Moderator: Good afternoon from the U.S. State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing with AFRICOM. Today we are very pleased to be joined by U.S. Africa Command Deputy Commander Lieutenant General Kirk Smith and Deputy Commander for Civil-Military Engagement Ambassador Andrew Young. We will begin with opening remarks from Ambassador Young and Lieutenant General Smith, and then we will turn to your questions. We will do our best to get to as many as possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Ambassador Young for his opening remarks. Please, go ahead.
Ambassador Young: Hey, thank you, Justin. And thank you for the journalists who are joining us today. First, I’d just like to acknowledge and offer my deepest condolences to those who have been affected by this COVID-19 pandemic. Parts of the world are beginning to see some progress over the last few months. There is still a long, long way to go. The U.S. is pleased to be a part of the solution by increasing our partnerships with those who are facing this challenge that has affected all of us so much over this past period of time.
And then similarly, I’d like to express our solidarity with the people of Africa taken from us in terrorist attacks on various places on the continent. They were taken too soon, and I think that’s a big motivator for how this command looks to getting after our security mandate by, with, and through our African partners.
We’re really pleased to be speaking to you today from Brussels. We’re here following the successful G7, NATO, and EU summits. Lieutenant General Kirk Smith and I have spent this time engaging with our NATO partners, our European Union partners, and our bilateral partners following engagements that we’ve had recently with other key international partners working with us to advance peace and security on the African continent.
What we’re trying to do today, and we appreciate this opportunity, is to help inform this important dialogue about regional security in some parts of Africa, particularly in West Africa and the Sahel, and also in the east.
We’re moving forward following these summits, following the vision of partnership affirmed by President Biden, Secretary Blinken, and Secretary Austin as they engaged with their global partners as we look to get after the challenges on the African continent.
What’s our approach? Clearly, the U.S. AFRICOM is focused on getting after advancing a core element, which is that the prosperity on the African continent is a U.S. national security objective. And how do we do that? We work by, with, and through our African and regional and international partners.
I’m speaking to you as the Deputy to the Commander for Civil-Military Engagement, and I think that role is very important to highlight. When we created AFRICOM so many years ago, we were designed in a way that put two deputies to our 4-star commander. They bring a civilian, myself at this time in this role, to bring the diplomatic element to our engagement with our partners; and I am joined, and I’m so pleased to be conducting this engagement as I have with so many others, with Lieutenant General Kirk Smith, where we try to refocus our efforts and bring the respective skills, talents, and experience of a career military officer and a career diplomat together to work with our partners.
And as we work together to address these challenges, we are convinced that we need to best understand and address root causes that contribute to the insecurity on the African continent and advance governance issues as well so that we help create the conditions for long-term stability on the continent.
I look forward to sharing perspectives with you on this in this call. I have a deep appreciation particularly for the people in the Sahel region and its challenges having spent about seven years or so in Burkina Faso and Mali, but also having worked with uniformed colleagues in recent engagements on the African continent in Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Mozambique, and other key areas where our partnership is showcased.
Let me just hit a couple of quick facts. United States AFRICOM is one of six of the Department of Defense’s geographic combatant commands, and we have responsibility for engaging with 53 African nations, a continent that has more than 800 ethnic groups, a thousand languages, vast natural resources, and a land mass three and half times the size of the United States, 19,000 miles of coastland. These facts reinforce the challenges that we face as we try to advance our mission and also give us pause as we seek to accomplish our objectives in light of the vast challenges that we face in doing so.
For me, I wanted to reinforce one other element before turning over the floor to Lieutenant General Smith. As we engage on African partnership and strategy, we do so with the diplomatic – through the diplomatic lens, we do so through the defense lens, and we also do so through the developmental lens. So our command includes a senior USAID representative to ensure that as we develop strategies, as we work with partnerships, we bring all those elements together to address the challenges on the African continent.
Our motto in AFRICOM and our philosophy is to work by, with, and through our partners, be they our African partners on the continent, our regional partners, and our international partners. In working with these partners, we look – we hope to – we work to advance, as I said, the national security of our partnerships and also the prosperity of the African continent.
