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Senior Defense Official Holds Background Briefing Ahead of U.S.-Africa Leaders' Summit

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for being here. I'd like to extend my sincere thanks and appreciation for all of the journalists here today and online as we talk about President Biden's African Leaders Summit and the Peace and Security Governance Forum that will take place during the Summit, co-hosted by the Department of Defense and colleagues from other agencies.

The Africa Leaders Summit comes at a very important time for U.S.-African relations. The United States has recognized the enormous potential and promise in Africa, and this is something that we definitely want to lean in on.  

To turn this potential into reality, the United States seeks to work with our African partners to address the most pressing challenges on the continent, such as political instability, insurgent groups, democratic backsliding, pandemics, environmental degradation and climate change.

As such, Secretary Austin is excited to co-host the Peace, Security and Governance Forum with Secretary Blinken from the Department of State and Administrator Power from USAID. Together, Department of Defense, State and USAID will share perspectives on the importance of our three-D approach to Africa and share the stage with our African partners to hear their perspectives on security and the challenges in their countries. 

This engagement will help us refine our approach to working with our African partners on the continent.

This forum will also be an opportunity to discuss the National Defense Strategy priorities for Africa, such as countering VEOs, bolstering allies and partners, and strategic competition. 

We will also discuss the White House's strategy for sub-Saharan Africa, where the DOD strives to work with our African partners to develop African-led solutions and utilize civilian-led defense tools such as institutional capacity building, security sector reform and building partner capacity and capabilities.

Africa is important to the United States, and our engagement and partnership is key to the U.S.' approach toward strategic competition. While we do not wish to make our African partners choose sides, the U.S. strives to be the partner of choice by offering a relationship based on mutual respect and values, by providing higher-quality products and services, and by working together with our partners on issues that are important to them. We are confident that our relationship will bring about long-term stability and prosperity.

In conclusion, Secretary Austin and the Department of Defense look forward to co-hosting the Peace, Security and Governance Forum, and I look forward to taking your questions.

MODERATOR: I understand we have Lita Baldor with the Associated Press on the phone, so we'll start there, please.

REPORTER: Good morning. Thank you. I wanted to circle back to a subject that we -- was addressed earlier this week on China. China has obviously made -- attempted to make some inroads in Africa, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about China's basing efforts in Africa. What does the U.S. think about the more aggressive move by China to try and set up additional bases there?  Will this be a subject of discussion at these meetings?  And what is the administration's view of how great a threat this may be to the United States?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks for the question, and thanks for joining us again. I appreciate you joining in.

To your question, we're concerned about the PRC's basing aspirations on the Atlantic coast and in the Africa region in general. I think as Secretary Austin has noted, the PRC is our pacing challenge, meaning that DOD has to assess the long-term impacts of the global PRC basing aspirations and what that would mean to U.S. interests.

The DOD builds partnerships through an approach that draws on all of our tools, to include mil-to-mil engagement, security cooperation, exercises, diplomacy, and force posture. And so all of these things are tools that we will use to counter the influence of strategic competitors where we have mutual interests with our partners.

We respect African sovereignty and we continue to communicate to our partners that engaging in certain activities with strategic competitors may have negative ramifications for their relationships and also with us. For example, allowing, you know, Huawei to build telecommunications infrastructure may limit U.S. information sharing with certain African countries and our ability to be able to share information on other challenges that may impact both our relationships.

So I think our focus is to continue to make sure that we are working with our partners so that they understand the challenges that they may encounter when they work with strategic competitors but also to work with them to provide and understand alternatives to some of these issues.

MODERATOR: Transitioning back into the room here. Any questions we can take from those assembled? Ma'am, CNN, in the back -- Barbara Starr.

REPORTER: Can you try to walk us around the continent thoroughly and talk about the presence of the Wagner Group; where, your assessment of how many, your assessment of their capability, your assessment of where they may be going next, and how they're trying to grow?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure. Thank you for that.

