A large U.S. military presence in Africa is “not appropriate” and not “particularly helpful” to achieving the shared security objectives of the United States and its African partners, according to General Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).
“We don’t need a large presence,” he told journalists from South Africa visiting the headquarters last week. “It’s not appropriate. And as a military commander, I don’t think it would be particularly helpful.”
U.S. Africa Command’s outgoing commander emphasized that the command focuses on tailored engagement strategies, consisting of small teams that travel to African nations to work for a limited time with their hosts.
“I think we're best when we tailor our U.S. military presence and support to the specific requests and needs of a particular country or a particular region,” he said.
African Union Mission in Somalia Shows Value of Small Team Support
He cited the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, as an example of the effectiveness of U.S. military support to an African-led endeavor. A State Department-led initiative called African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance Program, commonly referred to as ACOTA, has provided the preponderance of pre-deployment training to AMISOM forces since 2007. The program is funded and managed by the State Department.
ACOTA is designed to improve African militaries’ capabilities by providing a full range of training and equipment necessary for multinational peace support operations, tailored to match a country’s needs and capabilities.
AFRICOM supports ACOTA by providing military mentors, trainers, and advisors when asked by the State Department, which conducts training programs principally with civilian contractors. ACOTA training has taken place, or is ongoing, in 25 African nations.
“I think that's a pretty good model for us to follow … where there is an African view, an African plan, an African-led operation where they've asked for a little bit of help,” Ham said. “We were asked by Africans to support an African-led activity, and I think that's when we're at our best.”
Regionally Aligned Force Provides Tailored Units
Ham clarified a false assumption that the U.S. military is deploying thousands of troops to Africa under the U.S. Army’s Regionally Aligned Force.
The Army is aligning a brigade based at Fort Riley, Kansas, to AFRICOM for a year to support a wide range of training and familiarization activities, such as ACOTA, along with exercises and traditional military-to-military exchanges. “What it affords me that I haven't had before is the predictable availability of forces. It has allowed us now in our interactions with African leaders, with military leaders, as we plan training exercises and other kinds of engagement – we now know that we have this force available. So we can solidify our plans.”
Reports that all 4,000 or so soldiers assigned to the brigade will deploy en masse are incorrect, and Ham clarified this for the journalists, emphasizing that small teams from the brigade will travel to African nations to conduct their activities with host nation militaries for a short period of time and return to Fort Riley when finished.
“Although it is a brigade, which is a big organization, (it) won't ever be at one place at one time. Again, we're better when we apply tailored application of forces. So in some cases, the element from the brigade might be something so small as a five- or a 10-person medical team. In other cases, it might be an engineering company helping with a small construction project,” Ham explained.
African Nations are Best Able to Address their Security Challenges
AFRICOM’s guiding principles, personally written by General Ham soon after he took command in 2011, emphasize that African nations are best able to address their security challenges, but the U.S. can help when asked.
“We very firmly believe in African solutions to African problems. My president has said it. The former secretary of State has said it. I've said it. We firmly believe it. But we also believe that we can help when asked.”
He cited others areas where U.S. military help is making a difference, such as maritime security along the West African coast and in the Gulf of Guinea, and continuing to assist Liberia develop its nascent armed forces.
“There are many other examples where, when invited by a government to help and to partner with them, I think we can provide needed assistance. That doesn't mean that we need to be or ought to be every place all the time. We don't want to go where we're not welcome or not invited or not needed.”
AFRICOM is one of six of the U.S. Defense Department's geographic unified commands and is responsible to the Secretary of Defense for military relations with African nations, the African Union, and African regional security organizations. AFRICOM oversees all U.S. Department of Defense operations, exercises, and security cooperation with African nations. AFRICOM’s core mission of assisting African states and regional organizations to strengthen their defense capabilities better enables partner nations to address their security threats and advances U.S. national security interests through focused, sustained engagement with partners in support of shared security objectives.
The U.S. military maintains one enduring location in Africa at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, home to the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, AFRICOM’s only sub-organization on the continent. About 2,000 U.S. military service members are assigned there are any one time, some of whom travel to neighboring nations to conduct military-to-military engagements and support U.S. government foreign military training programs with host nation militaries.