While strategic competition with China and Russia remains the greatest challenge facing US Africa Command, the African continent is “the central flashpoint of terrorism in the world,” Army General Stephen J. Townsend told the Defense Writers Group today.
Townsend will step down as commander of US Africa Command next month. He told defense reporters that China’s appearance on the continent was the command’s first challenge.
“China is acting very intergovernmentally and is at the forefront of development and economic policies on the continent,” he said. “They are advancing…to increase their access and influence on the continent, and they desire…to establish more military bases on the continent.”
China has a base in Djibouti — its first overseas base — and is seeking another on Africa’s Atlantic coast. Townsend said it would be a bad development for US interests on the continent.
Russia is another challenge, marked by the gang of mercenaries – the Wagner group – who represent the nation in Africa. Russia is acting “self-interestedly, exploitatively and extractively,” the general said.
Russia is not interested in genuinely helping African nations, but is interested in helping itself on the continent’s natural resources, he said.
The most immediate threat comes from violent extremist organizations. “Some of the deadliest terrorists in the world are in Africa now,” Townsend said. “They were once in Iraq and in Syria and Afghanistan.”
Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have a presence on the continent, and groups such as al-Shabab in Somalia fund terrorist groups in Africa and other parts of the world, Townsend said. And all of this is being exacerbated by climate change.
“The environment is definitely affecting life in Africa — drought, famine, desertification — all those things… will continue to be challenges,” he said.
Africa Command’s most successful engagement strategy is sponsorship of exercises on the continent. African Lion and Flintlock are the largest, but there are many other smaller exercises that attract representatives from across the continent, Townsend said. African troops see the value of these exercises as a way to learn new skills and work alongside military personnel from the United States and partner countries.
“Every time we have a big drill, someone usually creates a patch for the drill,” he said. “It’s not uncommon to see that [African soldiers] Wear the patches months later.”
The exercises are also important for the United States to build a spirit of cooperation with allies that is nurtured through rigorous training. The last administration cut the command’s exercise budget. Townsend was able to recover much of the money. “Our training program is still pretty robust — it’s appropriate,” he said. “I think as long as we don’t see any future reductions in these resources, I’m happy with the level of exercise engagement that we can do in Africa.”
The command’s goal is an economy-of-force mission—that is, the judicious use and distribution of force. The Africa Command staff are used to doing a lot with few resources. One program they rely on is the National Guard’s State Partnership Program. This program connects 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 work with their African partners’ militaries year-round.
“What I love about this program is that it’s at a low level; it’s at a very user-friendly level,” he said. “It’s not big drills, it’s constant touching at a low level.”
A strong example of the program’s success is Ukraine’s partnership with the California National Guard, which has enabled the nation to train and develop a professional corps of NCOs that has been very successful against the Russian invasion, the general said. The same efforts are helping African nations professionalize their militaries.
“We have a waiting list of African partners who want to be on the state partnership list and we can probably take on about one a year,” he said. “And I’m really looking forward to our next country partnership because I think it’s very valuable.”