I think we're all tracking that Wagner has an interest in being on the continent. From our perspective, it is not for reasons of empowering and helping African partners take care of their security interests. I would say that there's probably underlying interest to -- to why Wagner Group has chosen the areas that they are in.

But for right now, we understand that Wagner has a presence in the Central African Republic, they have a presence in Libya, they are in Mali, and we do have concerns that they are in -- trying to engage African partners to continue to influence the security responses and -- securities' responses and interventions that African partners are trying to -- to tackle, particularly around VEO threats.

I think in the Central African Republic, they've not done much in our opinion to help stabilize the country. I think their impact has actually been more destabilizing. We've noted that Wagner tends to go to places where there is already instability or fragility, and their presence has exacerbated some of those conditions rather than contributing to improving the security situation.

In Central African Republic, as I was saying, I've -- I've seen them be there and not necessarily improve conditions with all of the time that they've been there, to include security, and then obviously the political situation has also been, I think, distracted by having to -- to deal with the security situation.  And their -- their presence hasn't helped either one.

So --

REPORTER: -- what -- what do you -- I don't think anybody thinks they have any interest in improving anything.


REPORTER: So what do you think their goals are?  And can you put any kind of total number on how many people they may have in Africa?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't have a total number, but we know that their interests typically are aligned with where there are resources, where they may have an opportunity to -- "destabilize" is -- is too general a comment -- but I think further promote instability.

And -- and that sounds sort of generic, but I think they have picked places to go that they can root -- have access to resources and have access to trying to work with a government that needs help and is willing to take in help from any actors who can step in. And the -- to your point, it's not for positive gains on the part of the African partners but more positive gains on the part of Wagner.

REPORTER: Can you bring us up to date on whatever you have seen about the Russians and Wagner seeking to recruit Africans to fight in Ukraine or against Ukraine?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I haven't been monitoring their recruitment efforts, but I would be very concerned that African partners would be drawn into another proxy situation that looks reminiscent of, you know, historical ways that I think we've seen Russia try to bring in forces from elsewhere to -- to fight their battles.

And so I would be concerned, but I think from what we've seen, it's really more the issue that their presence on the continent creates a falsehood or a narrative that they are there to help and that they have A good solution to some of the most pressing challenges, and -- and that is not actually their goal in the end.

MODERATOR: All right. Staying in the room with VOA please.

REPORTER: A couple of questions.

So, first of all, in Somalia, General Townsend, speaking earlier this year, said that the threat had definitely increased of al-Shabab in Somalia throughout 2021, over the last -- he was speaking in January and March, saying that -- that it had definitely increased in 2021. Can you assess where the Al-Qaeda threat and the al-Shabab threat in Somalia is currently?  Has it continued to increase?  Is it still growing?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thank you for that.

I wasn't tracking specifically the numbers that General Townsend spoke of. I think persistently, we have seen al-Shabab try to increase the number of attacks, try to go after the government, trying to go after government officials in Somalia. And so we saw an increase but I think we're also seeing an increase because we have a Somali government that has come in that is aggressively attacking al-Shabab's advances.

We have obviously, as you know, have returned a persistent presence on the continent but specifically in Somalia to help the Somalis get after this, and they are leading operations, they are working very hard to try and degrade and disrupt al-Shabab's advances.

And so we're -- we anticipated that with that type of aggressive posture, that they -- we would see an increase in attacks. And it's -- it's a sign of understanding that, I think, the Somali government is extremely serious about this, the Somali people are really leaning in in -- in trying to root al-Shabab out, because it hasn't helped bring prosperity to what they're trying to accomplish in developing their country.

And so that is what we are trying to assist our partners with doing. We've seen it and we're looking forward to continuing to move against al-Shabab's advances.