It’s a pleasure to be able to engage with you today. It’s a pleasure to sit side by side with Lieutenant General Kirk Smith. And with that, I turn the mic over to him.
Lt Gen Smith: Thank you very much, Ambassador. And Justin, thank you for helping facilitate this and for all of our participants that have dialed in or presented questions.
So I will echo a couple of comments that Ambassador Young made. And obviously, the first would be that no coincidence that he and I would conduct engagements together, engagements together with partners. Obviously, we want to present both a defense optic and a diplomacy optic. And as he mentioned, we also have representatives on the staff from many of the other U.S. interagencies, principally USAID as well, which helps us certainly address and think about and look at development opportunities.
Also no coincidence that we would be dialing in from Brussels, the city that hosts both NATO and the European Union, as we see them as invaluable partners as we look at this collectively on what we can do, how we can work with partners, where they have efforts, where we have mutual opportunities to address some of these issues with our African partners as well in these places that we see significant concern.
The Sahel principally, probably something that we are thinking a lot about right now. We’ve seen the nonstate actors, the violent extremist organizations, the Islamic State or al-Qaida. Those groups are affiliated with those groups, absolutely have terrible impacts on those areas where we need to ensure that we can address some of the root causes and look towards addressing some of those root causes again with the African partners and many of our European partners and international partners, organizations, affiliates that are doing these same type of efforts in the Sahel region.
There’s a shared interest there, and therefore I think there’s a shared approach that we will continue to work towards building towards. And the ambassador touched on the recent engagements at the highest levels of governments between us and partners here recently.
Obviously, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on Africa, as it has around the globe. And we continue to work through the processes we have in the U.S. Government to best provide that aid in the way that works to ensure that all countries are able to be helped by that, and COVAX is our principal method that we are providing vaccines.
When we talk about the demographics in Africa, we – the ambassador touched on some of those. We know that in the Sahel right now it’s probably the globe’s fastest growing population of internally displaced people because of much of the violence and instability that’s happening there, and we absolutely want to help address that as we see those as drivers towards recruiting for the violent extremist organizations as they look at that large youth population that may not see that they have any options, and for migration as well, which many of our international partners absolutely want to pay attention to and ensure that they can understand the impacts and the effects of those as well.
Much of this is probably caused by the lack of governance in some of these locations. This is not an Africa-specific thing. We see this in many places throughout the globe and where there is not adequate governance, where the population is not resilient to some of these events that can happen, whether they be manmade or humanitarian. We know that there’s work to be done there, and that’s how I think working with the UN, with MINUSMA, for example, in the Sahel, with the European Union where they have training missions throughout the continent, bilateral and multilateral engagements, us with some of our African partners, and then obviously some European organizations as well and partners, we look towards addressing those issues.
We want to make sure that we can help these partners that we’re working with on the continent get at some of the underlying causes, the long-term issues that we can help them resolve with respect to governance and allow stability to grow, because we know with stability we will see some economic improvement, we will see educational opportunities, and I think many absolutely recognize the invaluable trading partners that exist on the continent, the resources that exist on the continent. We just need to ensure that we are able to make sure that those governments there, those nation-states on the continent, are able to control that and manage that that best helps them reach their potential and what they desire to provide in terms of governance.
So thank you again for the time. Look forward to the opportunity for your questions and any discussion.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. Please indicate if you want to direct your question to a specific speaker. Our first question comes to us from Abraham Mahshie with the Washington Examiner. Please, go ahead.
Question: Yeah, hi. Can you hear me?
Moderator: Yes, we can.
Question: Okay, terrific. Thank you. So my question is for Lieutenant General Smith. Thank you so much for doing this, by the way, to both of you.
When President Biden spoke to the nation April 16th calling for the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, he said that terrorist groups are dispersed globally. He mentioned Africa. I think he might’ve even mentioned specifically the Sahel. I was wondering if AFRICOM is asking for more resources while DOD goes through its force posture review, resources in terms of manpower, in terms of lift, aircraft, that type of thing, to help partner nations. You did mention that you’re speaking to one of those partner nations now.
