Africom Helps Partner Nations Grow Capability, Ham Says
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 15, 2013 Now in its fifth year, U.S. Africa Command brings “markedly increased” capabilities to its mission of defending U.S. interests and developing regional militaries, the command’s leader told Congress today.
During a House Armed Services Committee hearing, Army Gen. Carter F. Ham said both positive progress and emerging threats have this year demonstrated Africa’s strategic importance to the United States and its allies.
In prepared testimony, Carter said Africom staffs work closely with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to train African militaries and support development.
“Our integrated approach seeks to address the greatest near-term threats to our national security while simultaneously building long-term partnerships and fostering regional cooperation,” he said.
Ham explained the command focuses on five major areas: countering violent extremist organizations; strengthening maritime security and countering illicit trafficking; strengthening defense capabilities; maintaining strategic posture; and preparing for and responding to crises. Countering terrorism is the command’s highest priority and will remain so for some time, he added.
The general said three violent extremist organizations are of particular concern in Africa: al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, active in northern and western Africa; Boko Haram in Nigeria; and al-Shabaab in Somalia.
“The growing collaboration of these organizations heightens the danger they collectively represent,” he said. “Of the three organizations, AQIM, which exploited the instability that followed the coup d’état in Mali and seeks to establish an Islamic state in northern Mali, is currently the most likely to directly threaten U.S. national security interests in the near- term.”
Ham said Africom is aiding French and African military operations against AQIM and other terrorist organizations in northern Mali.
“We are supporting French efforts with information, airlift, and refueling, and are working with the Department of State to support the deployment of West African forces to the African-led International Support Mission to Mali,” he said. “Recently, we began unarmed, remotely piloted aircraft operations from Niger in support of intelligence gathering efforts in the region.”
Ham told committee members French, Malian, and AFISMA forces have driven AQIM fighters from population centers, but eliminating the group as a long-term threat will require restoring Malian governance and territorial integrity, reconciling with northern indigenous groups and establishing security.
Ham noted AQIM is not solely a Malian challenge, but is spread across the Sahel region of north-central Africa south of the Sahara Desert and requires a regional approach to effectively address the threat. Africom, the State Department and USAID work to support regional counter-terrorism efforts under the umbrella of the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership, Ham added.
The partnership involves 10 northern and western African nations and the United States, he said, and aims to develop partner militaries’ counter-terrorism capabilities and build regional cooperation against AQIM and related extremist groups.
In Nigeria, Africom is partnering with Nigerian forces to counter Boko Haram’s campaign of violent attacks focused in the northern part of the country, Ham said. “If pressure on Boko Haram decreases, they could expand their capabilities and reach to pose a more significant threat to U.S. interests,” he cautioned.
The general said al-Shabaab has been greatly weakened in Somalia by the operations of African Union Mission in Somalia, Ethiopian and Somali forces.
“While al-Shabaab is less effective, the group is still dangerous and capable of conducting unconventional attacks to disrupt AMISOM operations and the newly formed Somali government,” Ham said. Somalia is on a positive path, he added, but warned that “focus must be maintained on Somalia to sustain security progress made to date.”
Ham said he believes Africom’s efforts to counter violent extremist organizations are having a positive impact.
“Our African partners are demonstrating strengthened capabilities and are increasingly cooperating with other nations to address shared security challenges, including supporting African Union and United Nations operations and programs,” he said. “The leadership of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States in addressing the security challenges in Mali is indicative of the growing willingness and capability of Africans to address African security challenges.”
The African continent presents a complex and fluid set of challenges and opportunities, Ham concluded.
“At U.S. Africa Command, we will continue to engage with our African partner militaries to strengthen their skills and capabilities, so they are better able to address shared security concerns and are able to contribute to regional stability and security,” he said.