Ambassador Christopher Dell, DCMA, spoke with journalists from Burkina Faso and Niger during their visit to AFRICOM headquarters
U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs
STUTTGART, Germany, Nov 28, 2012 Ambassador Christopher Dell, deputy to the commander for civil-military activities, U.S. Africa Command (U.S. AFRICOM), spoke with journalists from Burkina Faso and Niger during their visit to AFRICOM headquarters November 26-30, 2012, at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany.
An edited transcript follows:
(in progress )
AMBASSADOR DELL: "So I thought if I could, I might begin a little bit this morning by explaining who I am and why it is I'm sitting here wearing a suit and tie at a military a U.S. military command. And because I was warned in advance you're such a tough audience, I brought along reinforcements here: my colleague, also from the State Department, Ambassador Helen La Lime, who also works here at AFRICOM. So any hard questions, I'm going to turn to her and let her answer. (Laughter.)
Helen is also almost native French speaker, so and I know you've been around for several days, so I won't belabor the history of AFRICOM. You know that it was set up five years ago with the concept of being different from the other U.S. military combatant commands. The concept was that AFRICOM would make one of its principal focuses, if not the principal focus, engagement with the continent of Africa.
The philosophical idea underlying AFRICOM is that it is Africans themselves who are in the best position to provide security on the continent of Africa. AFRICOM does not exist to command Africans. Africans don't need to be commanded by anybody from outside of Africa. AFRICOM exists to command U.S. military forces in efforts involved in helping Africans develop their own security.
It was also understood that in order for us to engage effectively with Africa, given the diversity of challenges that the continent faces, each individual country faces, we needed what it was popularly called a whole-of-government approach. The entirety of the U.S. government needs to engage on questions of security in Africa, not simply the U.S. military.
Let me make that real for you as one specific example of many possible ones: the problem of HIV/AIDS as it affects African militaries. In our view, this has the potential and I think most of you would agree can undermine security within a country if the armed forces are devastated by AIDS. The U.S. military is very good at military medicine. It doesn't necessarily have the expertise in the United States government for dealing with the AIDS epidemic. Our expertise resides in the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Center for Disease Control, our public health service. And so AFRICOM includes representatives of the U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, who help with humanitarian assistance, with military medicine, if you will, helping the African militaries develop their response to the AIDS epidemic within the ranks of their service members, men and women.
I'm here as the deputy to the commander for civil-military affairs in order to have a senior diplomat involved at the highest decision-making levels of the command to ensure appropriate coordination with that entire range of U.S. government agencies, from the U.S. Geological Survey to AID to Department of Energy and a whole raft of others in between, and above all, to ensure that what AFRICOM is doing in terms of security cooperation, security partnerships in Africa is consistent with the broader objectives of U.S. foreign policy. So I spend a lot of time coordinating with the State Department about what AFRICOM is doing in Africa.
So that's who I am, that's why I'm here, that's what we're doing, and that's I hope given you at least something of a flavor of the approach that AFRICOM takes to the challenges of security in Africa today.
With that as background, I'm prepared to answer any questions you might have, specifically about my functions here, about the role of AFRICOM or whatever else is on your mind. I hope we can focus on questions concerning Africa. If you want to ask me about yesterday's resolution on Palestine at the U.N. (laughter) I'm going to say, I'm not the person that knows the answer to that question; contact the State Department spokesperson.
STAFF: Sir, we'll begin right here with (inaudible)
AMBASSADOR DELL: Please.
QUESTION: (Through interpreter.) Since I'm the first one to speak, I will thank you, Your Excellency, for talking being with us and talking to us on behalf of the whole delegation. We are very happy and honored.
AMBASSADOR DELL: Thank you.
QUESTION: (Through interpreter.) Usually when we hear ambassadors, it's usually someone who represents a country. As an ambassador but also considering the role you're playing as part of a command, how does how did that enrich your experience because of what you do as part of this team?
MR. DELL: Right. First, let me say, I mean, the title is an honorific. I'm not actually a confirmed ambassador sitting here before you today serving in an ambassadorial job at this command. I'm on detail to the Department of Defense as a civilian employee of the United States Department of State representing the State Department to the U.S. military, if you will.
I've served as ambassador twice in Africa, in Angola and Zimbabwe. And I think that answers your question in part. The U.S. military historically has had relatively limited engagement with Africa. We don't have a great professional body of serving officers who have lived and worked in and with Africa for a long time. I have lived and worked in Africa for nine years of my career. Ambassador La Lime has served there many times, was raised in Africa as a small girl. So we bring a certain amount of real-world African experience with us. We've lived there; we've wrestled with these problems.