And also, often when I write about this issue, this static sort of threat idea, I wondered if you could give us a picture of the recent trend line and also touch on the impact of the transition that’s happening in Chad and Mali. I know that’s a big, multipart question, but I hope you can address it. Thank you.
Lt Gen Smith: Yeah, thanks, Abraham, for the question. So I’ll start with as directed by the administration, the Office of Secretary of Defense.
So Secretary Austin in particular is conducting the global posture review, as you called it. We obviously participate in that as one of the combatant commands that has a geographic responsibility, as the ambassador previously mentioned. We are working, obviously, through the Joint Staff and to the Office of Secretary of Defense policy folks to provide our thoughts and our recommendations.
Obviously, I cannot get ahead of our civilian leadership and OSD policy in terms of the decisions that’ll be made, but we feel confident we have provided our assessment of what is required to address exactly those things that the ambassador mentioned, that I mentioned, and as the President also talked about, where we see terrorism globally distributed, right? It’s not just in one area. It’s around the globe. I think we recognize the threat that emanates from Africa and the potential that that can turn into and therefore why it’s important to us. Again, like I said, I won’t get ahead of our civilian leadership in terms of those policy decisions, but we are in a process with OSD and the Joint Staff on how we make those inputs, and then we’ll prioritize and we’ll see how we work through the results of that.
The second parts of kind of how do we see the threat right now, what are we concerned about, we absolutely recognize in the Sahel itself where those challenges are. And you don’t have to look far to obviously kind of see the impacts in Chad, as we talked about, as there was some activity there recently. In open source reporting you see some of the things that have happened in Burkina Faso. We recognize that. That is kind of why we are partnered where we are with who we are right now, principally those G5 countries, the G5 Sahel, and with the French and other organizations that are in that region.
Our concern is that potentially we see that continue to spread, and I think General Townsend actually mentioned this in some closing remarks he made at African Lion this past week, which was an Exercise Africa Command conducted in this case in Morocco, but it had clearly partners from Europe and from the continent, from Africa, as well. And he talked about the wildfire, I think, of terrorism that we see.
And as you would expect, you want to fight fire by both fighting the current fire and then a prevention process or thought process as well, where you can harden locations and – not to be too coy or too cute, but where you can put in a smoke detector and a fire extinguisher and those types of things in prevention. That’s what you want to expend some effort on, rather than fighting the fire once it gets to that location.
So I think that’s an approach that we’re certainly thinking about right now and input that we have made to our civilian leadership.
Question: Okay, if I may follow up. Can you hear me?
Moderator: Sorry. There is only one question to – per reporter. Sorry about that, Abraham.
Moderator: Our next question comes to us from Jared Malsin with The Wall Street Journal.
Question: Hi, thanks for having me on. I had a question about Libya. I was wondering if you had any update about the Russian paramilitary presence in Libya. AFRICOM has put out information about this in the past. And I was specifically wondering if the Russian paramilitaries known as the Wagner Group have brought in additional hardware or personnel, and specifically if they’ve brought in any additional people from Syria. Thank you very much.
Lt Gen Smith: Jared, thanks. Yeah, so obviously you’re familiar with previous releases and statements that AFRICOM has made. What I’ll say is we continue to monitor the foreign forces that are in Libya. I think I could let the ambassador speak here in just a moment on what we think from a political perspective, from a diplomacy perspective, what we think the right way ahead is in terms of the future of Libya, and obviously recognizing that I think tomorrow the Berlin conference starts on – and obviously hosted by the Germans with a international forum to talk about the future of Libya that includes the Libyans as well obviously in that discussion.
But the short answer to your question is we continue to monitor it. We continue to pay attention with the capabilities that are there of all of the forces that are potentially attempting to influence the future outcome of Libya.
