General Carter F Ham, the chief of the US military’s Africa Command, has said that the US military is at its best when helping African nations building their own capacity and helping provide African solutions to African problems.
For this reason, Africom will not be seeking to establish a permanent base in Africa. “We don’t go anywhere or do anything without being invited by African countries,” Ham said, and admitted that unilateral action could rally violent extremist organisations on the continent. “There are persons and organisations that view the US military as unhelpful in Africa.”
“We don’t want to go where we’re not invited. We recognise sovereignty,” Ham told journalists in Stuttgart last week. This is evident to some extent in Somalia, where the US modus operandi has changed over the years, notably following the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 (aka Black Hawk Down), which saw the US pull out of Somalia along with the United Nations.
“The last time the US became militarily involved in Somalia it didn’t turn out well,” Ham said. “This time we took a different approach [to combating militias and supporting the Transitional Federal Government]. The US was asked to help by Somalia’s neighbours,” Ham said, adding that the US provided assistance in training, equipping and supporting Amisom troops who went into Somalia to defeat Al Shabaab. Al Shabaab is an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union, which was crushed by an Ethiopian intervention, encouraged by the US, in 2006/2007.
Ham said that the US military only goes where it is invited. However, he did not mention actions like the rescue by special forces of two hostages held in Somalia in January last year. An Africom official told defenceWeb that the US informed the Somali government of that action as it was taking place.
The US appears to be wary of putting boots on the ground in Africa, as evidenced by keeping to the air war over Libya and its aerial support of French forces in Mali. “Mali is an example of why Africa needs to invest in a standby capability. If Africa could have deployed a standby force, Mali might be in a different situation today,” Ham said.
The commander felt that African troops are not quite yet ready to take over. “Africans need help and training in taking on this mission…I’m convinced the African led force will be ready and will be successful.” However, he noted that it was moving slower than hoped but would “get there in the end. It’s moving in a good direction.”
The US provided airlift support to French forces in Mali, deployed Predator unmanned aerial vehicles to neighbouring Niger for surveillance and is currently supporting French aircraft with air-to-air refuelling.
Ham said the US was not competing for a military presence in Africa but was competing for influence. He said the US had not experienced any military competition with any other country in Africa. With regard to China, Ham said there was economic but not military competition on the continent.
“We’re best when we tailor our approach to the needs of African countries,” Ham told journalists. This is one of the reasons for not establishing Africom headquarters in Africa (they are currently in Stuttgart, Germany), as there are certain countries that are not keen to see a large US military presence on the continent.
The US military has a single permanent, official, military base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, but has around a dozen temporary detachments across Africa which conduct surveillance operations, training etc. Camp Lemonnier is home to more than 2 000 American military personnel – around half of the total on the continent.
Africom has no assigned forces, Ham pointed out. “I have to go back to the Pentagon and request forces.” However, with the reduction in forces in Afghanistan, more troops are available for Africa. Ham said Africom now has the predictable availability of forces for the first time after the Army made a brigade available. “We know we have this force available. Although it is a brigade it won’t ever be at one place at one time.” At most, a few hundred soldiers will be deployed at once.
Ham told journalists that establishing another military base in Africa or moving Africom headquarters to the continent is unnecessary and will not be helpful in Africa, especially as the German headquarters are established, close to European Command, have similar time zones to Africa and would be costly to move.
Budget cuts are a pressing issue and Ham cautioned that, “Like any military organisation we’re going to have to make some changes. I don’t believe in doing more with less. You do less with less…We’ll be driven to make some very hard choices. There will be things we do today that we won’t be able to do in the future.” For instances, exercise will be cut back, as will travel. Consequently, “We won’t be able to engage as much with African countries.”
However, Ham insisted that “We certainly will survive. The reason is there is great value to my country to have a group of people whose only job it is to think about the US relationship with Africa. I think there is benefit to that. It’s in our national interest.”