HASC: National Security Challenges and U.S. Military Activities in Africa

The following are relevant excerpts from a House Armed Services Committee hearing on National Security Challenges and U.S. Military Activities in Africa on 6 March 2018.


REP. MAC THORNBERRY, R-TEXAS, CHAIRMAN: Many of the conditions that allow terrorist groups to proliferate, such as vast and governed spaces, weak governmental institutions, poor security and struggling economies exist on the African continent.

— A concern is that the terrorist threat in and from Africa will grow as ISIS is pushed out of Iraq and Syria. At the same time, Africa has the fastest growing population in the world, immense national — natural resources and great potential. We are witnessing the strategic competition talked about in the NDS taking place there too.

— China established its first overseas military base in Africa last year, just a few miles from the U.S. base in Djibouti…

— Using a small number of U.S. military forces, AFRICOM largely works by, with, and through our African partners to address threats on the continent. It also uses DOD security cooperation programs to develop African military partners capable of providing their own security. But this approach entails risk, especially given the enormous distances and lack of infrastructure on the continent.

— I understand that AFRICOM has completed its investigation into the October 2017 ambush in Niger by ISIS-affiliated fighters that killed four U.S. soldiers. I understand that the results of that investigation and its recommendations are now being reviewed by both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford and by Secretary of Defense Mattis.

— The ranking member and I have previously requested a copy of the investigative report on behalf of the committee, and we expect to receive it right away when it is finished.

REP. ADAM SMITH, D-WASH., RANKING MEMBER: We have certainly seen the threat from various transnational terrorist groups popping up in various places in Africa, and containing that threat is enormously important. But beyond that, I think there are tremendous opportunities in Africa for partnerships, as the chairman alluded, for all of the challenges there are in Africa there is great promise, as it’s a rapidly growing population and a rapidly growing economy.

— …[O]ur military relationship with countries like Ethiopia, and Kenya, and Uganda, and others is very important to building the strong relationship we need to make sure that our interests are protected in Africa, and that we help Africa become a more peaceful and more prosperous place.

MARINE CORPS GEN. THOMAS WALDHAUSER, COMMANDER OF U.S. AFRICA COMMAND: Mr. Chairman, I have completed my review of the Niger investigation and forwarded the report to the secretary of defense through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Once the Secretary completes his review and the families have been briefed, I intend to provide a comprehensive and detailed account of the investigation to you as soon as possible.

— The U.S. interests in Africa are reflected in our mission statement. AFRICOM, with partners, strengthens security forces, counters transnational threats and conducts crisis response in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity in Africa.

— In reality, very few, if any, of the challenges on the African continent can be resolved through the use of military force. Accordingly, AFRICOM’s first strategic tenant underscores that our military activities are designed to support and enable U.S. diplomatic and development efforts.

— While our African partner nations have enormous potential, they are often challenged by instability and exploitation, stemming from the disruption caused by Violent Extremist Organizations, or VEOs. These VEO groups take advantage of vast ungoverned spaces and recruit from populations lacking economic opportunities. We approach these security threats through our third strategic principal of keeping pressure on the networks of VEOs, such as Al Shabaab, ISIS, Al Qaida, and Boko Haram in order to mitigate their destabilizing influence. At the same time, we remain postured and ready to respond to contingencies and to protect U.S. personnel and facilities on the continent. These strategic themes and AFRICOM’s approach are aligned with the national level guidance.

— Al Shabaab remains a threat to Somalia and the region, as demonstrated by their October 2017 bombing in Mogadishu that killed over 500 people. The challenges facing the federal government of Somalia are enormous. Nevertheless, they continue to slowly make progress, and by doing so continue to maintain the support of the international community.

— In North Africa, Libya remains politically and militarily divided with leaders and factions vying for power ahead of potential elections later this year.

— The Sahel refers to the Sahara to Savannah transition belt spanning the broadest part of Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. AFRICOM supports multinational efforts in the Western Sahel and in the nearby Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa.

(In response to a question from CHAIRMAN THORNBERRY as to what U.S. national security interests lie in Africa) — Mr. Chairman, one of the huge challenges of the African continent are the violent extremist organizations that I described at the outset. They — they permeate the entire continent in various locations. At the present time, they really do not have the capability to conduct operations, for example, in the United States, but they certainly aspire to do that.

And so one of the big things that we try to do with our efforts to build capacity inside the continent is to ensure that those violent extremist organizations, who wish harm in the region, wish harm on the European continent, and ultimately wish to harm the United States, they are contained, and then ultimately be able to be handled by security forces of those countries.

The second thing that I would say is that you know you mentioned China and Russia and their ability to gather influence on the continent, and one of the things that when we talk to our African partners all the time, is they really have a strong desire for U.S. leadership, U.S. involvement.

So any type of situation, whether it be humanitarian or security, the scale of potential problems there is really enormous. If there were, for example, outbreaks of some type of disease, Ebola, if the HIV continued to spread, the numbers that we talk — that we would talk about in this scale and scope would be significant.

