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Transcript

Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks and U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) Commander General Stephen Townsend Speak With Traveling Press at USAFRICOM HQ, Stuttgart, Germany

May 25, 2022
Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks; U.S. Africa Command Commander General Stephen Townsend

DEPUTY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE KATHLEEN HICKS: Great, so I'll kick off.

So great to be here, and to be sitting aside General Townsend. And what I thought I would do at the very beginning here is just raise three general points relating to the discussions we had this morning on AFRICOM.

First, we know the growing number of violent extremist organizations are exploiting Africa. It remains a top priority, Africa, for the militaries that we work with here. As you may know, for 16 months, American military personnel have provided advise-and-assist support to forces in Somalia in the fight against Al-Shabaab on an ad hoc basis, traveling to the country when needed, and then they'll -- then leaving thereafter. However, when constantly deploying in and out of the country episodically, engagement and persistent contact has been difficult to cultivate and sustain, which has been posing increased risk to U.S. troops.

Second, China, Russia and other powers are seeking to exploit Africa's strategic potential, and raise the challenge to U.S. security and stability. As China seeks to expand access, their basing and initiatives have become a strategic concern for us. China appears intent on establishing multipurpose naval facilities along Africa's Atlantic coast, creating the potential to boost the PLA's power projection capabilities closer to the United States.

And the proliferation of Russian state-backed private military contractors on the continent has frustrated Western-led stabilization operations, led to rampant abuses against local populations and afforded Russia both access and influence in resource-rich and strategically-located countries.

Long-standing Russian military partnerships with Libya and Algeria provide a maritime foothold on NATO's southern flank. Given Russia's history of unprovoked aggression toward its European neighbors as we're seeing today and as we have walked through in the past few days, these partnerships could pose a threat to Europe.

Both China and Russia are also increasing their engagement with African militaries, leveraging the military hardware and training opportunities. They do so largely unbound from international norms, whereas U.S. security investments meet rigorous standards that accord with U.S. values and internationally-accepted legal constructs.

My final point, third, we continue to seek robust relationships with African countries. These relationships further U.S. strategic objectives, enhance military interoperability and pose operational dilemmas for our adversaries. They rely on consistent and enduring engagement to understand partner priorities, accurately assess risks and assure our ability to respond to threats unilaterally, if needed, to protect U.S. interests.

So I look forward to answering your questions, but first, let me turn it over to General Townsend and again, congratulate him on his forthcoming retirement, and thank him for the incredible work we -- here at AFRICOM.

GENERAL STEPHEN J. TOWNSEND: Thank you, Secretary, and well said, your remarks there.

So good morning. I'm Steve Townsend, AFRICOM commander for the last almost three years. I'm excited to be here and hosting the deputy secretary of defense for her visit here.

First, let me say, happy Africa Day. This is Africa Day, the 25th of May. Fifty-nine years ago on this date, the Organization for African Unity was created. That later evolved into the African Union, as we know it today. So I think it's appropriate, if any piece of the U.S. Department of Defense celebrates Africa Day, it's this command.

Second, as Dr. Hicks noted, the president has authorized the Department of Defense to reestablish a persistent presence in Somalia, and we're currently in the planning stages of that event. Our troops are in Somalia now. It just -- the decision happened to coincide with a -- one of our periodic engagement windows, so our troops are on the ground now, and we're looking at what -- what we need to put in place to permit them to stay there. Our force will continue to train, advise and assist the Somali security partners to enable them to defeat Al-Shabaab, Al-Shabaab being an arm of Al-Qaida and a threat not only in -- to Somalia, but to the region and the United States.

In West Africa, the secretary mentioned our concerns about the intent of the People's Republic of China, the base -- established military bases, particularly naval bases on the Atlantic coast of Africa. That's a primary concern of ours, and implications for U.S. national security. We've all seen the recent increase in Wagner, Russian private military contractor, Wagner, their presence and influence in West Africa, particularly in Mali, and as we've seen Ukraine unfold, the Kremlin has called for Wagner to deploy. Despite all their protestations that it's a private military company that they have nothing to do with, they order them about the globe and they fly them about the globe in Russian Air Force -- aircraft.

So it's -- we've seen them order Wagner to participate in helping Ukraine. We've seen them draw down in Libya and the Central African Republic, but not really touch their presence, their relatively-recent presence in Mali. In Mali, we've seen them engage in operations with the Mali Armed Forces, and we've already seen allegations of atrocities and violations of human rights against the Wagner there.