Ambassador, anything you would add from a diplomatic –
Ambassador Young: Yeah, Jared, I would just add that we have to look back a little bit of time and say look how far we’ve come. It’s been a difficult road to get to this point, but there’s been a lot of engagement through the UN process, particularly led by some very adept diplomats to help us support the Libyan people as they strive to restore a better path for themselves.
We support the process. We think that all the foreign forces ought to be out of Libya, and that’s one of the things we’re trying to push forward to. But I think it’s important to reinforce that we’ve come a long way, we’ve got a long way to go, and we look forward to supporting this process as we go through this Berlin engagement as well as the steps towards the elections on December 24th.
Moderator: Great, thank you so much for that. We’re now going to turn to a question that was emailed to us in advance. This was sent to us by Eric Schmitt from The New York Times. His question is: “Please assess the challenges of maintaining the combat effectiveness of Somali security forces when limited to virtual training and periodic engagement since the U.S. withdrew military advisors from Somalia in January.”
Lt Gen Smith: Yeah, I’ll take that. And Eric, thanks for the question if you’re on. If not, you’ll get the transcript. So a very good question and then one that’s been asked multiple times. In fact, I kind of see in my notes here that there are several media outlets that have similar questions.
So we continue to maintain our presence there, and this was reiterated multiple times that the mission didn’t change when we went through the process of repositioning. Has it made the way we effect that mission or the way we conduct that mission different? The obvious answer is yes, but I will get to here in just a second what I think maybe is something that we have learned in the process of doing this.
So obviously, we continue to conduct – I think we’re on our fifth right now – periodic engagement, we call them, where we will go back in from where our forces are currently located outside of Somalia, and I won’t go into any details in terms of where that is or where they will go. Obviously, we conduct those episodically but also not on a routine basis, and we look to partner with our historic partners, the Danab special battalions that we have been working with.
And what we have discovered, obviously, is we leave and come back; the Danab has continued to maintain their training, they’ve continued to maintain their equipment, they’ve continued to maintain their allegiance to Somalia. And we take great satisfaction, I think, in understanding and seeing that even with some of the recent upheaval, delay in elections, and other issues that have happened within the politics and the policies of Somalia, the partners that we have been working with have stayed apolitical – to use that term – and continue to work on disrupting al-Shabaab, preventing al-Shabaab from gaining any ground, preventing al-Shabaab from being able to have any further or continued disruption, which allows the political process to work.
So does it make it a little bit more challenging? In some cases it does, but we have also learned a lot as we have stepped through this process, and we will see where policy decisions go in the future. Thank you.
Moderator: Thanks very much. Our next question comes to us from Pearl Matibe with PowerFM in South Africa. Please, go ahead.
Question: Yes, thank you very much for your availability. I do understand your focus on North Africa, the Sahel, and some of these other regions, but I am also keen to get better clarification – you talked about how some of the fragile states may have governance issues. These are things we know. But, for example, we know that Mozambique has one of the longest coastlines, and I understand that Africa-21 was more a land exercise, right? But we’ve got Mozambique with more than 2,000 kilometers of coastline space; we’ve got South Africa, for example, is the third-largest coastline in Africa, more than 2,798 kilometers long; and these are emerging – they’re emerging threats in that region.
And we’ve known from the past with, for example, the U.S. takes its eye off the ball on emerging issues. I just want to understand what is next after Africa Lion 21? What else might you be doing so that you’re not taking off – your eye off the ball on emerging threats that you say might be national security threats to the United States. And where there might be local
beneficiaries to the local population, where does the man in the street visibly have and understand this is what benefitted us from this relationship?
Ambassador Young: Thank you, Pearl. Appreciate the question. First, let’s get to the element about Mozambique. The United States is committed to supporting the Government of Mozambique to counter the rise in terrorism and violent extremism that has been so horrifically put into our vision with the attacks in Cabo Delgado, and our strategy includes socioeconomic development, community resistance programs, and security assistance.
