See also: 2012 Posture Statement and Transcript of Ham's opening remarks.
Security in Africa continues to be influenced by external actors, and countering security threats in east and northwest Africa is the top concern for U.S. Africa Command, General Carter F. Ham told members of the House Armed Services Committee during annual testimony February 29, 2012, in Washington, D.C.
"Countering the threats posed by al-Qa'ida affiliates in east and northwest Africa remains my number one priority," he said.
But Ham also noted that U.S. AFRICOM would continue its strategy of a "small footprint" in Africa and encourage African partners to continue their leadership in stabilizing the region.
Strengthening the defense capabilities of partner nations through a variety of operations, exercises and security cooperation activities to better enable partners to provide for their own security "remains an integral part of what we do," Ham said.
"I believe in the long run it is Africans who are best able to address African security challenges," he said.
Ham and Admiral James G. Stavridis, commander of U.S. European Command, testified for two hours as part of the Armed Services Committee's annual budget hearings. Committee members peppered Ham with questions on everything from transitioning governments to the best location for AFRICOM headquarters.
Ham pointed out that key security challenges include the activities of al-Qa'ida and its affiliates in East Africa, the Maghreb and the Sahel. Of particular concern, according to Ham, is the potential for support and strengthening of ties between al-Shabaab, al-Qa'ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, and Boko Haram with al-Qai'da senior leadership.
Somalia, where al-Shabaab controls parts of the country, is an area of international focus, Ham told the committee.
He said the February 23 London Conference on Somalia, a gathering of 55 world leaders, was a significant step because it highlighted the question of how the international community will help Somalia as it transitions to a new government. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) maintains thousands of African troops in Somalia to help provide security for Somalia's Transitional Federal Government.
Ham testified that the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense have helped Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and Kenya build capable forces to operate inside Somalia as part of the AMISOM force.
"If that is successful, and I believe the trend line is pretty good right now, that means that that's an area where the United States would not have to commit sizeable forces to address a security situation," Ham said.
As countries stabilize, Ham said, the focus of such partnerships shift.
He cited Tunisia, where the United States has had a longstanding partnership. But now that the country has a transitioning government, the emphasis is on more professional training.
And, as countries transition, more opportunities for partnership are open.
"In Libya, for example, where we did not previously have a military-to-military relationship, we do now," Ham said.
Ham was queried on whether AFRICOM should leave Europe, a question that has loomed ever since the command was formed in 2007 in Stuttgart, Germany.
He replied that staying in Europe is the most cost-effective option. Stavridis pointed out that geographically it makes sense to have AFRICOM in Europe.
The United States does make use of one enduring military base in Africa. Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti, a former French military installation, serves as a base of operations for U.S. and allied forces providing support to regional security activities.
It is also home to the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) the U.S. Africa Command organization that conducts operations in the region to enhance partner nation capacity, promote regional security and stability, dissuade conflict, and protect U.S. and coalition interests.
"It is a vital installation for us," Ham said.
He said Camp Lemonnier has been key in the effort against piracy and played a crucial role in the January rescue by U.S. military personnel of two aid workers held hostage in Somalia.
"It would have been extraordinarily difficult to have executed that mission without the basing in Djibouti," Ham said.
In response to a question about U.S.-Africa relations over the next decade, Ham told the committee that AFRICOM would continue to emphasize partnership efforts..
"We obviously always want to preserve the capability to conduct whatever
military operations might be necessary," Ham said. "But it is far better if we can focus our efforts on preventative measures by, with and through our African partners."
See also: Video on HASC website