REPORTER: Just on that, what is the U.S. looking for African Union leaders to commit to Somalia?  Have -- has the U.S. seen that putting U.S. troops back into Somalia on a more permanent basis, has that been more effective with your training?  And -- so can you talk a little bit about that?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: As far as the African Union, we're tracking that the -- the mission that they are working on and have been working on for years is anticipated to draw to a close, but I think there are -- we're all looking at the situation and we'll evaluate what the coordination of all of our efforts -- we have other partners who are also working in this space as well -- and what it will do to sort of effectively go after the -- this threat.

I think the African Union's role with the ATMIS mission, or the African Union Transition Mission In Somalia, is -- will be a part of that discussion, obviously to make sure that we are not leaving a gap, we're not leaving any spaces that are unfilled as the mission transitions into something that is more of a stabilizing and a political mission as Somalia continues to stabilize itself as a country.

I think we're looking at the opportunities for the U.S. to continue partnering -- is to obviously put our weight and our support and our resources behind existing efforts so the ATMIS mission and whatever it transitions too -- as well as the work that we're doing separately to train specific Somali National Forces and then also our return to persistent presence.

So we're constantly evaluating this, as well as, as I said, with what we're doing with other partners, to ensure that the right formula is -- is actually getting at the problem set.

REPORTER: Thank you. And finally, just one more big picture question. Since the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, there has been significant resource reduction in CENTCOM. How has that affected AFRICOM?  Has AFRICOM received any more -- any additional resources, any additional people?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think we're always looking at where our resources can be better aligned and how we can share them out. We are having to ruthlessly prioritize the Department of Defense's new priorities, the pacing threat of China, as well as what we have seen happen with the Russia and Ukraine war. And so we are looking, I think, across the board and across resources to see what can be administered to each theater, to make sure that it meets the goals of what our partners need.

Part of doing the Summit and part of our engagement in Africa through the NDS is working more with African partners, their resources, and other international partners so that we're not reliant on one particular source but we are filling in the gaps and making sure that our resources are being used in the most prudent way so that we can at least get after the threats and the challenges.

So while the resources specifically from Afghanistan haven't matriculated or gone to Africa, per se, we are looking at all of the resources, I think, that have come out of every region and figuring out which ones are the best ones to apply in the Africa theater.


MODERATOR: Lara Seligman from Politico, please.

REPORTER: Hi, good to see you. I wanted just to circle back to China and ask if you could talk more specifically about what DOD is seeing that you're concerned about, with respect specifically the Chinese base in Djibouti, the possible base in Equatorial Guinea, and what are DOD's intentions for the Port of Berbera as well?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay. Just -- sorry, I'm -- I'm taking my mind -- I'm taking my mind around the -- the continent and back and forth.

The -- like I said earlier, the basing issue is of concern to us, but I think more than the basing issue, it's the engagement and the type of relationships that China is trying to engage in with Africa. And I think those are not necessarily totally focused on just defense issues. And so we see them more broadly as security issues.

China has had a -- a lot of interest in the economic space and has provided monetary support to a number of African governments in the way of loans, and that has led to some instability in their economic stance, which has other impacts, I think, on the rest of the security sector and the rest of society.

So as we are looking at how we partner with Africa, we're thinking about how to address all of these issues in a three-D construct. The defense, diplomacy, and development aspects of these hope to get at what we consider to be security challenges, not necessarily defense issues, and those security challenges are everything that I kind of listed in the beginning -- you know, the effects of the pandemic, economics, the blue zone economies, also dealing with, you know, youth population and opportunities in education. And so that is where we are putting our emphasis and our focus on how we engage with African partners.

China is doing what -- it seems to be, you know, sort of infrastructure building and support to -- trying to engage, like I said, from an economic perspective, which is different from what we're doing. And so I want to maybe just start off with making that distinction, that as the Department of Defense, we're not just looking at the basing as a security threat or challenge, we're looking at sort of the influence that is happening writ large.