They're seeing -- we're witnessing some democratic backsliding in Africa. We haven't really had this problem for nearly 20 years, and we've had four or five coups, or coups attempts -- coup attempts in the last 18 months or so, and that seems to be centered in Western Africa. So these factors of Chinese basing, rampant VEO expansion, Wagner influence, democratic backsliding are causing the Department of Defense and AFRICOM to examine what we're doing there and -- and look for a new -- maybe a new way ahead.

In North Africa, I'll just say that we have a really good relationship with our North African partners. We have some concerns, as the secretary mentioned, about Russian influence there. We -- we've got an exercise that just kicked off, Exercise Phoenix Express. It's one of our large maritime exercises, and we've got a number of partners there exercising on freedom of navigation and maritime safety, maritime domain awareness, maritime security in the Mediterranean.

Let me conclude by saying this: As I enter my final two months of command here at AFRICOM, there has been no greater honor for me than to lead and serve alongside the men and women of U.S. Africa Command who work so hard, including going into harm's way on the African continent to defend our nation and our way of life. I'm certain of two things in the future, even after I depart this command: Africa will play an increasing role in America's security and prosperity in the future; and secondly, that America will rely increasingly on her modest investment in the U.S. Africa Command to help ensure that future security and prosperity.

Thanks. I'm ready to take your questions.

Q: Just a quick one for both of you.

You obviously mentioned the administration's decision to put troops back in Somalia. What damage has been done in the past year and a half of not having troops in the country on a tactical level? And then draw the -- and trust in U.S., sort of commitments that the -- you know, troops can just be moved out of the country, you know, in a very quick way. What has been decided (inaudible)?

DR. HICKS: (inaudible) you start on the tactical part.

GEN. TOWNSEND: I'll start on the tactical part. So -- and the shorthand is this: In the last 15 months or so since we concluded -- 16 months since we concluded the repositioning out of Somalia, Al-Shabaab has gotten bigger, stronger and bolder.

And we have seen them in recent months conduct attacks that they have not had the capacity to do in the last three years that I've been here, to include recently overrunning a ATMIS, formerly known as AMISOM, FOB. African Union Transition Mission In Somalia is what ATMIS stands for. They overran a FOB recently. They had not had the capability to do that recently.

So they have run a number of attacks in Somalia, Mogadishu, as well, although they were not able to significantly impact the recently concluded elections. That's a bit of a bright spot. And I recently met with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud just a few days ago and I think we're seeing an opportunity here with our return of persistent presence to start getting new progress.

As far as the policy implications, I'll let the --

DR. HICKS: Sure. So the mission set is the same, the scope of the mission is the same. And what we've really done here is recognize the shift in environment and the need, operationally and tactically, for this approach, in order to best get after the threats we see.

The United States needs to have that agility at the operational and tactical level while maintaining the strong commitments that we're making to our security partners, which manifest again in many ways -- the -- the funding support, the training, the working alongside, the fact that we are now, in this particular case, going to position ourselves or allow ourselves to be positioned more directly and persistently, I think, is again just a reflection of where we are today.

Q: Just a quick follow up. There's a lot of debate -- former Secretary Esper's come out with a book and, you know, he -- there are a lot of things in there that, you know, he was very concerned about but didn't openly talk about until just now.

And I'm sort of -- the question I have for you is, you know, when the decision was made to move troops out of Africa -- or Somalia, this trajectory was predictable. Why, at the time, did you not speak out publicly and say "if we do this, this is the trajectory we're headed in"?

GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, first of all, I haven't read Secretary Esper's book, so I don't know what's in it.

Secondly, my advice -- military advice is rendered through the chain of command and it's best kept privately through the chain to -- chain of command. So it wouldn't really occur to me to speak out, quote "publicly" on my leadership or my -- I had an opportunity to advise my leadership, and my leadership heard me out and took my advice onboard and our leadership (inaudible) the Washington administration at the time made their decision and we executed those. So that's -- speaking out publicly is -- is not what our Department of Defense does.

Q: Even in an administration like the previous one, where it didn't seem --

GEN. TOWNSEND: In any administration. In in any administration.

Q: I just wanted to follow up on Somalia. It sounded like what you're saying is Al-Shabaab has more combat capability, but you've talked about, in past congressional testimony, their desire to potentially in the future attack the U.S. homeland. Are they getting more capable, as well, sort of on -- on the terror front? And I'm curious how you sort of assess the combat capability, cause it sounds like they're doing more military, overrunning FOBs, those types of missions.

