Military force alone cannot defeat violent extremism in Africa –Townsend

General Stephen J. Townsend is the outgoing Commander, U.S. Africa Command (U.S. AFRICOM). In this special online briefing, he speaks on his term as Commander, the U.S. support for partners in Africa, and the expanding threats of ISISWest Africa in the Sahel region, among others. WALE ELEGBEDE reports

Has any progress been made in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel with U.S. support?

First, let me address the threats that we see there. Al-Qaeda is present mainly in the form of a group known as JNIM and they are probably the largest and most lethal group in West Africa, but also they have their terrorist competitors ISIS; ISIS-Sahara and ISIS-West Africa predominantly being in the Lake Chad region.

There is another group there, Boko Haram that was very much in the headlines a few years ago. They’ve been in competition with ISIS-West Africa. It appears that ISIS-West Africa is now the dominant force in that region. Boko Haram still exists, but I think they’re hanging on. Many of their members have either surrendered back to host-nation governments or have changed sides to join ISIS-West Africa.

So, those are the threats. We see these threats expanding. We see ISIS-West Africa very much expanding in Nigeria. Just a couple of weeks ago, you’re all aware of a major prison break that occurred literally in the outskirts of the capital in Nigeria. And then in Mali and Burkina Faso, al-Qaeda’s arm, JNIM, have been on the march towards the south and they are now nearly investing the capital of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, and they’re starting operations now in the northern regions, border regions, of the coastal states. So, this is of great concern, I think, for the world that’s watching.

What are the terms of support for the region?

Our activity in this region is mostly providing support to partners – first to African partners, which the United States provides bilaterally, specifically to the members of what we’re calling now the G4 Sahel Joint Force, formerly known as the G5 Sahel Force until Mali withdrew. Our funding to these countries is – it provides equipment, training, advisory support to allow them to become more effective in their fight against violent extremist groups. We also place liaison officers with all the headquarters in the region. We also provide support to our international partners there. There are American members of MINUSMA and there are also American liaisons and elements supporting the French deployment in the region. I would say there’s been some progress. There have been some tactical victories.

A number of those have resulted in the deaths of very senior terrorist leaders. Al-Qaeda is in – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s emir, Droukdel, was killed about two years ago in a combined operation, and there have been a number of other examples of these victories. However, we’ve always maintained that military force alone cannot defeat violent extremism. The root of this violent extremism is insufficient or poor governance. Because of that, we have to have a whole-of-government approach. That’s what we strive for at AFRICOM with diplomacy and development leading, supported by defense.

I would say that many of our partners in the region are recalibrating, and so has the United States, in light of the continued expansion of terrorists, irregular changes of government in the region, arrival of malign groups like the Russian mercenary group Wagner, and recalibration by other partners such as France and others. The United States is also recalibrating our approach and we’re striving to find a way to become more effective in the future.

To what extent has the invasion of Ukraine impacted Russia’s presence on the continent?

It doesn’t seem to have affected their military presence on the continent greatly, mostly because there’s not a huge Russian military presence on the continent to begin with. What we have seen is we have seen impacts to the mercenary group Wagner’s presence on the continent. Specifically, they’ve had a number of operatives in Libya, probably on the order of 2,000 or so in the past, and we know they have about 1,000 recently deployed to Mali. I don’t know the numbers of Wagner operatives in the Central African Republic, but it’s substantial. They’ve got a footprint in a number of other countries, but those are probably some of the big ones.

We have seen them draw down in Libya to move Wagner operatives to fight in Ukraine. And so that’s what we’ve seen, and it hasn’t had a significant impact that we can tell on the continent so far. They do not appear to be drawing down in Mali, and in fact they appear to be leaning into Mali as much as they have been throughout. In fact they have deployed sophisticated new capabilities like air-defense capabilities to Mali that we have seen appear there recently.

There is the report that the Defence Department is looking at alternative locations for the African Lion exercise, and how would this affect the relation with Morocco?

Can you say something on that? The short answer is yes, we are. Our U.S. law – our Congress passed our defence law for Fiscal Year ’22 that requires us to look at diversifying the exercise, and by diversifying the exercise, looking at maybe moving the exercise or elements of the exercise to other areas on the continent. We are engaged in that because we believe – in America we believe in civil control of the military, and our civilian leaders in our government have told us to do that. So we are faithfully doing that. What does that mean?

So, we’re looking at other places where we can have parts of – parts or all of African Lion to be conducted in the future. But here are the facts: Morocco has been our host for 18 African Lions, and they have a tremendous capacity to do it; their military capacity is very high; they also have the infrastructure, the training ranges, all of that.

They are a fantastic host. So, what we did this year is we used what we called a hub-and-spoke approach. So, the hub, the center part of the wheel, was Morocco, but we had a spoke in Tunisia that was not insignificant. It was in excess of 500 per-sonnel.

We had a spoke in Senegal and we had a spoke in Ghana. We are going to – because we’ve been directed to do it, we are going to continue this exploration of how we might further diversify African Lion, and I think I am interested in having other African countries volunteer to co-host some or all of African Lion. We will send teams out to make these assessments and surveys, and happy to diversify the exercise. It will be difficult to find any country in Africa, I think, that can probably approach what Morocco has been able to do over 18 years. That will be hard to find someone. We have been who can do that, certainly on year one to diversify African Lion, but Morocco has been a fantastic host and I look forward to working with them on – we, AFRICOM, will work with them on future African Lions, I am sure.

I know you have had a long and distinguished career and wonder what are your feelings about retiring and beginning life again as a civilian and what are your future plans?

Well, thanks for that question. I would just like to say that it’s been a fantastic 40 years in uniform, and AFRICOM has been the highlight of those 40 years. I love working in this job because the continent is so big and complex and diverse. So, coming to work every day is an education and it’s always fascinating.

It’s hard to beat a job like that. But 40 years is enough of doing anything, even if you love it. So, it is time for me to pass the torch to a younger generation of leaders, and it’s time for me to take off the uniform. As I said, we plan to pass the AFRICOM colors to a new commander on the 9th of August here, and I will step down and soon retire within a couple of months, and I am going to spend some time with my three grandchildren. I have a granddaughter that I haven’t even met in person yet, and I’m very much looking forward to meeting her and spending time with my other grandchildren.

My feelings are I’m not really looking backward and I don’t feel regretful; I feel excited about what I’ve done over the last 40 years and I feel even more excited about the next 40 years. And I think with that, I’ll just close with thanking all of you for taking time today to participate in this call. Your work helps to bring awareness to issues that impact people in Africa and around the globe, and I appreciate your commitment to tell the story about what America is trying to do in Africa.

America really does believe in a more stable and secure and prosperous Africa is not only good for Africa and the African people, it’s good for America and America’s security as well. We really believe that. And so that sort of guides everything we do. I appreciate the media’s commitment to keeping us accountable and transparent. The challenges that I discussed today can only be resolved if all of our countries agree to work together. We’ve come a long way in this, and there’s a still a lot of work to do. And I know that my successor here will be more than up to the challenge of leading the men and women of AFRICOM. It’s been my great honor to serve as their Commander for the last three years, and I look forward to seeing what AFRICOM does next alongside all of our partners in Africa and around the world.




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