Moderator: Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants from across the continent and thank all of you for taking part in this discussion.
Today we are very pleased to be joined by the Commander of U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend. General Townsend will discuss the 2022 African Chiefs of Defense Conference and the United States’ and Africa’s shared commitment to security on the continent. General Townsend joins us from Rome, Italy.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from General Townsend, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the time that we have.
As a reminder, today’s briefing is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to General Stephen J. Townsend for his opening remarks.
General Townsend: Thanks, Marissa, and thanks to all of you for taking the time to speak with me today and discuss U.S. Africa Command and how we support a whole-of-U.S.-Government approach to working with our African partners. Before I take your questions, I’ll provide a quick overview of U.S. Africom’s major efforts and the Chiefs of Defense Conference that we just concluded.
So first of all, every day U.S. Africa Command is focused on four major lines of effort. The first is to maintain U.S. strategic relationships, access and influence on the continent, and that’s for whatever America might need in the future, and that means if we call and ask for an emergency overflight, for a crisis or a medevac, that African leaders know who we are, they understand our request, and they are more than likely to say yes to that. That’s an example.
The second thing we work on is countering threats that might emanate from Africa. Typically we’re focused on countering violent extremist threats, but it could also include anyone else who’d like to harm the U.S. or our allies and our partners.
Three is respond to crises. The goal is to prevent a crisis, but U.S. forces are always ready to respond to a variety of crises – everything ranging from humanitarian assistance such as the Ebola crisis, or a natural disaster such as a major cyclone, or a direct threat to a U.S. embassy or our partner forces.
And then fourth, we do all of this by partnering with our allies. This is the foundation of everything we do. AFRICOM doesn’t have a lot of resources, and so to achieve those first three things, we have to work by, with, and through our partners. We like to follow their lead and support them wherever we can.
Okay. So this leads me to my second major point here, our Chiefs of Defense, or CHOD, Conference. This year’s conference was themed “Shared Investment for a Shared Future.” During the last three days, we had about 36 chiefs of defense or their representatives attend our conference here in Rome and some others dialed in virtually. Senior defense leaders from across Africa and the United States were gathered together to discuss the major challenges that we all face and that none of us can solve alone. Our futures are linked, and one nation’s progress toward security benefits all nations.
Lastly, I want to emphasize that the U.S. makes investments where our and our partners’ values align. We prioritize human rights, we strive to uphold the law of armed conflict, and we believe in civilian control over our military. Recently, the world has seen an emerging trend of unconstitutional military-led changes of government. Overthrowing elected leaders can undo decades’ worth of progress on democracy. These military seizures of power are inconsistent with U.S. democratic values and our professional military ethos. So it’s important, we believe, that our military partners stay out of politics.
Okay. With that, I’ll take your questions.
Moderator: Thank you, General Townsend. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: the 2022 African Chiefs of Defense Conference and the United States’ and Africa’s shared commitment to security on the continent.
The first question goes to a question sent in to us by Mr. Baudelaire Mieu of Jeune Afrique in Côte d’Ivoire. His question is: “Security in the Sahel continues to deteriorate. What support is the U.S. providing to the armies engaged in the fight against terrorism?”
General Townsend: Okay, thanks for the question. I agree with the opening statement that security in the Sahel continues to deteriorate. The U.S. military works and assists, provides support to both the G5 Sahel Joint Force and, bilaterally, to the nations that comprise it. The types of support that we provide include equipment, training, intelligence-sharing, and in some cases airlift and in some cases logistics support and advisory support. The purpose is to allow members to operate, protect, and maintain their forces in the fight against violent extremist groups. We like to provide that support directly to our African partners; we also provide some of that support to international partners working in the Sahel.
U.S. Africa Command contributes a liaison officer that’s stationed at the G5 Sahel Joint Force headquarters to further support these collaborative efforts. We have provided more than $8 million in military equipment to Niger in a ceremony this past August to help Niger and Sahel Joint Force partners in the fight against terrorism, as one example.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question is a question sent in to us by Dr. Nick Turse of The Intercept in the United Kingdom. His question is: “How would you rate the success of the U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the AOR over your tenure?”
