded by an Islamic setting. It is, in fact, already home to what is arguably the most dangerous and dynamic Islamic force in the northern half of Africa today: the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.

Big Oil, too, has lured the United States to the region: America already imports some 15 percent of its oil from West Africa—a figure expected to rise to 25 percent within a decade. Also of concern are the Chinese, who have been investing heavily in the region and whose influence the United States wants to limit.

Given these circumstances, the U.S. European Command (EUCOM)—which is based in Stuttgart, Germany, and oversees most of Africa beyond the Horn—set in motion the Pan-Sahel Initiative, designed as an economy-of-force measure to avert the need for a massive deployment against terrorists like that in Afghanistan. As part of the initiative the United States has already dispatched Army Special Forces to Mali and Mauritania, and Marines to Chad and Niger—and those troops have not been idle. In 2003 and 2004, for example, after the Salafists had amassed weapons and vehicles in Mali for use in Algeria, Navy surveillance aircraft helped push the group out of Mali and into Niger and Chad, where U.S. military planners advised Chadian troops, who killed or captured more than forty insurgents. A follow-up program, called the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative, has received initial funding.

I met up with the Marines in Niger, the second poorest country in the world after Sierra Leone. Niamey, Niger's capital, unrolls along the Niger River's northern bank and is little more than a sprawling village; compared with the teeming slum cities to the south, such as Lagos and Abidjan, it is conspicuously clean and possesses the affecting, sensual intimacy of a small African city that has yet to experience a great wave of urban migration. But the city works better as a place to live than as the administrative center of a vast and unstable country. Niger's border with Libya, to the northeast, is farther from Niamey than the Great Lakes are from the Gulf of Mexico—and the country's governing elite, composed mainly of ethnic Hausas and Songhai-Djermas, has to control not only the 12 million people living in the sliver of territory that stretches east from Niamey along the Benin and Nigerian borders but also the often hostile population of the country's desert regions, which extend to Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Chad, and where recent violence has fueled fears that Tuareg tribesmen may try to relaunch their rebellion.

The U.S. military has the same daunting task here that it has in so many other places where it is deployed: to help make a "country" into something real, against considerable odds. I stress the military here with good reason: the State Department may constitute the official, public front for security-assistance missions, but it is the humanitarian-assistance projects, administered by EUCOM through a defense attaché at the U.S. embassy, that on the ground provide for almost all the charity relief by America to the wild and troubled north of Niger—a region where few NGOs have been able to penetrate until recently. In any case, no presence can be established in the north without the help of the Nigerien military, with which civilian aid workers have cultivated little contact. In a weak democracy like Niger's, politicians come and go but soldiers and security men remain, as silent, behind-the-scenes props—that is, if they haven't metamorphosed into politicians themselves. Niger's civilian head of state, Mamadou Tandja, is a former army lieutenant colonel.

When I left Niamey, it was in a white Toyota pickup driven by Major Paul Baker, of Drummond, Oklahoma. We were headed for the Nigerien military base of Tondibiah, fifteen minutes from Niamey, where the Marines had their barracks—or hootch, as it is often called. Major Baker was the commanding officer of a Marine training team that consisted of twenty-four men (including three Navy corpsmen) drawn from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Norfolk, Virginia; and EUCOM's Stuttgart headquarters. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, had a graying-blond high-and-tight haircut, and bore a frank, uncomplicated expression on his face. At forty, he was a bit long in the tooth for his rank—but so were some of his lieutenants, he told me. They had started out as enlisted men and later went to Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. It was a good platoon, because the officers had been grunts themselves.

After we entered Tondibiah, we saw millet fields and the occasional street urchin. But Baker said, "It's a dramatic improvement over Chad, where whole villages existed within the army bases." Having just come from a two-month training mission in Chad, Baker was struck after a week of his present mission by the stark differences between the two countries. On paper Chad was marginally better off than Niger, and I thought it might have boasted a flinty army, given its three decades of civil war. But the Marines had found Chad less developed, and not up to Niger in the quality of its military.

The Marine hootch was a one-story cement structure with a corrugated-iron roof, protected only by concertina wire. An American flag waved near a small barbecue grill. Mosquito nets covered the racks (what naval forces call bunks), and big fat lizards climbed all over the walls and did pushups in the dirt. It was 110° under a bleached iron sky. A fan whirred loudly. The place felt laid-back—unlike the Special Forces bases I had visited in Colombia, where car bombs and makeshift mortar attacks were a fact of daily life. Here there was no atmosphere of paranoia, no vast array of weapons, no high sandbagged walls. Here the Marines traveled stripped down, like backpackers. I felt as though we were in a fleabag hotel. But I had a sink that delivered cold water, a luxury I had never before experienced with the U.S. military.