I hope that we have a broader perspective from that experience beyond just military questions to understanding really Africa as a continent, the various countries, the broad challenges your societies face, and recognizing they're all very different, of course.
And frankly, there's a difference between looking at Africa as a military problem, as a map where you face security challenges and approaching it as a military problem and understanding Africa as countries, as societies, as people. And I think that that perspective is what we civilians, what we career diplomats bring to enrich AFRICOMMs understanding of the security challenges that Africa faces today as mountains, as lakes, as geographic challenges and enemies I hope that answers your question and gives you some understanding of what we're doing.
QUESTION: (Through interpreter.) I have a question of the situation in northern Mali. Because of what's going on there, a lot of folks have been displaced. There are refugees. I would like to know what AFRICOM is doing or has done to help relieve some of the suffering that these folks are going through.
AMBASSADOR DELL: It's not the role of AFRICOM to be the first-line responder to humanitarian crises. We have other agencies of the U.S. government that have greater expertise, experience, professional understanding of those challenges, the Agency for International Development first and foremost, but not exclusively USAID. In extreme circumstances, usually remote places, extremely difficult access, the U.S. military will sometimes support the civilian agencies, whether it be AID or Africare or World Vision or one of these specialized NGO groups, by providing those skills and assets that are not available. So this typically involves being able to fly things in to unfinished landing strips in very difficult, remote areas.
But the U.S. again, I want to underscore the U.S. military does not attempt to be the one place we turn to for every answer to every challenge. That would be inappropriate. You know, we have an expression in English, if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. And that's not the approach we need to take in Africa.
QUESTION: (Through interpreter.) from your biography, sir, I can tell that you have worked in a couple of African countries. But what kind of information do you have, or what kind of understanding do you have of the situations in other countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso?
AMBASSADOR DELL: It's true that I don't have experience working in every country in Africa. I don't know that anybody could. Ambassador Carson, perhaps, is an exception. But I think that, having spent now a third of my career working in Africa, I have a broad understanding, a general understanding of the cultural differences between the United States and Africa as a whole, again and with full recognition that each country as a special case as well.
One of the main things diplomats have to be are translators of foreign countries and cultures to their own government, to their own country. And one of the skills you have to learn is to quickly begin to come to understand, develop some kind of understanding of those countries, of the differences. And I think that that's once you learn the approach and how to begin to understand that, you can quickly come to learn a lot about other places. So, yes, I've never lived in Niger or Burkina Faso, but over the last two or three months, I've learned an awful lot about your countries. I have a lot more to learn and I don't pretend I'm an expert, but I can bring that appreciation of the difference and help our military understand how to understand you, if I'm making myself understood.
We have lots of people who are country-matter experts. I hope what a senior diplomat can bring to the command is an appreciation for the broader sensitivities in Africa, the context, the broader context, as well as, again, my personal professional experience working with the governmental processes in Washington on the civilian side.
QUESTION: (Through interpreter.) On your agenda, what are the main projects that you have concerning activities in Africa?
AMBASSADOR DELL: You know, over the last, I think that the command as a whole, it's clear that over the last year, 18 months, perhaps two years, Northern Africa, I think, has become a much more central focus of activity. That's A direct response to the events that have taken place there, the Arab Spring, in the first instance, and secondly or the so-called Arab Spring, as it's affected Northern Africa and secondly, the spread of extremist groups throughout that region.
I think a second priority for the command has to be maritime security around the entire coast of Africa, partly as a response to the growing challenge of piracy, both in the east and the west, but I think also a recognition of the growing importance of African coastal waters, whether you're talking about the fisheries or energy as a source of energy, global energy resource. This matters to the world to the United States, in the first instance, but to all of us.
And I'll tell you one thing that doesn't seem to be a priority and, I think, is a good-news story. I was away from Africa for five years, working in Afghanistan and Kosovo, and I was really surprised, coming back to African issues, how HIV/AIDS is no longer the first thing everyone wants to talk about when you discuss Africa, whether it's the population as a whole or the military in particular. And, you know, I think a lot of credit is due to former President Bush, the creation of the PEPFAR program and the decision to make antiretrovirals so widely available.
We all understand that AIDS is still a terrible disease and it affects millions of people in Africa, but it's no longer an automatic death sentence. It's now a chronic condition that can be managed over time. That's been a huge change and, I think, a huge change in terms of security for the continent as well as the general health of the population.
I want to give everybody a chance to ask a question. Yeah, please.
QUESTION: (Through interpreter.) The officers of the command that go on the ground, on the continent, as far as operations or activities, what is their relationship and how do they coordinate with embassies on the ground?