General Townsend: Okay. Thanks for the question. This is something actually I’ve been pondering a lot here as I have entered my last year in this position, and I think the bottom line up front, candidly, I’m personally not satisfied with our progress against violent extremists in Africa, and particularly East Africa and West Africa. I assess that violent extremism in those two regions continues to expand in both geography and reach and influence.
I think that in the north of Africa, violent extremism is in a better place and we have seen progress from both our U.S. efforts as well as our partners’ efforts. And then in the southern part of Africa, we’ve seen the emergence of ISIS-Central Africa and ISIS-Mozambique, which is of concern and we’re seeing a very aggressive response by African partners there and a deployment led by forces from Central and South Africa to go after ISIS-Mozambique. However, I’m still concerned about the forces, the violent extremist organizations in East Africa and West Africa.
We’ve seen a number of tactical victories. One really good example would be U.S. support to a successful French operation that killed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb leader Droukdel in June of 2020, and there have been a number of successes in the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia. But my assessment is these efforts, these – even these tactical victories have not been enough; they’re insufficient.
I think the key to this is that military forces alone cannot defeat violent extremism. The root of violent extremism is insufficient with poor governance. And so because of that, we have to have a whole-of-government approach, and at AFRICOM we say that we like to use a 3D approach where we lead with diplomacy and development and follow with defense efforts. So that 3D approach is what we need to address the problem of violent extremism.
I think in East Africa, I think particularly in Somalia, al-Shabaab is taking advantage of the political leadership there being distracted by a prolonged political crisis, and as they’re – as the Somali Government and people are trying to find their way to electing a new parliament and electing a new president. But while that’s going on, the pressure is off al-Shabaab.
In the Sahel, I think JNIM, which is an arm of al-Qaida, and ISIS groups continue to expand, creeping towards the coastal states. We’ve seen recent attacks in Benin, Togo, and Côte d’Ivoire. To me, these attacks show this expansion that I’m concerned about and why military intervention is only part of the solution to this problem. We can continue to help forces, local forces have tactical success on the ground, but we have to have the support of good governance and development as well. So as long as we don’t have a coherent 3D approach from not just African partners but all of the international partners, to include the U.S., I think the terrorists will continue to take advantage of that and continue their expansion.
So to sum it up, I’m not satisfied with our progress and I think there is work to be done.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go live to Today News Africa, to Simon Ateba. Mr. Ateba, please ask your question.
Question: Thank you for taking my question. This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington. You mentioned – you mentioned coups in Africa, and the fact that soldiers are taking power – over power by force and undermining democracy. We also realize that people have been celebrating whenever those coups have taken place recently, and understand that poverty, corruption, hunger, and all the rest are increasing in the continent and people may not be enjoying the fruit of democracy. When you add foreign forces to that, it’s a total mess. Can you tell us why there are so many coups in Africa recently? Are the Russians and the Chinese involved in this, and what can the U.S. do? Thank you.
General Townsend: Okay. Thanks for the question. So the simple answer is no, I cannot tell you why there are so many coups. I’m not sure anyone really knows the answer to that. I think we’ve enjoyed nearly 20 years or so of very low numbers of coups or irregular or unconstitutional changes of government, but here in the last year we have seen a number of them and to include a number of attempted coups.
So I don’t know why all that is, but I would – I would – my guess is that it has to do with insufficient governance, a lack of good governance, and corruption. I think that’s probably the most of it. And so as you know, as I said in my opening statement, the U.S. does not support or condone these unconstitutional changes of government and the broader effect they have on democracy and the progress of democracy. But I think that corruption and a lack of good governance is probably behind much of that.
You asked about the involvement of the Russians and the Chinese in these coups generally. We have not seen that – have not seen any involvement by the Chinese in any of these coups. I don’t think they’re doing that, furthering that or promoting those. With Russia, I think it’s a little less clear. I think I have received reports of Russian involvement at least in Sudan in the not too distant past.