GEN. TOWNSEND: So I'll just kind of return to what I said in my opening -- Al-Shabaab has got bigger, stronger and bolder in the last 16 months. So -- now, part of that is -- one factor in all of that is our repositioning (inaudible) to push (inaudible) -- remove some of the pressure on them but another factor was the Somalis' own political dysfunction. They -- their President was supposed to be -- they were supposed to have elections in December of '20 and they just had elections last weekend. So that extended political, you know, dysfunction period there, not having really a clear President, not having a clear path to elections, all of that took bandwidth away from pressuring Al-Shabaab.

Is Al-Shabaab intent on attacking America? Absolutely. All you have to do is look at the statements from Al-Shabaab's leaders, an arm of Al-Qaida, the largest, wealthiest and most lethally active arm of Al-Qaida -- just look at their public statements to know they want to attack America.

In fact, it was only about two weeks ago that -- early May that Al-Shabaab released a video calling for jihad against Americans and Westerners globally and calling on lone wolf attacks in -- in the United States. And that's only a couple of weeks ago. So they have -- clearly they have the intent and they're saying it loudly and publicly and we should pay attention.

Do they have the capability? Right now, we assess that they don't have the capability to strike in our homeland. They absolutely have the capability to strike in Somalia, they have the capability to strike in the Horn of Africa, and they aspire to strike the U.S. homeland and other Western partners.

Do we know for sure they don't have that capability? No, we don't, because in 2019, we uncovered a commercial aviation plot, where they were training commercial pilots for a future employment in the airline industry. And it took us -- that plot was in work for two and a half years before we found it.

So I'm wondering, one, did we disrupt the entire plot? Were there more than the two pilots we discovered? And two, what other plots have been out there for two and a half years that we don't know about?

Q: And with the U.S. being out of Somalia for this time, have the Somali forces become less capable in dealing with the Al-Shabaab threat?

GEN. TOWNSEND: I wouldn't necessarily say they've become less capable. I -- they haven't moved forward, right? They need partnership to move forward. So other partners -- we've continued to work with our partners. Just -- we've been commuting the work and it's less efficient and less effective.

So I wouldn't say they've lost capability as much as I'd say they just haven't progressed.

Q: Yeah.

(CROSSTALK)

STAFF: -- so ma'am, sir, unfortunately, we need to get you to your next stop. So we -- we'll do one more.

Q: I was just going to ask broadly both of you -- Russia (inaudible) Ukraine, are they still a (inaudible) the non-Wagner (inaudible) chew gum and -- and walk at the same time or are they just solely focused on Ukraine or are they just sort of, you know, putting some effort into the continent and sort of (inaudible) goes here as well?

DR. HICKS: Well, I'll say, from my perspective, what we're seeing is significant challenge for them on arms sales because of all the economic effects that they're experiencing from their decision to pursue this war in Ukraine. And that is one of their major levers on the continent, their attempted levers on the continent.

So I anticipate, regardless of intent in what they would want to do in Africa, they will be very constrained from using that lever going forward.

GEN. TOWNSEND: I would -- that's a great point. I would add that they would like to be still able to focus on Africa. They're just unable to. Ukraine is so big and going so badly for them that I think it's really detracting from that.

And I think the proof is they had to call Wagner and say "hey, get as many of your fighters rallied up around the globe" -- a significant chunk of them came from Africa -- "get your fighters rallied up and come to Ukraine." So that's just proof that it is just detracting from their efforts in Africa.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Any closing --

DR. HICKS: No. Again, really just thank you to General Townsend for the visit here today. We, you know, talk about AFRICOM as, you know, force limited or (inaudible) and it's not because we don't think it's important, it's because we lead in -- the United States leads in national security with Africa, from our diplomacy and development ends, but there is important work to do here on the continent, there is important -- an important role on military-to-military both relations and the quality of our militaries. And we really appreciate what General Townsend and his team do to secure us on that.

GEN. TOWNSEND: Thank you, Secretary -- thank you, Secretary. I think an important function that we -- you know, we've described the role of what an economy of force theater is, and I think an important function is to allow the department and our government to focus on what we say our priorities are. And I think our priorities are, rightfully, China and Russia and lesser -- to a lesser degree, you know, Iran, North Korea and terrorism.

What we do here at AFRICOM is we prevent strategic distraction, we allow our government to stay focused on where the top threats are and moving forward with our strategy -- National Defense Strategy, and it's our job to sort of protect the flank and let the -- the focus -- the main effort be focused on that while we prevent that strategic distraction in Africa.

And I really appreciate the support of the Secretary and the Department of Defense.

(CROSSTALK)