Baker's men had just begun training three platoons' worth of host-country soldiers, individually selected by their commanders for talent and motivation. Nothing fancy here. The initial training cycle consisted of the fundamentals of good soldiery: shooting, land navigation, and basic medicine. Liberty demands authority; without minimal order there can be no freedom. If Niger's civilian government was going to survive and protect its borders against transnational terrorists, military professionalization was crucial—and it started in part with Baker's Marines.

I spent my first days at Tondibiah on the rifle range, watching Nigerien troops being trained by four Marines: Gunnery Sergeant Eric Coughlin, of Shohola, Pennsylvania; Staff Sergeant Stephen Long, of Irmo, South Carolina; Staff Sergeant Bobby Rivera, of the Bronx, New York; and Sergeant Chris Singley, of Milledgeville, Georgia. All were in their thirties except Singley, who was twenty-five.

I have spent enough time with Marines around the world to know that these four had to be an impressive bunch. Noncoms are the heart and soul of the Marine Corps, which may have the most powered-down command structure of any Western military force. Battlefield expertise and leadership depend on sergeants' leading corporals, who in turn lead lance corporals. Without advanced training one doesn't get to be a sergeant—particularly a staff sergeant, who commands a platoon of two dozen men, or a gunnery sergeant, the exalted go-to guy in every unit. These Marines were experts: Coughlin was a specialist in military mountaineering, Long in marksmanship, and Singley in riverine operations. As for Rivera, he was a member of Force Recon—something of a Marine equivalent to the Navy SEALs and the Army's Delta Force. Rivera and Singley were on loan from the Special Operations Training Group, at Camp Lejeune. Because training Third World armies was for decades a Special Forces affair, the deployment to Chad and Niger constituted an opportunity for the Marines to show what they could do, and the Corps had therefore sent some of its best. (Indeed, a few months later Singley—the youngest and least experienced of the four—would be the senior adviser to an Iraqi army unit on the outskirts of Fallujah.)

It was dark and pouring rain at 6:00 a.m., when we set out for the range. First we halted at the Nigerien barracks to collect the trainees. When we arrived, twenty-three of them were standing in formation, singing a traditional morning melody for their commander. After they finished, they climbed in a silent, orderly manner into the backs of our pickups. A few minutes later, when we got to the firing range, they marched out onto the field and began setting up the targets; then they lined up single file, their field caps in their hands as the rain fell on their heads. After prying open the Chinese-made sardine cans of 7.62mm ammunition for the Nigeriens' AK-47s, Coughlin and the three other sergeants dumped the rounds into the trainees' field caps. "Wait till the end of the day," Long told me. "They'll actually pick up the brass cartridges on the field without being told to—and not to sell, either. They bring their own medical equipment to the range. The Chadians weren't like this." The Nigeriens, I noticed also, displayed real muzzle awareness: when not shooting they kept their rifles pointed at the ground, and never once dropped them in the dirt. The Filipino and Colombian soldiers I had observed hadn't been nearly as disciplined.

The Nigerien military had participated in messy, violent peacekeeping missions in Cote D'Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burundi, the Congo, and Haiti. It was a military that formed its own elite social class, with officers sending their young sons to cadet schools. Its soldiers had proved their willingness to die in defense of not only their own but also U.S. interests: on several occasions Nigerien units had hotly pursued Salafist extremists across the border into neighboring countries.

Waiting around, watching the host-country troops load their ammo into the magazines, I mentioned to Staff Sergeant Long that coups, being a feature of modernization, tend to happen when a military is more institutionally advanced than its civilian authority. Long, a stocky, red-haired thirty-two-year-old with piercing eyes, who had been tagged for me by Major Baker as one of the brightest Marines in the unit, broke in about the Filipino military and the inefficiency and corruption of successive civilian regimes in the Philippines. His insights were impressive. As Baker's remarks about Chad and Niger had shown, Marines suck up knowledge wherever they can. And because their personal experiences are so different from those of journalists and academics, their company is invigorating in an intellectual sense.

Dawn came, and for a time the rain held off the heat. I inserted my earplugs and joined the Americans and the Nigeriens as they walked out onto the 300-yard range. It was good to be on a rifle range again. In 2003 and early 2004 I had taken a crawl-walk-run approach to following the U.S. military. I observed Army Special Forces training host-country troops in Colombia and the Philippines, and then accompanied them on presence patrols and armed assaults in Afghanistan; I observed Marines in training and pulling guard duty in Djibouti, and then accompanied them during urban combat in Iraq. This approach required regularly going back to the basics, just as soldiers themselves always do; the circular monotony of military life is fundamental to any experience of it. When Special Forces and Marine battalions return from deployments overseas to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, or Camp Pendleton, California, they return to the rifle range. With the training of indigenous troops at the heart of imperialism, and the rifle range at the heart of such training in our era, the range is truly the center of it all.

