The Honorable Lloyd Austin III, secretary of defense, and U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke as Army Gen. Stephen Townsend turned over command to Marine Corps Gen. Michael Langley.
The command is only 15 years old and has embraced its mission of "working shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners" to make all nations safer and more prosperous, Austin said.
America's most important advantage is its unparalleled network of allies and partners that is at the heart of U.S. National Defense Strategy.
Africa is a huge and diverse continent with hundreds of languages, multiple ethnic backgrounds, different religions and a range of cultures. The nations of the continent have much promise, but also face many threats.
"The continent is on the front lines of many of this century's most pressing threats — from mass migration to food insecurity, from COVID-19 to the climate crisis, from the drumbeat of autocracy to the dangers of terrorism," Austin said. "These challenges threaten us all together. So, we must tackle them all together."
U.S. Africa Command is a prominent portion of this effort alongside U.S. partners from the State Department, the Agency for International Development and more, Austin said. "Every day, AFRICOM works alongside our friends as full partners — to strengthen bonds, to tackle common threats and to advance a shared vision of an Africa whose people are safe, prosperous and free to choose their own future," he said. "We've seen the power of partnership in Somalia, where AFRICOM supports our partners as they lead the fight against al-Shabaab. That cooperation is especially crucial as its attacks on civilians grow more lethal, brazen and cruel."
Al-Shabaab is only one terrorist threat on the continent. There are many groups — including al-Qaida and the Islamic States — exploiting weak governance and political turmoil in the Sahel region that stretches across the continent just south of the Sahara Desert. "These groups have taken thousands of lives — and the havoc that they cause threatens to spill across borders to undermine security in Southern Europe and beyond," Austin said.
AFRICOM is also supporting other efforts to make Africa safer including efforts to unlock the continent's opportunities, to deepen military interoperability and build stronger democratic institutions. "This work isn't easy," the secretary said. "Across Africa, those who support democracy, freedom and the rule of law are battling the forces of autocracy, chaos and corruption."
He specifically mentioned Tunisia where events are working against the dream of self-government. "But the United States stands committed to supporting our friends in Tunisia — and anywhere in Africa — who are trying to forge open, accountable and inclusive democracies," Austin said.
In other parts of Africa, there are other threats to democracy. In some nations, leaders are cracking down on civil liberties, giving in to corruption or stifling the will of the people. And some African militaries have pushed out civilian governments. "Let's be clear: a military exists to serve its people — not the other way around," Austin said. "And militaries must play their legitimate role. That means defending human rights and protecting the rule of law, not toppling civilian governments and wallowing in corruption."
The secretary said it is particularly important now as "autocracy is on the march around the world, and that includes outsiders who are working to tighten their grip on the continent."
The People's Republic of China is expanding its military footprint, seeking to build bases in Africa and undermine U.S. relations with African peoples, governments and militaries, the secretary said. "Meanwhile, Russia is peddling cheap weapons and backing mercenary forces. That's yet another reminder of Moscow's willingness to sow chaos and threaten the rules-based international order — and it goes far beyond [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s reckless invasion of Ukraine."
Africa deserves the protections of the international rules and norms that advance safety and prosperity for all. "That gives the nations of Africa a clear-eyed choice of partners," Austin said.
Milley stressed that AFRICOM works to counter terrorist networks that challenge freedom and stability with a small footprint. The chairman called the command "responsive and adaptive," well able to cope with the changing landscape on the ground. "This command acts at the speed of relevance," the general said.
AFRICOM continues to thwart the Islamic State and al-Qaida and other terror groups, he said. Much of the action is taken by partner nations with help and training from AFRICOM including U.S. Army security force assistance brigades, special forces soldiers executing joint combined exercise training programs, and from the U.S. National Guard working through state partnership programs.
In his remarks, Townsend said his three years in AFRICOM have been an education. "Africa is fascinating — the continent is big, complex and diverse," he said. "America cannot afford to ignore Africa. The continent is full of potential but also full of challenges and it's standing at a historic crossroads. On one side is authoritarianism and foreign malign influence, along with the terrorism and food and economic insecurity that goes with it. On the other side is peace, security, democracy, development and rule of law. Africa's future will have global impact."
AFRICOM must continue to work with allies, partners and interagencies across the continent to secure enduring peace and prosperity — for Africa and for America. "America's future security, and I believe prosperity, depends on a more secure and prosperous Africa," he said. "A few bucks and a few troops can go a long way there — we can afford it."
The change of command ceremony was itself significant. A senior defense official traveling with Austin told reporters that African leaders see an African-American secretary of defense, an African-American commander of U.S. Africa Command and a deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs of African descent.
"There's probably a sense that they have a connection to the diaspora that they should be tapping into," the official said. African leaders see these leaders "focusing on the security challenges which are most important to our African partners."
Langley kept his remarks on point. He thanked Townsend for his efforts at the command and vowed to continue the work to build partnerships in Africa.
Langley's father — an Air Force master sergeant — raised the general and his three siblings alone after the general's mother died. "Dad, this one's for you," the general said.