While strategic competition with China and Russia remains the main challenge for U.S. Africa Command, the African continent is "the central focus of terrorism in the world," Army Gen. Stephen J. Townsend told the Defense Writers Group today.
Townsend is stepping down as commander of U.S. Africa Command next month. He told the defense reporters that the emergence of China on the continent is the first-and-foremost challenge for the command.
"China is acting in a very whole-of-government way, leading with development and economic measures on the continent," he said. "They are proceeding … to increase their access and influence on the continent, and they have a desire … to establish more military bases on the continent."
China has one base in Djibouti — its first overseas base — and seeks another on Africa's Atlantic coast. Townsend said that would be a bad development for U.S. interests on the continent.
Russia is a different challenge, characterized by the band of mercenaries — the Wagner Group — representing the nation in Africa. Russia is acting in "a self-interested, exploitative and extractive way," the general said.
Russia is not interested in sincerely helping African nations, but in helping themselves to the natural resources of the continent, he said.
The most immediate threat is that posed by violent extremist organizations. "Some of the most lethal terrorists on the planet are now in Africa," Townsend said. "They were once in Iraq, and Syria and Afghanistan."
Al-Qaida and the Islamic State are present on the continent, and groups like al-Shabab in Somalia, for example, are financing terror groups in Africa and other areas of the globe, Townsend said. And all of this is exacerbated by climate change.
"The environment is definitely affecting lives in Africa — drought, famine, desertification — all of these things … will continue to be challenges," he said.
Africa Command's most successful engagement strategy is its sponsorship of exercises on the continent. African Lion and Flintlock are the largest, but there are many more smaller exercises that draw representatives from around the continent, Townsend said. African troops see the value of these exercises as a way to learn new skills and engage with service members from the United States and partner nations.
"Every time we have a big exercise, usually someone creates a patch for the exercise," he said. "It's not unusual to see [African soldiers] wearing the patches months later."
The exercises are also important to the United States for building a spirit of cooperation with allies fostered by rigorous training. The last administration cut the command's exercise budget. Townsend was able to get much of the money back. "Our exercise program is still pretty robust — it's adequate," he said. "I think, as so long as we don't see future reductions to those resources, that I'm satisfied with the amount of exercise engagement we can do in Africa."
The command's objective is an economy-of-force mission — meaning the judicious employment and distribution of force. Africa Command personnel are used to doing a lot with little resources. One program they depend on is the National Guard's State Partnership Program. This program pairs a nation with state National Guard organizations. For example, the New York National Guard is paired with South Africa, and the Massachusetts National Guard is paired with Kenya.
There are 15 African nations paired with U.S. states under the program, Townsend said, and this allows U.S. National Guardsmen to engage with the militaries of their African partners year-round.
"What I love about that program is it is at a low level; it's at a very user-friendly level," he said. "It's not big exercises but constant low-level touches."
A strong example of the program's success is Ukraine's partnership with the California National Guard, which allowed the nation to train and develop a professional noncommissioned officer corps that has been very successful against the Russian invasion, the general said. That same effort is helping African nations professionalize their militaries.
"We have a waiting list of African partners who want to get on the state partnership list, and we probably can absorb about one a year," he said. "And I'm you're eagerly looking forward to our next state partnership, because I think they're very valuable."