The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) is well on the way to achieving the goals for its creation — building stronger partnerships and increased coordination between the United States and sub-Saharan African governments and regional organizations.
AFRICOM’s commander, General David Rodriguez, said the 5-year-old Defense Department campaign is working to achieve a more “safe and secure Africa.” Rodriguez spoke with a group of African journalists via webcast October 23 from the State Department in Washington. Rodriguez said security has improved in the region in recent years.
“Partners in East, North and West Africa have made progress in countering violent extremist organizations such as al-Shabaab and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, with some U.S. capacity-building and enabling support,” said Rodriguez.
The AFRICOM commander was joined in the webcast by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield. As an observer of the growing partnership between U.S. forces and African partners since the beginning, she says AFRICOM has elevated U.S. interests in the region to new levels.
“What is new with AFRICOM over the past five years is that we’re more engaged, it’s more direct, it’s more coordinated, it’s more strategic than it’s been in the past,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
Memories of the September terrorist attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall remain vivid for the journalists talking to the two U.S. officials. Kenyan security forces ultimately ended the three-day standoff with al-Shabaab gunmen, in which dozens were killed and more than 100 injured.
AFRICOM is dedicated to ensuring effective responses by local forces to attacks in the future, Rodriguez said.
“We’re going to continue to work with our partners to strengthen their capabilities to stop al-Shabaab from having the incredibly negative impact on both the people of Somalia as well as the region,” Rodriguez said.
The Westgate attackers reportedly staged the assault in retaliation for the involvement of Kenyan forces in the long-standing conflict in neighboring Somalia. Thomas-Greenfield said U.S. efforts are also focused on strengthening political and security infrastructure in that Horn of Africa nation to create a greater sense of stability for Somalis.
In West Africa, the Boko Haram terrorist group threatens both civilian safety and national security. Thomas-Greenfield said U.S. officials have been discussing effective responses with the Nigerian government.
“We have had a number of conversations and discussions with the Nigerian government on how to address this issue in terms of addressing the broad development issues in north Nigeria, but also in how the government responds to the threat that Boko Haram is posing in that region ….
“Our suggestion to the government is that they need a broad perspective. It’s not all about security. They do have to take into account the impact of their operations on civilian populations, and hopefully as they go after Boko Haram, that they build a partnership with the civilian community. We are prepared to work with the government on training so that they can deal with human rights concerns as they approach the government — as they approach this issue. But also, we want to make sure that we help them with their capacity as well to deal with the security threat,” Thomas-Greenfield told the journalists.
AFRICOM is engaged in military-to-military relationships in Nigeria, advising “a whole-of-government [response to Boko Haram] that includes the people, the security forces and, of course, the government,” Rodriguez said.
“It’s a tough, tough issue up there in that northeast where Boko Haram is, and we’re all working together from many different directions to help move this forward and support the Nigerians in this struggle,” Rodriguez continued.
Boko Haram is an Islamist, anti-Western military organization, responsible for killings, bombings, kidnappings and other attacks in Nigeria, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries and the widespread destruction of property, according to the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2012. The group’s attacks have killed more than 3,000 in the last several years, according to some sources.
In rounding out AFRICOM’s activities across the continent, Rodriguez said the U.S. command is also fully engaged “with the African Union, the regional economic councils and all the partner nations who contribute to the peacekeeping operations to advise and assist them and help build their capacity and strengthen their defense capabilities.”
U.S. efforts to support counterterrorism activities in Africa are based in the mutual recognition, these officials say, that terrorism anywhere is a threat to people everywhere.
Rodriguez and Thomas-Greenfield appeared on the LiveAtState webcast October 23, joined via the Internet by journalists in South Africa, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Malawi, Zambia, Niger, Tanzania and Nigeria.