In the five years since U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) was created, there have been rumblings that its duties would be absorbed by another regional combatant command amid other global and budgetary priorities.
But that could be changing, as the Pentagon plans to boost military training and engagement in the coming months across Africa, a continent that has seen a recent uptick in fighting and terrorist attacks.
Despite repositioning itself for conflicts in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East, the main areas of the U.S. Defense Department’s military strategy, defense officials see the U.S. military directly involved in combating terrorist training grounds in the largely ungoverned areas of Africa.
“That is a fight we have a dog in,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said during a Jan. 24 taping of “This Week in Defense News.”
Carter was referring to French operations in Mali, a country plagued by a number of separatist groups attempting to overthrow the government. The U.S. military is providing intelligence, airlift and other logistical support for the operations and is in discussions to send aerial refueling tankers.
Mali is just one example of security issues in resource-rich Northern Africa.
Since NATO forces overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, security issues have plagued Libya. U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was one of four Americans killed during a September attack in Benghazi.
In addition to Mali, a rebel group attacked a gas facility in Algeria this month, holding hundreds of civilians hostage. Algerian forces reportedly recaptured the facility; however, a number of the hostages were killed in the raid.
“What we’re seeing in the last several weeks, going all the way back to Benghazi, is that real-world events are going to force us to respond,” said David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who is now a senior adviser and senior fellow with the Center for New American Security think tank in Washington.
“There are threats in the world, irrespective of what continent they happen on, that are going to bump against U.S. interests and have the ability to reach out and touch Americans overseas and perhaps in the U.S.,” he said.
U.S. officials have placed a strong emphasis on the Pacific, as China grows militarily and economically. Last year, the Pentagon released a new military strategy that put the region front and center in its future planning, all while stressing it was not directly tied to Beijing’s rise.
In his year and a half as defense secretary, Leon Panetta has made four trips to Asia. Recently, during his first visit to the capital cities o Europe, Panetta urged NATO allies to join the Pentagon’s so-called “pivot” to the Pacific.
But the recent actions in Africa dominated much of his discussions with defense ministers in Portugal, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom.
Panetta said the U.S. would continue to go after terrorist training grounds but said the U.S. is not planning to send ground troops to Mali or Algeria.
“[W]e have made a commitment that we’re going to go after al-Qaida wherever they are and wherever they try to hide,” Panetta said during a Jan. 19 news conference in London. “And we have done that, obviously, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan. We’ve done it in Somalia and Yemen, and we will do it in North Africa as well.”
The military has vastly expanded its training of African forces in recent years. In addition, U.S. special operations forces have increased their engagements in the region.
Until October 2007, military oversight of the majority of Africa fell under U.S. European Command. That year, DoD established AFRICOM to assume oversight, particularly as terrorist activity rose across many ungoverned areas on the continent.
Speaking at a Senate hearing Jan. 23 on the attacks in Benghazi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the increased importance of AFRICOM.
“I think a lot of people, at the time, wondered why would we have another command in the world and why in Africa,” Clinton said. “I now think we need to pay much more attention to AFRICOM, to its capacity inside Africa.”
Clinton described recent radical activity in Algeria, Libya and Mali as part of a worrying trend in the region.
“We’re going to see more and more demands on AFRICOM,” she said.
AFRICOM will face complicated ongoing challenges in monitoring an area where political upheaval emanating from the events of the Arab Spring, and general lawlessness in several countries, create a free flow of weapons and radicals.
“I think the reality is that anywhere in the world where there is ungoverned space, whether it’s Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, the Sahel, [al-Qaida] will see that space as an opportunity to regroup and to mount attacks on our interest and Western interests,” British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said Jan. 19. “But we must be vigilant, firstly in preventing ungoverned spaces from arising and, where they do arise, from shutting them down as quickly as possible.”
Defense officials have called for increased training and other engagements with African forces.
“I actually see Africa as a prototype for light footprint operations that we are going to seek to achieve in other parts of the world where we don’t have the ability to deploy or the will to deploy significant military forces and may not be at the top of that threat list for us,” Barno said.
The U.S. Army, for instance, is launching a pilot program to deploy small Army elements to about 30 places in Africa to conduct partner-building missions and support American embassy outreach activities.
“I think that model is going to become very common in Africa and maybe other areas of the world, where we’re going to try and use our military capabilities to buttress our other diplomatic and economic interests,” Barno said. “That’s going to involve hundreds of troops, not thousands of troops or tens of thousands of troops, in most cases.”