For decades, Africa was arguably the most overlooked continent on the globe, with U.S. military involvement there shared among three combatant commands and engagement activities episodic at best.
But five years since the standup of U.S. Africa Command, its commander called Africa a land of great opportunity, but he also said the continent presents threats not only to the immediate region, but to the United States and its interests as well.
“There are a lot of reasons why Africa matters to the United States,” Army Gen. Carter F. Ham said during a recent interview with American Forces Press Service at his headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
Opportunity abounds on the continent, with some of the world’s fastest-growing economies and a young, vibrant and growing population that’s already topped a billion people, he noted. Meanwhile, Africa is experiencing growing democratization, with Africans increasingly choosing their own governments in a way that contributes to both regional and continental stability.
But amid these positive developments, Ham cited some negative trends he said have the potential to impact the security of America and its partners and allies.
Topping the list of why Africa matters to the United States, he said, is the presence of violent extremist organizations “that have very clearly articulated an intent to attack the United States, its allies, its citizens and its interests both within Africa and also more broadly, in Europe.”
Africom’s headquarters became fully operational in 2008, a decade after the near-simultaneous Aug. 7, 1998, terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. The years since then have witnessed additional terrorist activity, particularly in the Horn of Africa and Pan-Sahel regions.
Wide, ungoverned and under-governed spaces have proven to be fertile ground for violent extremism, Ham said. To the east, the al-Shabab terrorist organization announced in February that it had officially joined forces with al Qaeda’s senior leaders. Meanwhile, an al Qaeda affiliate known as al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb is working to undermine the rule of law and governments in North and West Africa, particularly the trans-Sahara region, with a goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate there.
More recently, a violent group known as Boko Haram has begun extending its influence in Northern Nigeria as it challenges the Nigerian central government.
“While each of those three organizations is of concern, the greatest concern to me is the apparent intent of those organizations to find ways where they can collaborate, cooperate and synchronize their efforts,” Ham said.
It’s a concern he shared with Congress in February. “If they are able to coordinate their efforts, share funding, training, weapons exchange and what have you, I think that presents a real challenge for us,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.
Preventing a merger of these like-minded organizations is a major focus of Africom as it works hand-in-hand with African partners every day through military-to-military programs, military-sponsored activities and other operations aimed at promoting a stable, secure Africa, the general said.
“To counter the threat posed by these three organizations, we do work by, with and through … the host-nation forces to increase their capability,” Ham told the House panel. “There are some times where it may be appropriate for U.S. forces to act,” he said, citing U.S. and NATO actions in Libya as an example. “But more generally, we’re better off when it is Africans leading with a bit of training and support [and] equipping from us.”
Ham underscored U.S. Africa Command’s most fundamental mission: “to advance the security interests of the United States, in our case, particularly in Africa.”
“Our primary role is to protect America, Americans and American interests from the threats that might emanate from the continent of Africa,” he said.
Doing so, Ham said, involves strengthening the capabilities of individual African states and regional organizations so they ultimately can provide their own security.
President Barack Obama, on visiting Ghana in 2009, recognized what’s been one of Africom’s guiding principles: that Africans themselves are best able to address African security challenges.
“The shorthand for that is, ‘African solutions to African problems,” Ham said. “We recognize that. And we try to abide by that in all that we do. So our efforts are taken largely by, with, and through our African partners,” with Africom and its service components almost always playing a supporting or “enabling” role.
“We train, we advise, we assist. Sometimes we provide equipment, but all in an effort to try to enable the Africans to address problems on their own,” he continued. “It is their region, it is their continent and while it is certainly in our interest for that continent to be stable, it is better if the Africans decide when and how to do that.”
Since taking command in March 2010, Ham said he’s been struck by the sense of optimism among the African partners he meets.
“They recognize the challenge they face, and they are realistic about that,” he said. “But they also have this sense that they are going to overcome those challenges and move forward.”