By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Dec. 04, 2012) -- While the United States has military forces in Africa, they are mostly limited to small groups who have specific, time-limited tasks. That setup, said Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander, U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, is ideally suited to Africa, where militaries there are able to, and should take care of their own, with the help of some U.S. support.
"We think we do that best by developing and strengthening the defense capabilities of our African partners, so they are increasingly capable of providing for their own defense, and for contributing to regional defense, stability and security," Ham said, during a presentation, Dec. 3, at the Institute of Land Warfare's Gen. Bernard W. Rogers Strategic Issues Forum.
The general said that AFRICOM is predominantly involved in a supporting and enabling role, though he said AFRICOM remains ready to execute the operational military directives of the president, such as in Libya.
The United States has other policy tools in place in Africa, furthering U.S. goals there to promote opportunity and development, spur economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions and advance peace and security. It is the advancement of peace and security where AFRICOM plays its most dominant role, Ham said.
The U.S. military in Africa plays out its role there, primarily through partnerships with African militaries, by providing training and guidance, to strengthen those militaries and to enable them to fight their own battles.
"Strengthening of the defense capabilities -- it's the bread and butter of what we do at U.S. AFRICOM," Ham said. The command is also ready, he said, to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as to respond to and prevent mass atrocities.
In Africa, he said, quoting DOD strategic guidance, the US will have an "innovative and light footprint approach."
"We don't need large-scale U.S. armed forces operating in Africa," Ham said. "We are much better when we have small tailored forces, that are there for a specific purpose, usually time-limited, to accomplish a specific objective."
As defined in the Department of Defense's 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, the Pacific region has been named a priority, but Ham said that the new guidance doesn't mean the U.S. is no longer interested in Africa. To the contrary, a primary goal stated in the same guidance indicates that the countering of extremist organizations is also a priority.
"It's a sad fact that violent extremist organizations are present in Africa," Ham said. "So that becomes our highest priority."
The general spelled out four specific extremist hotspots in Africa that are of concern to the United States.
In Somalia, he said, the presence of the extremist group al Shabaab, an affiliate of al Qaeda, is of concern. "They have controlled Somalia for the past nearly 20 years," he said.
But now, the general said, Somalia has an elected president, a constitution, and a parliament. Al Shabaab is out of Mogadishu and "mostly out of Kismayo."
That success is in part due to the efforts of the African-led effort, Ham said.
"It's happened because the Africans decided that they were going to put forward the effort to do this," he said. "And I think this is perhaps a model for us to think about for other endeavors in Africa and other places. I think the reason the African Union mission in Somalia has been successful is because it has been African-led, it has been African troops on the ground."
The U.S. provides training, equipping and logistical support of the African forces who have worked in Somalia, Ham said, "but it is African forces who are fighting this fight, and led by African commanders and I think that is what has made the difference. And I think it's a pretty extraordinary achievement and maybe indicative of what might be possible."
Now, he said, Al Shabaab in Somalia, is "essentially in survival mode, because they are under duress from many directions." He was clear, however, that the extremist group is not defeated, and there is work still to be done. The focus now, he said, is to help train Somali forces to provide for their own defense, and not just to rely on outside African forces.
After NATO operations in Libya, and the fall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in 2011, the Libyans have formed a "fragile government" that Ham said extremist organizations, some with ties to al Qaeda, are looking for opportunities with.
With a lack of governmental institutions such as a military force, a police force, border security forces, or a national intelligence service, Ham said, extremist groups in Libya "seek to establish or in many cases re-establish networks that have been previously operating inside Libya."
AFRICOM efforts, Ham said, must help strengthen the Libyan government so they can deal with the threats.
As a result of a military coup earlier this year, an absence of government in northern Mali has left it a "safe haven" for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a militant Islamic group, Ham said.
"The absence of government is very evident in northern Mali," Ham said.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is the wealthiest affiliate of al Qaeda, and earns money from kidnapping for ransom, the drug trade and other trafficking.
"They have a lot of money and they have a lot of weapons," Ham said. "In the aftermath of fighting in Libya, many of the fighters who had been paid mercenaries, paid by Mr. Gaddafi, when they realized that they were either not going to be paid or that he was no longer going to be in power, they left Libya and they brought their weapons with them and many of them came to northern Mali, where they present a real threat."
Ham said the well-financed AQIM are establishing training camps and a "very sophisticated recruiting effort" to strengthen their goals.
"I think this is a very dangerous situation, not only for the Malians, but for the region, and more broadly for Europe and eventually for the United States," Ham said. "It's clear to me that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb aspires to attack in Europe and in the United States."
But there is an opportunity now, Ham said, with an African-led endeavor, to re-establish security in northern Mali.
Finally, in Nigeria, Ham said, is the growing threat of the Boko Haram terrorist organization, which operates in the mostly Muslim northern part of the country.
"They seek to undermine the central government in Abuja," he said, and impose Islamic law across the northern portion of Nigeria.
"They are increasingly violent in their behavior; attacking universities, colleges, and Christian churches throughout the country. It's a very dangerous organization. They are not yet capable of extending their activities beyond the borders of Nigeria, but I think it's a matter of time before they are able to do so."
Ham said he's concerned that the extremist and terrorist groups across Africa are now developing connections, and sharing funding, tactics, techniques and procedures, explosives, munitions and weapons.
The groups, he said, are "collaborating and coordinating their efforts. It's that synchronization (of) these various extremist organizations that to me is really worrisome."
AFRICOM must now focus efforts on a regional basis, Ham said. "The threats present themselves regionally in an interconnected manner and I think it will require a regional approach to counter them."
The U.S. is working with the African Union to help them address the threats.
Ham also addressed the threat of Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army, and said the United States is "committed to helping the four countries involved," including Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The U.S. will help those countries "coordinate their efforts from an information standpoint, from an intelligence standpoint, from a humanitarian standpoint, from economic development standpoint, and yes from a military standpoint, to capture Kony and his senior leaders and bring them to justice."
The Lord's Resistance Army claims to want democracy in Uganda, but has been accused of human rights violations such as sexual slavery with children, rape, murder, kidnapping, and using children as soldiers in their fight.
Ham said efforts to stymie the LRA have been fruitful, in that they have weekened the group.
"We have seen very clearly that Kony and his leaders are much more focused on survival than they are on conducting the kinds of activities they have over the past many years," Ham said.
African and U.S. efforts, he said, have contributed to defections and escapes from the LRA, and those people have provided information that may eventually help bring Kony to justice.