AFRICOM’s Ham Says U.S. Interested in Stable, Secure Africa More Than Ever

By Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Updated: 06/25/2012

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The U.S. Africa Command is committed to supporting a host of tasks in cooperation with nations across Africa, to include countering violent extremist organizations, transnational threats, illicit trafficking, and piracy, as well as enabling the capability of African nations to contribute more effectively to regional security and humanitarian emergencies, said General Carter F. Ham, AFRICOM commander.

Ham was the featured speaker of a special session at the Senior Leaders Seminar, hosted by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies on June 25, 2012, in Arlington, Virginia. The seminar was scheduled to run June 18-29.

Addressing an audience of 70 African security sector leaders, Ham gave an overview of U.S. AFRICOM’s current and past operation, as well as the Command’s relationship to African militaries. His remarks focused on three main topics:

  • Why the United States seeks security engagement in Africa;
  • What the U.S. military can do for Africa and how African armed forces can access the types of assistance they are looking for; and,
  • How the U.S. Africa Command is perceived in Africa.

In his presentation, Ham acknowledged the new “U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa,” released by the White House on June 14. He also focused his remarks on the Defense Department’s “Strategic Guidance for the 21st Century.” also approved by President Obama and released by the Pentagon in January.

Ham said the U.S. military in Africa has a “fundamental” requirement to protect U.S. interests but that nearly all of the day-to-day work of AFRICOM involves helping to enhance the capabilities of African militaries as they undertake regional security missions. “Fundamental to our efforts are — like all nations — the absolute imperative[s] for the United States military to protect America, Americans, and American interest,” Ham said, “and in our case, in my case, protect us from threats that may emerge from the African continent.”  This defense mission is “the primary mission of all militaries, not just America,” Ham said. “But that’s why militaries exist, to protect our homeland, protect our citizens, protect our interests.”

Several extremist groups in Africa could threaten the United States, he said, including al-Qaeda in East Africa and its affiliated organization, al-Shabaab, which operates primarily in Somalia. In West Africa, al-Qaeda in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is an organization “of growing concern” that has found “safe haven in a large portion of Mali,” Ham said. In Nigeria, Boko Haram is an “increasingly violent organization” that in recent days and weeks has killed large number of innocent civilians, he said.

“Each of those three organizations [al-Shabaab, AQIM, and Boko Haram] is by itself a dangerous and worrisome threat,” said Ham. “What really concerns me are the indications that the three organizations are seeking to coordinate and synchronize their efforts; in other words, to establish a cooperative effort amongst the most violent organizations. And I think that’s a problem for us and for African security in general.”

U.S. support for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is an example of how the United States works to support African militaries, mainly through training, equipping, and funding, Ham said. The main AMISOM contributor nations include Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Sierra Leone, and Kenya, with support from Ethiopia, Ham said.

“We think that’s an ideal role for the Unites States,” Ham said. “Not large U.S. military presence — we think that would be counterproductive, actually, in Somalia — but rather applying the resources that we do have to help those countries that are willing to contribute to this effort, to help them with training and equipping and with some funding so that they can continue their operations. And I think that’s a pretty good model for us.”

Ham also said the multinational effort to help four African nations bring Joseph Kony and senior members of his Lord’s Resistance Army to justice is consistent with AFRICOM’s overall strategy and priorities. “This is an African-led effort, with the support of the U.S.,” Ham said, “and we think this is the right approach.”

The AFRICOM commander added that this supporting approach also reinforces one of the underlying principles of U.S. policy in Africa laid out by President Obama during his visit to Ghana in July 2009, when he said that in the long run, African leaders were the best suited to address African security problems.

Ham said security threats in Africa often are more regional than they are domestic. Therefore, the U.S. government and his Africa Command favor a regional approach to seek solutions.  U.S. forces, he emphasized, are not there to tell African what to do but to discuss with Africans armies — who have an in-depth understanding of each situation — on the best ways to use U.S. military capabilities that could benefits their security forces.

“I can help,” said Ham, “but I can only help in the way that you would like to be helped.”

Ham voiced concern about the current transition in Libya following last year’s NATO-supported toppling of the Qadhafi regime. The U.S. government is working with the new Libyan government to bring militia under some degree of government control, Ham said, while at the same time AQIM is also establish itself in the area.

In the third point of his speech, Ham addressed how perceptions of AFRICOM often are negatively portrayed in U.S. mainstream and international media. He stressed that the AFRICOM is not seeking any permanent bases in Africa other than the existing installation in Djibouti, and that Stuttgart has proved to be an effective location for travel to Africa and for numerous official visitors from African nations. He said that for the foreseeable future, and given the fiscal constraints the U.S. government is facing, AFRICOM’s headquarter will remain in Stuttgart, Germany.

Ham also asked that African military leaders be patient while seeking cooperation and assistance from the U.S. military.

“If you would like some assistance, the most important ingredient for us is time,” Ham said, noting that the U.S. military often is constrained by U.S. Congress and bureaucratic requirements.

Ham’s presentation led to a tough questions from the African security sector leaders about US-Africa relations and how AFRICOM fits in. These discussions took place under the Africa Center’s strict policy of non-attribution to promote open and candid dialogue.

The Senior Leaders Seminar was scheduled to run June 18-29. The two-week colloquium provided a forum for senior-level military officers and civilian officials from Africa, the United States, and Europe, as well as representatives from international and regional organizations, to review and analyze the evolving African security environment and to discuss strategies for addressing challenges and enhancing Africa’s security.

Amanda J. Dory, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, gave the keynote address at the opening ceremony. Ambassador Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary State for African Affairs, also spoke to seminar participants.

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