In conversation with Africom Commander Townsend


As General Stephen J Townsend prepares to relinquish command of the United States military’s Africa Command, he shared some insights on what he called, “US national security objectives in Africa,” which he said includes promoting a more stable and prosperous Africa.

To better understand the US military’s perspective, foreign and defence policy correspondent Pearl Matibe, spoke on Tuesday 26 July with the out-going commander on the architecture of Africa Command and his three years as Commander, including the priorities, highlights, and challenges he has faced. He is usually referred to as “Steve” and said, “For the last three years, it’s been my privilege to serve as the Commander of the United States Africa Command.” Africa has been the highlight of his 40 years in uniform.

On great power competition in Africa, General Townsend said “China and Russia aggressively use diplomatic, economic, and military means to expand their access and influence, converting soft and hard power, investments, seeking new partnerships,” adding that, “This strategic competition is also linked to counterterrorism efforts on the continent.” He confirmed that African countries have frequently been asking the US for help. He stressed that, “Either the US will assist them, or they will seek help elsewhere.”

He addressed US focus in Southern Africa saying, “In Southern Africa, we support enduring partnerships and security cooperation while seeking to improve America’s military relationships with the countries in Southern Africa.”

The conversation was part of an online audio briefing. General Townsend was speaking from Stuttgart, Germany. The following is an excerpt from his official, on-the-record conversation, edited for clarity.

PEARL MATIBE: General Townsend, one of your earliest country visits was to Kenya, Camp Simba, Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya, but you recently also visited Angola. Can you tell me more details about Africa Command’s motivations for your travel there, maybe to other countries as well? Does Angola outrank South Africa, for example, in terms of military power? What are the outcomes of future planning that resulted out of your visit to Angola? Particularly because just last week, senators were expressing their concern to your successor, Lieutenant General Langley, about Moscow’s use of mercenary organization Wagner Group having a foothold in Africa. So please, can you just maybe tell me a little bit more about this influence from Africa Command’s standpoint?

GENERAL TOWNSEND: So, first of all, AFRICOM strives to travel and visit to all of the countries on the continent. There are a few that we don’t go to because we have – our nations have strained relationships. But for the most part we try to go to all of the countries. I go to the countries where we have – I invest my personal time in the countries where we have a US troop presence, where we have significantly overlapping, shared security interests and objectives, or where I’m trying to make progress to improve our relationship.

Angola recently contacted us and said that they are interested in diversifying their security relationships. Members of the Angolan military have attended a number of our conferences recently. I met with their chief of defence, and he told me that he would like to increase their engagement with the United States and with AFRICOM. So with that, I travelled down there to explore ways to do that, and it’s got nothing to do with the relative balance of power of any of the countries in Southern Africa; it just has to do with we’ve not had a great partnership necessarily with Angola in the past – it hasn’t been bad but it hasn’t been great – and both parties, the Angolans and the United States, would like to improve our military-to-military relationship. In fact, I’d like to improve our military-to-military relationship with a lot of countries in Southern Africa. So that’s what that was about, just improving our mil-to-mil relationship and seeing how we might be able to work together with one another.

And then you asked a question about mercenaries in Africa, and I’ll touch on that here but I think it deserves probably its own question. There are – where we see this most prominently playing out is with Russian mercenary groups, specifically and probably most infamously the group known as Wagner. Though the Kremlin likes to deny it publicly, they are an arm of the Kremlin and they are doing President Putin’s bidding and they – I think that the reason the Russians like that is because they seem to think it gives them some air of deniability, but I question the judgment of anybody who denies that and doesn’t recognize that Wagner is a Russian mercenary group working at the behest of the Kremlin. I don’t think they’re out for the good of any of Africans’ – African nations or people. The only thing I see Wagner doing is propping up dictators and exploiting natural resources on the continent.

Pearl Matibe is a Washington, DC-based foreign correspondent, and media commentator with expertise on US foreign policy and international security. You may follow her on Twitter: @PearlMatibe