"Every time you fire, a bad guy should bleed!" Sergeant Rivera yelled. "Aim for the high center torso. Any hit is good. Don't worry about carving up the bull's-eye. This isn't target shooting. It's about fighting with a gun." He spoke with a Bronx accent, his voice at once loud, grating, and intimate. Because Rivera was a specialist in weaponry and the related field of close-quarters combat, Coughlin—who, as Gunny, technically outranked him—deferred to him.

A Nigerien major, Moussa Salou Barmou, translated Rivera's commands into French and Hausa for his soldiers. Major Moussa had trained with the U.S. Army at Fort Benning, Georgia, and with the Ivorians, the Cameroonians, and the Pakistanis. "I didn't know what real combat was about until Fort Benning," he told me. "The Americans have the money to simulate war in training, unlike other armies. But I wish the Americans could see how the rebels settle in our border towns in the desert and marry local girls so that they become invisible, so that you don't know who you have to fight." Because Major Moussa outranked the Marine noncoms, each made sure to address him as "Sir."

Rivera went on. The Nigeriens were only fifteen yards out from the targets—paper silhouettes of soldiers aiming their guns. "You will all fire a controlled pair followed by a hammer," he explained. "A controlled pair is two slow shots. A hammer is two fast ones. Shooting a hammer, the rifle will recoil twice. You won't have time to readjust, meaning with a fucked-up body position you will miss the target at least once. And that"—he was now shouting—"is unacceptable!"

Rivera demonstrated, repeating and yelling everything, sometimes mixing English with French in his Bronx accent: "En position. Levez la sécurité. Feu! Avancez." Meanwhile, Coughlin, Long, and Singley worked quietly with individual soldiers. Major Moussa did his part, in one case shoving his knee behind that of one of his soldiers to ease him into the correct body position. I remembered a young Filipino lieutenant who constantly had to be told by an American noncom to pay attention to his own troops. That wasn't necessary here.

Rivera now made them repeat the drill from twenty-five yards out, this time while changing magazines: "Don't bend down. Just let the magazine drop. Minimize your movements or you're gonna fucking die." He demonstrated shooting and changing magazines while closing the distance from twenty-five to fifteen yards. The impressive thing was what wasn't happening: there were no wasted movements. "Notice," he said, "I'm not fast. I'm just smooth. It's not about speed but about efficiency."

Later he taught them how to unjam their AK-47s while also changing magazines and closing the distance with the enemy. "This isn't target practice!" he kept shouting. "This is about killing people!" During the entire morning Rivera only once checked the targets to see how accurately the soldiers were shooting. As long as they were hitting the silhouettes or just the paper, he was happy. He wanted them to be comfortable handling a rifle on the move in combat. He knew from assaults on mud-walled compounds in Afghanistan during the first weeks of the U.S.-led invasion there, in 2001, that survival was less a matter of a perfect shot than of getting a spare magazine quickly out of a side pocket.

Rivera liked the fact that the targets were man-shaped silhouettes rather than concentric circles. "If you're aiming at a bull's-eye, you're being programmed to shoot paper. If you're aiming at a silhouette, you're being programmed to kill motherfuckers."

"Standing is the most unstable platform for firing a rifle," he went on. "That's why fifty yards out is the farthest we will ever shoot standing up. At a hundred yards I'll drop to the prone in two seconds, but then I'll methodically put two in his chest so the motherfucker will die before he can find his iron sights. That way I'll live. And I wanna live, because back in America there are a lot of women that love me." Major Moussa translated, and his soldiers laughed loudly.

It was almost eleven. We had been on the range for four hours. The cordite had mixed with the rain to form a mist. "Etes-vous fatigués comme des demoiselles? [Are you tired like girls?]" Rivera shouted. Laughing hard, the Nigerien troops let out a resounding "Non!" Training continued for another hour, until the break for chow.

As we opened MREs (meals ready to eat), Rivera told me, "There ain't nothing I'd rather do than get shot at. But if I can't shoot or get shot at, just being on the range is heaven." His remark represented the essence of good morale. According to the military expert Edward Luttwak, soldiers and Marines complain all the time—but that doesn't mean morale is bad. Luttwak would be suspicious if they didn't complain. Bad morale is when troops have lost their spirit to fight.

By now the rain had stopped and the temperature was back over 100°. Training resumed for two more hours. At the end, still shouting, Rivera warned, "Ecoutez—tomorrow we'll do the drills with more magazine changes, because you're still fucking up. Remember, you're not learning how to shoot, but how to fight when you're tired and dirty. When you're tired and dirty and hurting, I want you to reach down and grab your balls. To find out what you're made of!"

Everybody laughed. This wasn't about being mature or sensitive. This was about motivating young African soldiers. And when each one of the Nigeriens walked over to the charismatic Rivera to shake his hand, it was clear that he knew how to do that.