For the specific areas that you noted, as far as what we're seeing in Djibouti, Berbera, and Equatorial Guinea, the PRC is going to go after trying to ensure that they have a presence on the continent in the way of a base.

That's not something that we can control, and we have, you know, talked to our African partners about what we see as being dangers of having that type of influence on their soil, and they understand and they are appreciative, I think, of us sharing what we know about what this could be in a longer term -- what this could mean as a longer term relationship with -- with China.

Those three specific areas that you talked about, we have a great relationship with Djibouti, and so our partnership there is very strong and we continue to work with them on areas of interests that are important to us. They obviously host our largest forces -- or largest group of -- of DOD personnel on the continent, for our ability to be able to respond to all of the security things that we do and the partnerships and exercises that we work on.

In Equatorial Guinea, this is something that we know the Equatoguineans have worked with China to do, and we have expressed our concern but have also shared with the Equatoguineans why we're concerned with that. And that's something that we have done as a partner, to ensure that they understand what -- their kind of relationship they're getting into with China, if they were to go down that -- that road.

And then in Berbera, I am not monitoring the Chinese advances in Berbera but we do know that obviously the PRC has ambitions to have bases elsewhere.

And so we will continue to do our part to make sure that we're the partner of choice in the security threats and challenges that we can help our partners address but also sharing information with them about China's transactional nature of, you know, kind of being there in the moment but what the -- what those gains mean for them.

REPORTER: Have seen an uptick in China trying to sell arms to some of these countries across the continent?  And then also, have you seen any Chinese military personnel there either?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't get to travel to the continent as much as people think, so my --


SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I am monitoring and seeing -- China personnel on the continent -- I mean, I think there are relationships that they have with most African countries. And so in whatever sectors those are, China has a presence on the continent in different sectors, not in the defense space. I don't think we have seen heavy defense personnel in the way of maybe troops, but China does contribute to peacekeeping and works in -- or with us on -- on areas where we can mutually have an interest in -- in peace and prosperity.

On the question of whether or not we're seeing more arms sales, China has a market just like we do, and we, you know, sell our products to Africa way China does. I think the biggest difference between that is that we provide our products and we provide the oversight, we provide the training, we provide the governance that goes with that, to ensure that our partners understand the long-term partnership that they get into us whenever they buy something from America. And so that's -- that's been the biggest difference between what we've heard from our partners about the quality of not just U.S. products, but what it -- what comes with that.


REPORTER: Hi, good morning.


REPORTER: If I can go back to a portion of Carla's question about the redeployment of the persistent U.S. presence in -- in Somalia, would it -- what -- what is the -- what are some of the tangible results that you've seen since the return?  And -- and -- and is that return complete?  And what is the actual composition of what their mission is and what they -- who they are and what they're doing?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Starting backwards -- the actual mission is to support the Somali National Forces and what they are doing on the ground. And if I've seen any tangible results, absolutely. But I think it has to be caveated with the sense that we have a really interesting sort of, you know, I don't want (to say?) it's a trilat right now, but it is a -- three things that have happened, in my opinion, that have made for the perfect kind of storm in response al-Shabaab's threat.

One, we had Hassan Sheikh come into office, who has a really, you know, forward-leaning presence and wants to get after this threat. And so we have a partner to work with that is -- is dedicated to this mission. Two, the Somali National Forces are leading operations, and they are going after the fight on their own with us assisting, as well as other partners who are working with them. And so they have taken another -- a very aggressive stance in going after Al-Shabaab.  And then I do think that our return to persistent presence has helped and has given the confidence not just to the Somali president as our partner, but also the Somali National Forces to know that we are there to assist them when and if they call on us and are needed.

And so to that -- those three things that have happened, that's really where I see the -- the tangible results that have -- that you're probably witnessing when you see more attacks happening, more strikes happening. It's because there is this full-court press to really get after the threat in a -- in a coordinated and -- and organized fashion.

