US General emphasises crucial role of non-commissioned officers during African military conference

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A strong, professional non-commissioned officer corps is the true backbone of any military, US Marine Corps 4-Star General and Commander of the US military’s Africa Command, Michael Langley, has said while speaking from Lusaka, Zambia.

Expressing his excitement on being on the ground, in-person, in Zambia, General Langley on 12 September said, “It is an honour to be here in the Republic of Zambia for the fifth AFRICOM Senior Enlisted Leader Conference, and the first one held on the continent of Africa.” According to AFRICOM, General Langley has been “prioritizing face-to-face engagement to build” America’s relationships and support in Africa and his presence in Zambia is one example. He was a speaker at the Conference whose theme was “Empower, Delegate, Trust.”

“I want to reiterate that a strong empowered noncommissioned officer corps is truly the backbone of any military. I learned this firsthand growing up, as my father proudly served as a senior enlisted leader in the United States Air Force. I learned from him and then learned from every noncommissioned officer that I work with,” Langley said.

This 6th annual Senior Enlisted Leader Conference was held from 10-13 September 2023, in Zambia, was first launched in 2017. This year, the government of Zambia was willing to host the multinational conference.

“Now, professional and empowered enlisted leaders strengthen our partner-led, US-supported operations. Now, this conference is another example of our efforts to coordinate and cooperate with our African partners,” Langley said.

Over 125 participants from 27 African countries attended the conference. “We’ve had large group discussions and have also done more focused breakout sessions where smaller groups can have in-depth discussions about what works, what doesn’t work, and how we can better support each other to train the next generation of competent and committed enlisted leaders,” explained Seargeant Major Woods.

When asked by defenceWeb about what the US Office of Security Cooperation is in Zambia, Langley described it saying “This is just an office with a desk with a very capable officer manning that desk. His mission is to keep deepening our relationship, long-term bilateral security relationship between the United States and Zambia” and, to be clear, “No, there are no plans to establish a US base in Zambia.”

“I’ll tell you that this year 27 African partners participated in the conference, which is 50 percent of the 53 countries in our area of operations. We built our agenda based on feedback and the request of our [African] partner countries. And we aim to be responsive partners, especially focused on course development for the new sergeant major academies and non-commissioned officer professional military development institutions and programmes,” said Woods.

When asked what’s in it for countries like Malawi, Langley said, “In November and December of 2022, US and Malawi army instructors met in Malawi to discuss courses to be offered at the Malawi Armed Forces College to provide foundational training for non-commissioned officers. Additionally, we’re proud of the progress Malawi has made in their sergeant major academy. In their most recent course, they graduated 41 NCOs, 12 NCOs from eight different countries across Africa. And they’ve also graduated their first female sergeant major, who is currently attending the US Army Sergeant Major Academy in Fort Bliss, Texas. They are a shining light, and frankly, everybody has seen them during this conference as being an example of how you can do this at a higher level, at the sergeant-major level.”

Great powers competition

On the question of to what degree does strategic competition play in African countries being able to reach their goals of stability and security, Langley expressed his approach to America’s great power competitors such as China and Russia. “Here’s my approach—and here’s, from what I’ve seen, the [US Department of Defence’s] approach towards African countries: We do not come to it from a position of hey, we should be the partner of choice exclusively. We don’t give them an ultimatum. We just give them a value proposition and they make their choices. But we want to have it African-led and US-enabled to achieve those —their established goals, which are in common values with the United States.”

“At the 10 000-foot view, yes, there’s a number of activities that we do, but it’s along the theme as I stipulated. Our African partners, they have their prescribed national goals. There are 53 countries with my AOR and all of them have different goals and sets, but those that we extend out to and work in partnership to address their challenges and also be able to leverage opportunities. There are a number of things that, that are in sync with our national security interests from the United States. So, building strategic partnerships with our African partners is also at the forefront of our planning and working together and building partnership and capacity, and is institutionalized in their militaries, and then also in the realm of deterring threats.

“So, a number of opportunities that build capacity, whether it be through exercises, joint combined exchange trainings, or security force assistance, are a number of ways that we achieve these activities of working collectively together to reach our common goals based on our common values.”

Geopolitical challenges

On the many current geopolitical challenges in Africa, Langley openly discussed Gabon and the status of American troops in Niger. “Gabon is in a transition, if you will, but the State Department is monitoring that closely. They have not reached out to DoD for any assistance,” he said, adding that “we’re letting that diplomatic process work out, so not just the US but globally.”

Switching over to Niger, he said, “yes, we still have troops in Niger. We plan on—as the diplomatic processes work within Niger, we are continuing to base troops there. We’re moving around out of abundance of caution, per se, but for the most part, it’s still focused on our national security interests, and one of them is countering terrorism, to enable our freedom of action to continue that fight, which is good for the stability of West Africa writ large and across the Sahel.

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