Created five years ago to focus on training the armed forces of dozens of African nations and strengthening social, political and economic programs, the Pentagon’s Africa Command now finds itself on a more urgent mission: confronting a new generation of Islamist militants who are testing the United States’ resolve to fight terrorism without being drawn into a major conflict.
Some military and congressional critics question whether the command is up to dealing with its dual mission, and some influential lawmakers warn that Africom, with its headquarters in Germany, is understaffed and poorly financed for challenges that include countering al-Qaida’s fighters in Mali, Islamic extremists in Libya, drug traffickers in West Africa and armed rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The leader of the command, Gen. Carter F. Ham, must straddle the new and the old missions, as he demonstrated one day last month when he flew to the northern reaches of Niger to watch U.S. troops train the country’s fledgling border corps in basic skills to help combat al-Qaida’s branch in North and West Africa. Then, within hours, he was back in the country’s capital of Niamey for an urgent secure phone call from Washington to weigh what kind of advanced military support or surveillance the Pentagon could provide a French-led operation to blunt an Islamist offensive in neighboring Mali.
“The command is searching to find the right balance between the press of current military operations and the vision of longer-term engagement, helping Africans develop greater capacity for themselves,” said Christopher W. Dell, a former U.S. ambassador to Angola and Zimbabwe, who is Ham’s deputy for civil-military activities.
The role and function of the command is increasingly important in this region because troops from the Fort Riley-based 2nd Armored — the ‘Dagger Brigade’ — have focused their training in recent months on preparations for deployment to that region. Members of the brigade are to deploy to Africa this year to advise train and assist soldiers from various nations on the continent.
Controversy has dogged Africom since its creation in 2008. Initial statements about its mission and scope of activity alarmed some African leaders and State Department officials, who feared that the Pentagon was trying to militarize diplomacy and development on the continent. These concerns led the command to set up its headquarters in Stuttgart.
Ham, a former commander at Fort Riley, is the rare Army officer to have risen from private to four-star commander in a 40-year career. The general, who will retire this spring, acknowledged during his recent trip to Niger that the command’s ability to address the terrorist threat in Africa had been “mixed.”
His grades? “Pretty good” in Somalia, where the Shabab, Islamist militants, have been dealt several setbacks in the past year. “Less good” in Libya, Mali and other parts of North and West Africa, where the United States is hunting Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a militant leader who claimed responsibility for the attack on a gas field in Algeria last month. And lacking in Nigeria, where an Islamist extremist group, Boko Haram, poses a major threat.
“Frankly, the intelligence community has not focused a lot on this part of the world,” Ham said. “But we are starting to, out of necessity.”
With the war in Afghanistan winding down, senior Pentagon officials are scrambling to address the growing threat in North and West Africa by repositioning spy satellites and shifting surveillance aircraft from other theaters, all at a time when shrinking military budgets are forcing the Obama administration to make difficult choices on where to accept more risk.
The Pentagon is preparing to establish a drone base in Niger so that it can increase surveillance missions on the local al-Qaida affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and associated groups.
Starting this year, the Africa Command will also send small teams from a 4,000-member brigade in Kansas to conduct nearly 100 exercises and training programs in 35 African countries.
“We’re going to see more and more demands on Africom,” Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of state, said in January.
But with the Obama administration wary of putting U.S. boots on the ground, Ham and his lieutenants are sticking to the philosophy “African solutions to African problems.”
“The underlying ethos remains the same: We’re not looking to be the security provider for Africa,” said Dell, Ham’s deputy.