TRANSCRIPT: Press Conference in Senegal with General Ham
U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs
At the press conference, Ham was asked multiple questions regarding the current situation in Mali, including establishing military bases there. General Ham answered, "ThereeeeÃ?s no - is no consideration of a - of a U.S. base in Mali. The role of any possible international force is, I think, very much the topic of discussion for ECOWAS."
Below is the full transcript from the press conference.
GENERAL CARTER HAM: (In progress) - is to meet with the senior Senegalese officials, to strengthen our cooperation and to seek ways to enhance the military-to-military relationship that exists between the United States and Senegal.
I was here just a few weeks ago observing a multinational exercise that was conducted here in Senegal. And I think that exercise is a good example of the leading role that Senegal plays in this region. The military forces from Burkina Faso, from the Gambia, from Guinea-Conakry and the United States all joined Senegalese forces to train together and to increase their capabilities. And we'll look to do more of that kind of exercise in the future.
The - as you know, the military-to-military relationship between our two countries is very strong, but that doesn't mean it cannot improve, and General Fall and I are committed to finding ways to strengthen our relationship.
And with that, I would welcome your questions.
Q: David Lewis (ph) from Reuters. I'll focus on Mali; it's the region's biggest crisis at the moment. What evidence does AFRICOM have of the number of foreigners - foreign fighters do you have evidence of large numbers of foreign fighters who have come in from Mali, so, you know, what are we talking about in terms of - (off mic) - and where are they coming from in the north?
And the second question: What's your understanding of the relationship between the different Islamist groups that are occupying the north? Is there - is it possible to say there is a relationship, or is it very fluid between AQIM, MUJAO, Ansar Dine and other fighters?
GEN. HAM: David, we do not have a precise number of the - or assessment of the number of fighters who have joined the Ã? together in northern Mali. In my view, it is at least dozens, and perhaps in the low hundreds. It's - but it is very, very difficult to assess. Our insights into what is unfolding in northern Mali is, frankly, largely based on press reporting more than - more than just about anything else.
But it is clear that over the past few months, that foreign fighters and weapons have flown into northern Mali. Certainly at least some of that has come from Libya, which we have seen evidence of those movements, and I should at this point commend some of the neighboring states, particularly Niger and Algeria, for - and Tunisia for interdicting some of those movements of weapons and probably of fighters as well.
So not a - not a precise number. But what is clear is that certainly al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and others are stronger now than they were several months ago, and that creates a real danger, not only for Mali, but as you - as you state, for the region as well.
The relationship between the various groups is, in our assessment, very, very complex. We believe that the most dominant organization is AQIM. We think they are they - we think they are al-Qaida's best-funded, wealthiest affiliate. The relationship between AQIM and Ansar Dine is one that is - frankly, is difficult for us really to understand whether it is an arrangement of mutual interests or whether they are really closely ideologically aligned.
But I believe AQIM and Ansar Dine do have very different goals than the more politically oriented Tuareg groups or Azawad groups such as MNLA. The harshness that AQIM and Ansar Dine have applied to the people of northern Mali I think is indicative that - of this friction between the populace and these extremist organizations.
Q: (Through interpreter.) (Inaudible) -- The effects of the crisis in Mali -- considering that the instability in Mali - (inaudible) - North Africa and West Africa. That's my question. And the second question is I -(inaudible) - I wanted to ask if the U.S. is thinking of sending troops to northern Mali, considering that ECOWAS is asking for the U.N. to --(inaudible).
GEN. HAM: The - let me address the second question first, if I may. The United States has stated very clearly that we are supportive of the ECOWAS effort to help re-establish security in Mali. That does not mean that the U.S. will deploy troops. In fact, it's my opinion that the presence of U.S. troops in Mali would probably create more difficulty than it would contribute in a positive way. So the U.S. will look to ECOWAS for ideas on how we can contribute in ways other than a military presence. The U.S. already has been very supportive diplomatically of ECOWAS' efforts, and I think we would also consider requests for logistical assistance and matters such as that. But we do very strongly believe that this is a matter for ECOWAS, and we'll look to help.
To the - to the first question, which is, I think, a very complex question that gets to the issue of how did this situation in northern Mali develop, I think it is too simple to say that the NATO action in Libya caused the situation in northern Mali. While, as I indicated previously, it is clear that fighters and weapons from Libya have moved into northern Mali, that's not the - in my opinion is not the underlying cause of what happened in Mali. In my opinion, more directly was the ineffective way in which AQIM was addressed even before the situation in Libya unfolded.
As you all know, AQIM was present in northern Mali for many, many years. And I believe there were opportunities to counter AQIM over these past several years, but those opportunities were not taken advantage of. So AQIM gained strength, they gained a lot of money through kidnapping for ransoms, and they became a stronger and stronger organization. And certainly the availability of fighters and weapons from Libya made them stronger even still. But in my opinion, we missed - we the international community, we the Malian government, missed an opportunity to deal with AQIM when they were weak. And now the situation is much more difficult, and it will take greater effort, again, by the international community and certainly by a new Malian government, to address the situation in the north.