AMBASSADOR DELL: Sure. That's a very good question. General Ham, the commanding officer of AFRICOM, makes it clear in virtually every meeting, in discussions with his people when we're discussing deployments or people visiting for training, et cetera, that when you get to a given country, your boss is the American ambassador. No training exercise, no security assistance, no visit can take place without the permission of the embassy. That, by the way, is not a policy that's specific to Africa. That's our, the U.S. government's approach in every country and every region throughout the globe.
The ambassador is the only person in any country, whether it's Africa or elsewhere, who is the personal representative of the president of the United States. And that's reinforced with the authorities the ambassador has to approve or disallow military visits, exercises, programs of all kind. Now, the specific coordination takes place between the defense attache' and/or the security cooperation office, who work for the ambassador inside the embassy.
QUESTION: (Through interpreter.) So Africans have been, for almost 50 years, or maybe more, in a playing the role of the assisted. They've been receiving support from someone else. They're tired of that. But the good news for Africans in general is that AFRICOM has come to liberate them of that. But it's kind of tough because not everybody really believes it, unfortunately, because they remember one thing that General de Gaulle had said. And he said that states have interests; they don't have friends. It's like we have developed a block in our mind, even I. I've been here. You've given me all this information, and I believe it. But it's kind of tough for me to really believe it. So AFRICOM really has a revolutionary approach, positively so. And we really do think it's sincere and that it's going to work.
AMBASSADOR DELL: Well, you've said it better than I could, so I'll just say yes. (laughter)
Let me begin by saying this: The United States, like so many countries in Africa, was born out of a colonial situation. It's built into who we are as a nation to understand that a colonial legacy is not a good thing, and it's something that has to be overcome and left behind. And I can't say that we're over it entirely, but it's taken 200 years for us to become who we are, having begun as a colony of Great Britain back in 3(00), 400 years ago.
I won't insult you by saying our experience was just like yours or as difficult as yours, but we understand why it's important for countries to take matters in their own hands. And that informs not just the policies of AFRICOM today but who Americans are as a nation, as a people. And there are good and bad aspects to our history. And you know, we don't have to rehearse all that today. You know those as well as I do.
But fundamentally, we understand when General Ham says Africans are best placed to decide their own security, to deal with their own problems themselves, that's not a slogan; that's who America is. That's what we believe. Yes, America has interests, more or less eternal. We can pursue our interests by working with you. Like the best marriages, like the best families, everybody is better off when it's a partnership, not when it's the domination of one person over the other. And the ladies here will support me in that when I say that. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: (Through interpreter.) What I would like to know is what motivated AFRICOM, as a command, to initiate such delegation visits?
AMBASSADOR DELL: Sure. That's very easy. We don't think we have anything to hide. We think that there's a lot of legends about what AFRICOM is that circulate around the continent. We think it's the easiest way to dispel those to let you come and see for yourselves. We present who we are. You'll draw your own conclusions and go home and write what it is you choose to write about AFRICOM. Hopefully, having seen it for yourselves, some of the some of the myths it'll be demystified for you to some extent. If not, we're going to fire Colonel Davis and Ken, so (laughter)
QUESTION: (Through interpreter.) My question is does America, or does the command in particular, consider the Chinese military support to some African forces as a threat? Or is it or do you see it as maybe something helpful to bring about security and stability?
AMBASSADOR DELL: I don't think we view China's role in Africa as a threat. Certainly we will be competing with each other. But that doesn't have to I mean well, we compete even with our closest allies for access to the same things in Africa. I don't see that as necessarily a hostile situation. It's a quite normal thing. And again, African governments, African countries will decide for themselves whether what China has to offer is of greater value or not than what the United States can offer. We're pretty confident that what our military has to offer in terms of security partnership offers Africa the best in the world today. It's there for them to take advantage of. If they choose not to and they want to go with second-best, that's OK.
QUESTION: (Through interpreter.) So as far as Africa is concerned, history will be the judge. It will be really too early to actually state a judgment about AFRICOM. We have a hard time forgetting what happened with the colonials, with the colonial powers. When they came, they did everything they could. They created conflict between us so that they could take our resources. Everything that they gave us, we call it a poisoned gift, if you may. Everything they gave us, we took it, and eventually we found out that it was actually for their own interest. So we're hoping that's not going to be the case for AFRICOM. We're optimistic, but only it'll be a matter of time. Only history can tell.
AMBASSADOR DELL: Only history can tell, and you will be the judges. (Laughter.)
Thank you all very much.(Applause.) Have a good trip home. Bon voyage, safe travels. Thank you.