So I don’t know. I think the jury is out on that. I don’t think China is behind any of these coups and I don’t really think that Russia is the main animating force behind most of them, but the hand of Russia may be visible in one or two of these.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go to a question sent into us in French. We’ll move to North Africa. The question is from Samir El Ouardighi from Medias24 out of Morocco. The question is: “Does the United States take sparring in armed conflict between Morocco and Algeria seriously?”
General Townsend: Yes, of course. We would take seriously sparring between any countries on the continent. We haven’t seen actual sparring. Or I guess if you’re – if “sparring” means not actually fighting, then yeah, we take that seriously. I think that both those countries there are concerned about their sovereignty; they’re concerned about the integrity of their borders; and I think they have – there are some longstanding historical suspicions of one another. But yeah, so the short answer to your question is we do take it seriously, and we, in our engagements with both those countries, we ask – we seek that they find accommodation and find a way to get forward together.
Moderator: Thank you. The next question, we’ll go live to David Mackenzie of CNN International. Mr. Mackenzie, you may ask your question.
Question: Thank you so much for doing this. General, I have a question based on your earlier statements, understandably saying that the U.S. military doesn’t invest in countries with values that don’t align with the U.S. Specifically about Mali and Burkina Faso, two key countries in the ongoing fight against extremism in the Sahel, what does the military takeover there – what practical implications does that have for the U.S. military in terms of operationally? And what is your comment on the moves by Mali to bring in a mercenary force to, in their words, secure the country? Thank you.
General Townsend: Thanks for the question. Regarding the impacts, I’ll address specifically Mali.
With Mali, we have seen world condemnation of this coup, and that starts with African partners, international partners, and the U.S. Government. And the impact of the coup is a suspension of U.S. security assistance – this is required by U.S. law. When a military junta overthrows a civilian government, it’s required – and the U.S. determines that that action was a coup, then we’re required to stop all military-to-military security assistance, and we have done so. And I think this is going to have broader impacts on Mali as well.
Now, there are other partners. We weren’t the primary partner for Mali, and so maybe there’s a limited impact to the withdrawal of U.S. assistance. There are other partners who don’t have similar laws that may allow them to approach this with greater flexibility.
On the second part of your question: Wagner. We have observer the Malian junta bring Russian mercenaries into their country. They’ve invited them. They continue to deny this in public. But my information is pretty clear that they have brought in Wagner. We think they are on the ground in several hundred and expanding to some unknown number, and I have watched this Wagner – this is not the Russian military we’re talking about. These are mercenaries that happen to be from Russia. And I have watched this group of actors in Syria. I’ve watched them in Libya. I’ve watched them in Sudan. I’ve watched them in Central African Republic. And I’ve watched them in Mozambique. And they never leave the situation better than they found it. My experience is they will leave it much worse and they will also exploit the country at expense.
The international partners there are providing support to Mali at no expense to the Government of Mali, but that’s not the case with Wagner. So I don’t have a lot of time for Wagner. I think they are a bad presence and they are not going to contribute to stability and security in Mali in the long run.
And then on your third part of your question on Burkina Faso, I think we’re still – the U.S. Government is still evaluating what has recently happened in Burkina Faso. I believe that the ECOWAS and the African Union are also evaluating that. We will want to probably judge what African neighbors say about it before the U.S. makes its determinations.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go to a question written in to us from Antoine Demaison of Agence France-Presse. “What risk, current and future, does the U.S. Army see in the development of the Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique? And do you plan any further intervention or cooperation in Cabo Delgado?”
General Townsend: Okay. Thanks for the question. I think the first part of the question I’ll answer is what risks do we see. So this is an expansion of ISIS in Africa, specifically ISIS in Central Africa. And they have expanded into this region, as you said, of northern Mozambique, Cabo Delgado. This region is important to Mozambique not only because it’s part of the country, but because it is the site of one of the largest energy deposits in Africa, if not in the world. And there is a consortium of international energy companies there trying to productively extract the energy resource, and it was – stood to benefit the people, the government and the people of Mozambique to a tremendous degree. It’s a life-changing resource for the people of Mozambique. And now all of that is at risk because of the rise of ISIS-Mozambique.
