By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
THEBEPHATSHWA AIR BASE – Calling the elimination of safe havens and support for terrorist groups in Africa his top priority, the commander of U.S. Africa Command reported that U.S. support for Somalia’s military has had a direct impact in degrading the al-Shabab terror organization there.
“The performance of African militaries in Somalia … has been extraordinary,” Army Gen. Carter F. Ham told Soldiers Radio and Television Service reporter Gail McCabe during closing ceremonies for exercise Southern Accord here.
Ham noted the U.S. government role in training and equipping these forces and the impact it has had in increasing the African partners’ counterterrorism capabilities.
“They really have degraded the capability of al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliate operating in Somalia, where most of Somali territory is no longer receptive to al-Shabab,” he said. “They certainly still have some strong points, but are [al-Shabab is] greatly diminished over the last year, because of the role of Africans.”
While holding up Somalia as a positive trend on the continent, Ham acknowledged progress elsewhere remains mixed. He noted Mali, where about two-thirds of the country “is essentially outside the control of the interim government … and is largely controlled by transnational terrorist organizations.”
Ham called the terrorist threat his most pressing challenge. “In fact, I would say it is my highest priority, as the geographic combatant commander, … to protect America, Americans and American interests from threats that emerge from the continent of Africa,” he said. “And at present, the most dangerous of those threats are transnational terrorists.”
Countering this threat is the common denominator that drives Ham’s theater engagement strategy and its broad array of operations, exercises and security cooperation programs. This includes teaching partner nations how to improve their border security, intelligence and tactical capabilities and equipping African nations so they can operate more effectively.
It’s an effort Ham said involves the entire U.S. interagency – the departments of State, Commerce, Treasury and Justice, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other organizations – as they coordinate efforts to help address the underlying causes that create an environment where terrorists can operate.
The president’s recently released policy directive for sub-Saharan Africa recognizes the importance of security in advancing economic development that lays the foundation for democracy, Ham noted.
“The two are interrelated,” he said. “You can’t really have good, strong economic development if there is not security and stability.”
So Africom focuses on helping African partners promote security and stability. “We think it is important that we help African nations develop their own capabilities to provide their own security and also to begin the capability to contribute more expansively to regional security,” Ham said.
U.S. engagements in Africa, such as Southern Accord, are tailored to help partners build capacity and to respect the rule of law, the general said. "What we are really trying to do is help you build security forces that are not only tactically capable, but forces that are genuinely responsive to legitimate civilian control – that operate according to the rule of law and see themselves as servants of that nation,’” he explained. “And we are seeing that over and over again, and we certainly see that here in Botswana.”
Promoting that kind of engagement requires close relationships that are built over time. “It is all about relationships,” Ham said. “It is the ability to talk to a chief of defense or minister of defense and in some cases, heads of state to convey to them what it is that we are trying to do, and make sure they understand that we … don’t want to do anything that they don’t want us to do.”
A true partnership benefits all the participants, Ham said, recognizing the gains both U.S. service members and Botswana Defense Force members received as they worked together during Southern Accord.
Ham said he’s sometimes asked why what the United States needs a combatant command focused on Africa and why what happens in Africa matters to the United States. “I could easily say there are a billion reasons,” he said, recognizing the African continent’s population.
But also citing global economies and the global nature of security challenges, Ham emphasized that “what happens in Africa affects us in the United States.”
“So I think there is a whole host of reasons why America and Americans should care about advancing our interests in Africa,” he said. “And security is one component of an overall U.S. approach.”