REPORTER: So, under the previous administration, the Pentagon conducted a combatant command review of the alignment of forces globally, and when it came to Africa Command, it made a suggestion.  
I don't know what ever happened to that fully, aside from the reduction that we saw at the -- at the end of the administration in Somalia. But what do you see as potential reviews again during this administration of the troop alignment inside of Africa overall?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We've taken a hard look, I think, at what the continent is -- has been challenged with, and we've done a -- a lot of listening to African partners about what are the challenges that they're actually facing. And so that's of at least those consultations and the collaboration that we've been doing with African partners is that the problem isn't one-fold, and it's not a -- a sole military solution that is applicable in every situation. And in fact, in most situations, I think we have found that it's not purely a military solution, and that's really where the three-D approach comes in.

So for the Sahel example, for example, yes, the violent extremist threat is -- is very challenging. But what we also realize is that it is exacerbated by the fact that there is challenges with governance, and there are a lack of opportunities. And the developments challenges also make for a perfect storm of instability and fragility in some of these countries, and that's not something that you can fix with just a -- a weapon system or more training.

And so this is why the sub-Saharan Strategy for Africa really focuses on the three-D approach. We have really focused on working with USAID and the Department of State to ensure that we have the type of complementary activities and engagement with the African continent to ensure that we're getting, again, after those security challenges, and not just the defense threats that we see.  And then again, just working with our African partners to understand what the mutual areas are that we can really focus in and hone in on so that we're being more efficient, effective and targeted in the resources that we are able to put toward some of these challenges.

REPORTER: But you don't see potential shift or change in the current distribution of U.S. forces in Africa, and there's no review underway?  What we're seeing there is essentially where -- how it's going to remain?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We don't have a review underway. I think coming out of the leaders summit we'll get a better sense of whether or not the African partners have a desire for a different posture on the continent, and we'll have those conversations and we'll have those consultations. And if it wants that and we feel like that's something that we should try and change, we'll take it under advisement. But at this time, no, I can't say that there's any change.

MODERATOR: Mosheh please, NBC.

REPORTER: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this. Just given the news this morning of Viktor Bout being released, I'm wondering if there's any concern about its influence being reconstituted on the continent when it comes to arms sales?  

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We heard the news, and you know, every Africanist who's kind of been working on this for -- for years and years for -- you know, probably had a little -- a little piece, a -- a flutter of -- of disappointment inside.

That being said, you know, there are a number of actors out there who have influence in the Russian oligarchy. We will continue to work with African partners so that they understand the risks and the threats of the -- the people that they're working with and the organizations that they're working with. My biggest concern is making sure that I'm the partner that can give them their information and I can be transparent and I can be clear about ramifications that we see from their engagement with strategic competitors and those who may be attached to them.

REPORTER: Can I ask you why you said disappointment?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think there are people who have -- have some deliberate intentions on the continent that may not always be in favor of African partners and their desires. And so as I said, we want to make sure that we are sharing what we know as a U.S. partner to African countries about what some of these activities could mean for the long run and the long term. And for this particular person, I think their -- their history and intentions on the -- on the continent have -- have always been a bit questionable.

REPORTER: Are you concerned that he might return to the -- what -- his previous practices?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think there is a concern that he would return to doing the same kind of work that he's done in the past.

MODERATOR: Let's turn back to the phones then. Jared Szuba with Al-Monitor.

REPORTER: Hi. Thank you for doing this. I just wanted to ask what, if any updates are there on the potential for Russian basing access at Port Sudan?  Is that deal dead?  And -- and given that basing isn't the only concern, do you see wider Russian influence in Sudan as problematic?  And if so, in what form?

And I'll have a follow-up. Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks. I haven't seen recently any progress in Russia's advances in Sudan. I have seen some really good progress on the civilian-led transitional government's advances in moving forward with the transitional government and -- and putting people in place to make sure that they move forward with their democratic process. So that's been really enlightening to see, and exciting to see just recently in the last couple of weeks.