So that’s a near- and long-term impact of ISIS-Mozambique, not to mention the spread, potential spread of ISIS-Mozambique into Tanzania and further south into Mozambique. So those are the – some of the risks.
What are we doing about it? Well, first, the United States over the last two years has made note of this ISIS-Mozambique expansion. We have provided deployments, small deployments to train counterterrorism forces with Mozambique. But more importantly, other partners have stepped up. First to step up were European partners like Portugal and now the European Union. Portugal established a training mission there that has now transformed into a European training mission. I visited that training mission a few months ago, and they are on the ground and they are training Mozambican security forces at this training academy.
And probably more dramatically, we have seen an African organization led by the SADC, Southern African Development Corporation – SADC has deployed forces from all the neighbors of Mozambique, and including Rwanda, have deployed to Mozambique. And they have very effectively pushed the ISIS-Mozambique out of the populated areas of Cabo Delgado and back out into the jungle, into the remote areas. They’re still there, but SADC’s operations have been quite effective and this is exactly the kind of solutions that the United States likes to see: solutions led by African partners, buttressed by other international partners, and supported by the United States where we can lend a hand.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go to a question sent in to us from Nation Media Group in Kenya, from Ms. Mary Wambui. The question is: “Piracy has greatly reduced in the Horn of Africa region and along the Western Indian Ocean, but its root causes abound. What efforts, both operational and administrative, is the U.S. supporting to eradicate this issue in the long haul?”
General Townsend: Okay. Thank you for the question. Regarding piracy, I’ll first address the Horn of Africa. Piracy has, as you have correctly stated in your question, greatly reduced, especially in the Horn of Africa. It is a tiny fraction of what it was before the world stepped up, and also the federal government of Somalia was able to establish sufficient governance and security to change some of the conditions on the ground that promote piracy.
You have – still have an international maritime task force operating off the Horn of Africa, and the conditions are such that piracy is low. Smuggling is still occurring there, smuggling of a number of things, but the piracy is very low.
And the west coast of Africa, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea, piracy is still a problem. The numbers have been reduced – number of incidents have reduced over the last year and a half or so, probably mostly because of COVID, I’m guessing. But it is still a significant problem there. And how the U.S. and other partners are helping is we are helping with assisting our African partners with their ability to observe their own waters, ability to surveil their waters, training on visit – boarding search and seizure operations, counterpiracy operations, maritime domain awareness centers and exercises that we do, maritime security exercise. An example, on the east coast in the Horn of Africa is Cutlass Express and then Obangame Express on the west coast of Africa. We do a very similar exercise to help partners there.
I think probably the biggest problem that we see is a continuation of helping them see their waters and then patrol and enforce their laws in their waters is probably the most important thing we can do. There are international partners talking now about putting together a maritime task force for the Gulf of Guinea that would be similar in nature to the one that’s off the Horn of Africa. And the United States is participating in those discussions and supports this idea.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go to Ghana, a question sent in to us from Diana Ngon of CitiFm/Tv in Ghana. “Bandits are making major progress in the Sahel and threatening the security of some major partners of the U.S., including Ghana. I am aware of some measures being undertaken to curb the insurgency. But how prepared is the U.S. to offer more concrete support for countries like Ghana to address the security threats?”
General Townsend: Okay. Thank you. So I would use a different term. I think the term of “bandits” is the wrong term. That makes it sound like a criminal problem. And my assessment is what’s expanding and causing the majority of the problem are terrorists. So I use a different term than bandits. Terrorists are expanding. And as I mentioned in my opening remarks and then in answer to one of the questions that I was already asked, we’ve seen terrorism expanding. We’ve seen ISIS and al-Qaida affiliates expanding in West Africa from Mali into Burkina Faso, and now we’re starting to see attacks in the neighbors of Ghana, Benin, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire. So I’m very concerned about that.