(In response to a question from RANKING MEMBER SMITH to describe the U.S. national security threats in West Africa) — Look, there are basically two significant areas where the threat emanates. First of all, it’s northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram and ISIS West Africa are.

The second area, in the Sahel, is primarily in the Northern Mali-Niger border area, where the AQIM groups have consolidated in the past year into one group called JNIM, Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, “the group in support of Islam and Muslims.” They’re a handful of Al Qaida groups who have joined together and, this weekend by the way, conducted this attack in Burkina Faso, and they’ve taken responsibility for that.

So inside Northern Mali is a significant problem in the north, where the peace process that was agreed upon in Algeria several years ago with the federal government and various groups has not taken hold. And meanwhile, the AQIM groups, now under the banner of JNIM, really, really have a lot of freedom of movement in that particular region. So there is a particular threat there.

Then inside of Nigeria — we talked about Boko Haram and ISIS West Africa. And I know over the last week or so with the kidnapping of schoolgirls inside Northern Nigeria again, ISIS West Africa has demonstrated their ability to do these type of things. …

We need to work to prevent civil war inside Libya. We need to work to support the political process. And we need to work to try to combat the migration issue, which ultimately makes its way on many time — in many occasions to the coast of Somalia, where these migrants move into Europe.

CONGRESSMAN WILSON: What capability do you have to rapidly organize and execute our information operations in Africa when you recognize that terrorist — terrorist organization is trying to establish operations in the area?

GEN. WALDHAUSER: I would say in the session that we — our efforts primarily in the information world are at the tactical level. We have organizations that are in various locations with our partner forces on the continent, where we go — where we take the messages via social media, radio, print, billboards, what have you, to try to knock down or —or — or mitigate some of the messages that come from the terrorist organizations.

I will tell you it is a tactical level operation.

CONGRESSMAN WILSON: With the recent opening of the first Chinese Port near Djibouti, have you noticed any operational activities by the Chinese military in the region? Have you had to alter your approach to engage the recent establishment of their military influences?

GEN. WALDHAUSER: China on the African continent is a very interesting question because first of all, there they are involved primarily all over the continent, for minerals, resources, and the like. But interestingly, in Djibouti, it is obviously, perhaps, the first overseas base that they have built. Djibouti is a very strategic location for us, not only AFRICOM, but CENTCOM, special operations command, EUCOM, TRANSCOM; we all use that location, so it’s very, very important to us.

We are not naive to think that some of the activities the Chinese are doing in terms of counterintelligence there — there are taking place, but it just means that we have to be cautious. We have to be on guard for that type of situation.

Meanwhile, though, there are opportunities especially in Djibouti where we can work together with the Chinese. I mean they have roughly 2,500 or so peacekeepers on the continent. Their military activity is primarily in countries that suit their needs. In other words, the One Belt, One Road concept which has a lot of countries in the eastern part of Africa where they’re – where they’re – where they’re located, you’ll see some military presence.

Additional highlights:

— I think the — the long-term goal for AFRICOM is to support the political and the development process on the continent.

— From the AFRICOM perspective, our concern in Russia, at least at the — at the moment has to do with the northern part of Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.I am specifically referring to Libya. I think that the Russians are looking to have influence on the continent through weapon sales, through some of the agreements with Libya, for example, that were in place prior to the Gadhafi departure. Our concern would be their ability to — to influence and be on the southern flank of NATO, and also them to, kind of squeeze us out, if you will, by them taking a prominent role.

— I mean, a lot of these terrorist groups — they call themselves terrorist groups — but to a large degree, they’re heavily involved in criminal — criminal activities — trafficking weapons, people, drugs, and that is how they make their livelihood. That’s how they tap into — to recruit young men of this youth bulge that’s on the continent to give them a livelihood, give them a better life.

— I wouldn’t say — I wouldn’t characterize that we’re at war [in Somalia]. It’s specifically designed for us not to own that.

— If I may say, if I could, I would just add that, look, the dynamics of the clans in Somalia are something that is very, very complex. I mean, President Farmajo, who — who was a U.S. citizen and went — lived in Buffalo, New York, got his master’s degree at the University of Buffalo, his master’s thesis was on the fact that the United States does not understand the clan dynamics in Somalia. I made that required reading for our team, and even after reading it we still probably don’t.

— I would just say that the port in Djibouti is not the last port that China will build on the continent. There are some indications of looking for additional facilities, specifically on the eastern coast, because, again, it ties into the “Belt and Road” concept, so they have access to move their goods in and out. But, you know, again, this is their plan. It’s out there, and they’re really executing it. So Djibouti happens to be the first. There — there will be more.

— Look, we’ll never outspend the Chinese in the continent, and I think — and that’s, I guess, the point I was trying to make. But I think our involvement and our contributions there can be made, and I think they’ll be noted.

— China has been on African — in — on the African continent for quite some time, but we as a combatant command have not dealt with it in terms of a strategic interest. And we’re in the — we’re taking baby steps in that regard. I mean, we have to understand that there’s a global strategy for China — you mentioned the South China Sea and what goes on there — but it’s a little bit different context inside Africa.

— With regards to ebola, I am not aware of the moment of any significant issues there.

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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