I think the challenge with, you know, Sudan partnering with Russia is something that they'll have to work out -- and as they're developing and growing their new government they will seek a number of different partners, partners that they've worked with in the past and partners that they've worked with going forward and new partners.

So, as far as specifically how I see, you know, Russia's basing advances, while I say that's up to the Sudanese people, we are definitely concerned that they will -- they might take a deal with a country or a competitor of ours that doesn't have their interest at heart.

And so, like I said, you know, we'll try to continue to message where we see the dangers, but also try to partner with them on where we can be advantageous to helping theM achieve what we know they're trying to achieve politically and economically so that they can stabilize their new government and the democracy that they're trying to grow.

MODERATOR: Back into the room with Lara.

REPORTER: Yes, if I could just follow up on Viktor Bout quickly, is his network still active?  And are you concerned that he'd be able to kind of drop back in there and get that going again?  And then what are the implications for say the conflict in Ukraine in terms of weapons trafficking that he's been doing?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I wouldn't know about his network. But that's something that I honestly couldn't comment on. As far as the weapons trafficking, if they're -- if that is a part of the work that he does when he is released then I also don't have a strong comment on that.

I'm more focused on, you know, making sure that our partners understand that whatever tools they use on the continent to address their security challenges, they're gone about in having the training, the governance and the understanding of how those are used and how those might impact their citizens.

And so, we take a great deal of, I think, interest in the responsibility of having good weapons training and good weapons accountability on the continent.  And that's something that I think we'll continue to message and work with our partners to do.

REPORTER: So -- so are you -- are you warning them not to work with him and his network if that should become -- if they should reconstitute?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: If his network and if that were come to, you know, fruition, then we would definitely share the challenges of what we think illicit weapons or, you know, illegal weapons could mean for their prosperity and their ability to have stabilized government and security response.

MODERATOR: So we have one hanging question yet on the phones. Jack with Foreign Policy.

REPORTER: Hey, thanks. Just to drill down on the questions about Equatorial Guinea, it seems like the Chinese have tried to set up infrastructure at Bata on the Gulf of Guinea with highways out there. I'm just curious about the potential military implications. Is this a place, since it's a deep-water port, where they could base warships or something like that? Obviously, it was mentioned by DOD as part of the China Power Report.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Great. Yes. The deep-water port issue, I think there's been an assessment about what could be done in that space and in that area, but I think our concerns are more with the partnership that Equatorial Guinea might get into with China.

As far as the military training and facilities, we have focused on what we think we can do with Equatorial Guinea as far as our security cooperation. We're really looking forward to having more conversations with them about what we know they've desired to grow as far as their security and military capacity and capabilities. They are very interested in environmental issues, climate change and some of the impacts that those have brought to not just their waters but also their shores.

And this is an areas where we have a shared mutual security concern. Obviously, we're concerned about illegal and unregulated fishing that's happening in the Atlantic and what that impacts -- not just the Gulf of Guinea partners but also Equatorial Guinea, who -- and how that might impact their water's ability to contribute to the blue economy and their economies in general.

So, we'll continue to work with them on understanding what their desire is to grow their security programming and we'll continue to work with them to develop a way forward between the U.S. and Equatorial Guinea relationship to ensure that they have that sewn up as a partner with us.

MODERATOR: Any remaining questions for follow-ups in the room?  Outstanding.  

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Great. No, well thank you all for the opportunity. I know we don't always get to do these often and I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you all and, obviously, share what we are working on and what we're doing quite candidly. So, I appreciate the questions and I hope we all have an opportunity to do this again.

And I look forward to seeing lots of coverage on the Africa Leaders Summit, as it will be a very exciting time in Washington, D.C. and we'll be welcoming, you know, over 1,000 African diplomats to have these really robust discussions about some of these security challenges and many of the things you asked about. So, thank you for that.