Ghana is a long-standing partner of the United States, and so we are offering more concrete support to Ghana over this past year and will continue to do so. So just in the last year, we have sent training teams. We have sent advisory teams, and we have incorporated them increasingly into exercises. And we are researching and trying to provide for some of their equipment needs because Ghana is very important historically to the United States. So we have seen the same thing, and the United States has committed concrete support to Ghana.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go to Senegal to Mr. Chamsidine Sane of Dakaractu. We’re going to go back to the Wagner question. “The African people want to understand why does the USA not want Wagner in Mali. Even if it is a private company, it has the same mission as the NATO or the U.S. forces: defend the interests of the Malian people. Aren’t you just worried that Russia, quote/unquote, ‘steals your show’ in Mali?”
General Townsend: Well, first of all, the short answer is no, I’m not worried that Russia is stealing our show. It was not a U.S. show in Mali. Mali’s efforts were very modest there – or U.S. efforts in Mali were very modest. We were supporting the Malian Government and forces in a modest way and supporting international partners there. So there is no U.S. show to steal.
Secondly, Wagner is not – Wagner is not the same as a – as a organized, uniformed military force. They are mercenaries. And so their mission is not the same. They are there for their own personal interests.
We have – I’ve got reason to believe that the Malian Government tab for Wagner’s services is $10 million a month. I don’t know where the Malian Government comes up with $10 million a month. So I think they will have to trade in kind with natural resources such as gold and other minerals, gemstones, those kinds of things because I don’t know how they come up with $10 million a month in cash.
Here’s the big thing about Wagner. This group is beholden to no government, and they follow no rules. They do not operate within the law of armed conflict, and there is no oversight. So they are making up their own rules wherever they go in the world, and I have clearly seen them in – operate in Syria. I have personal experience with them in Syria. And I have seen them operate in Libya and in other countries in Africa. And they are going to do more harm. They are there for their own benefit and not for the benefit of the Malian people.
Moderator: Thank you, General Townsend. Unfortunately, that is all the time that we have today. General Townsend, do you have any final words?
General Townsend: Yeah. I think I would – I’ll just kind of close out here with a few comments. Thanks to all of you for participating in this call. I wish we had more time to get to your questions because I know there were a significant number of journalists joining us today. I think your work actually brings awareness to vital issues that impact us all. So I encourage you to go forth and publish.
Many of the challenges that I discussed today will only be solved if multiple countries work together and we have a consistent, open dialogue and we have whole-of-government approaches with our African partners in the lead. In the end, this has to be done by the African partners. Our Chiefs of Defense Conference that we just wrapped up here was a valuable forum to hear each other’s perspectives in face-to-face conversations and to build shared understanding that we need to make progress on these issues.
Some of the topics that you didn’t ask me about today are – and that we took up at the CHODs conference is the role of women in peace and security. That was an important topic that we discussed at length here. And there are a number of studies that demonstrate that increasingly including women changes outcomes for the better in peace and security operations.
Another topic that we discussed is China’s role in the world. And they’re a power on the rise, and I don’t think I’d begrudge them their ability to rise as a power in the world. But they also have a view to expand into Africa, particularly into West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. And where they’re – where they’re helping African partners in a useful and positive way, I’m happy to see that and happy to see our African partners benefit from that.
But where they’re exploiting our African partners, I think we ought to shine a spotlight on that. And there are some places where that’s going on. And one area that concerns me is the Gulf of Guinea. The Chinese, I think, aspire to have a naval base in that area. And I think they aspire to have a maritime task force in that area, all for the purpose of preventing piracy and illegal fishing. But all the studies that I have seen say that the number one purveyor of illegal fishing in the Gulf of Guinea are Chinese fishing fleets. So I think we ought to keep shining a spotlight on that kind of unhelpful involvement in the African continent.
Let me close out by saying that the impact of the collaboration we had this week, this CHODs conference, I think will resonate in Africa as we try to partner more effectively. I look forward to my continued engagement with our African partners. And the United States stands ready to provide assistance where we can. And I look forward to my engagement with all of you media as well. Thanks.
Moderator: That concludes today’s briefing. I would like to thank the Commander, U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Army General Stephen J. Townsend, for speaking to us today and thank all of our journalists for participating. If you have any questions about today’s briefing, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFMediaHub@state.gov. Thank you.
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