And to connect the Ã? your two questions, I really do believe that ECOWAS is the right organization to address this problem. But it has to - it has to begin with the re-establishment of legitimate government in Bamako.
Q: (Through interpreter.) What role does AFRICOM play now in surveying - watching over what's going in Mali at this moment?
GEN. HAM: At present we have very little ability to observe what's Ã? what is occurring in northern Mali. Previously we had a small number of U.S. personnel who were training Malian forces, and that gave us some insight. But today our ability is very limited. And so as I mentioned, to be truthful, most of our understanding of what is occurring in northern Mali comes from you, comes from news reporters. And certainly we work with neighboring countries and other partners to combine our efforts to better understand the situation in the north.
Q: (Through interpreter.) Military groups then possibly considered having a base there. (Inaudible.)
GEN. HAM: Yeah, so for AFRICOM, no. There's no Ã? is no consideration of a - of a U.S. base in Mali. The role of any possible international force is, I think, very much the topic of discussion for ECOWAS. As you all know, the ECOWAS heads of state have been having these discussions, and the military chiefs of defense are also engaged in discussions about the possible deployment of an international force. And of course, again, the necessary first step is to have a legitimate government in Bamako that ECOWAS and others can engage with.
Q: (Off mic.)
GEN. HAM: (Inaudible) - to the first question, we do have U.S. military persons in many places in Africa, in both a training and exercise role but also operationally. The U.S. military presence should be very small, and it should be always in support of a larger African-led effort. I have not yet had my meetings with any Senegalese officials; IIIIÃ?ll do that later today and tomorrow. But I do expect we will discuss concerns across the region of the - this stronger role that AQIM has now than they did even a few months ago.
Q: (Off mic.) So I just wanted to know, helping the region face this crisis Ã? (off mic) Ã? West African military forces. In what areas - (off mic) - committed to helping these countries achieve their goals - (off mic)?
GEN. HAM: Our engagement with the militaries of the region are specifically tailored for the requests of each nation. Some of the more common areas where we collaborate and cooperate are, for example, in the area of maritime security. For example, this afternoon, I'll go visit the - Senegal's Maritime Operations Center. Senegal leads a number of operations and exercises to counter drug trafficking, illegal fishing and other crimes that occur at sea, and our role is to find ways to help Senegal improve its coordination with its neighbors so that there can be a more effective enforcement of the laws at sea. We coordinate with Senegal and other countries in the region for training and equipping forces to participate in U.N. or African Union peacekeeping operations. The exercise which concluded last week here in Senegal included a portion of multi-national military medical teams who provided medical care to local citizens. Senegal has been a leader in the region, with a little bit of support from us, in coordinating the activities of the air forces of West Africa. So our military-to-military relationship is very broad ranging, but it is specifically focused on the requests that we receive from each nation.
Q: (Off mic.)
INTERPRETER: (Off mic.)
GEN. HAM: This was a - this was a planned visit. During this trip, I've been to Guinea Conakry, to Cape Verde and then concluding my visit here in Dakar. So it's a Ã? I try to find opportunities throughout the year to meet directly, especially with General Fall, to make sure that our activities are well-coordinated.
Q: OK. I read somewhere that U.S. is expected to send 3,000 - (off mic).
GEN. HAM: We will not send that many troops all at one time. A brigade-sized formation, which is about 3,000, training and exercises in Africa - (inaudible) - experts in one country, and in another country, perhaps, for training occurring at the same time.
Q: So is the U.S. prepared to carry out drone strikes in northern Mali if considered necessary?
Q: (Off mic) Ã? drug trafficking Ã? what role do you think Ã? how central Ã? (off mic) Ã?
GEN. HAM: I do not have any independent confirmation of Afghan or Pakistan or other foreign fighter presence in northern Mali, but certainly we have seen the same reports that you mentioned. We do believe that some of the mercenary fighters which had been paid for by the former regime in Libya probably are now operating in northern Mali. The - to your third question, the connection between the criminal activity and the terrorist and extremist organizations - I think there is a very clear linkage, in my opinion, between those two activities. It's very clear that AQIM conducts kidnappings for ransom, and the monies that they have received through that activity has enabled them to sustain and indeed to increase their level of activity in the region - (audio break) - that AQIM is also benefiting from the transfer of illegal narcotics through the region.
Do believe that the same networks, the same routes that are used for illegal drug trafficking are also the same networks that are used to move weapons, ammunition and explosives, and probably foreign fighters across North Africa. The activity of the U.S. unmanned systems - I think my government has been pretty clear about that in recent months. Our deputy national security adviser, Mr. Brennan, has made a pretty extensive speech about this matter - (audio break) - than those two reports. I think there is some utility in AQIM and other adversaries not knowing exactly what we might do or what we might not do in support of our African partners. So I'll just - David, I'll just let those two Washington reports stand on their own.
Good, well thank you all very much. This is, again, always a great place to come; not only is Senegal a very pleasant place, but our military partnership is very strong, and General Fall and I will seek to keep it stronger, and an important part of that is you, the press. The - asking tough questions I think is the role that the media is supposed to play.