Our strategy is also one that is holistic to promote efforts to respond to this rise in terrorism by, with, and through the partners – that theme that I shared with you in the past. And then who are those partners that have the primary responsibility to develop and address those challenges? We try to work with the host nation to develop an appropriate response. We try to work with regional partners, and I appreciate that SADC is looking at questions of insecurity and instability in Mozambique. We try to work with international partners, and I know that our international partner Portugal has sent in some assistance to help develop a national response to the insecurity in Mozambique. So that’s the kind of the approach in which we look at these emerging threat challenges to work by, with, and through our partners to enable national responses in a way that really builds on partnership. And that’s how we look at these questions.
And then broadly speaking, the question about our engagement. We have a very broad range of engagement exercises. We just talked about African Lion, for example, the preeminent largest exercise in Morocco. We have another series of exercises that are focused on land forces and special operators called Flintlock, but we also do maritime engagements through our express series of training and partnership opportunities with those forces on the African continent, those partners with whom we can work to address issues of common security. So that’s how we work at these issues, and we look to drive the knowledge base and work in partnerships and develop strategies in ways that build our respective expertise and competence.
I hope that’s helpful, Pearl.
Lt Gen Smith: And Pearl, I’ll add – Lieutenant General Smith. So, as an example, the ambassador touched on some of the maritime exercises. So our naval component, Naval Forces Africa, has just recently completed a couple of exercises, maritime exercises. Those are obviously focused on helping the partners that we’re working with understand their maritime domain security, how do they have security, understanding of what’s happening in their territorial waters. We would like those to be law enforcement type things, obviously, where we can rely on – those nations rely on some type of a coast guard or a police force or a customs force that’s monitoring smuggling, illegal fishing, all of those types of things that we see that these nations need to be concerned about and should be concerned about and understand how to manage that themselves with our help as we work through those processes.
I will also say that we just recently – and I say recently; it’s been within probably the past three months. One of the naval vessels that is assigned to U.S. Africa Command, the Hershel “Woody” Williams, circumnavigated the African continent. So it started in Souda Bay, Greece, went down the – what would be the eastern coast by way of the Suez Canal, all the way around, did port calls along the way. And I think that gets to your question of where does the man on the street see that. We hope we see it in engagements we do in things like port calls where we go, we visit. You see a little bit of what the U.S. can provide in terms of assistance, but really more importantly working with the African partners to help them work on maintaining security of their maritime territory, if you will, as you talk about coastlines. And then the Hershel “Woody” Williams continued up the west coast back into the Mediterranean. So those are the type of things that we want to continue to do. General Townsend, our commander, is very interested. Our naval component is very interested in doing those things.
And with respect to Mozambique, probably nothing really to add from the ambassador’s comments other than we are continuing to monitor it. We did just complete with a press release from the embassy in Mozambique a training exercise there with some Special Operations forces working with Mozambiquan marines to kind of get a sense of how we can potentially understand the situation better.
Moderator: Great. We have time for two more questions. We’ll go next to Nick Turse from Vice World News in the U.K. Please, go ahead, Nick.
Question: Thanks to you both for taking the time to talk today. This question is for Lieutenant General Smith. How have the limits on counterterrorism missions imposed by the Biden administration affected AFRICOM operations this year?
Lt Gen Smith: So if your question – Nick, thanks – if it’s kind of similar to I think the question that Eric submitted in terms of where we are located, obviously there’s – we have to get ourselves to and from where we’re doing our periodic engagements, and we have worked through that. It has actually given us the opportunity to learn a little bit about how successful we have been at training our partners in terms of what they can maintain themselves when we come back and forth. And again, Somalia is a good example of that.
In terms of other authorities, typically we’ll not get out in front of a matter of policy, won’t talk about those type of discussions and authorities. But you can be sure that we do have the full array of authorities and range of tools available to us to assist our partners and obviously to make sure that we maintain force protection for U.S. forces and our international partners that are working with us.
Moderator: Thank you very much, and we have time for one more question. This question was submitted to us in advance from Katarina Hoije with Bloomberg in Cote d’Ivoire. Her question is: “France’s President Emmanuel Macron has invited the U.S. to take part in an international counterterrorism force battling militants in the Sahel. What role could the U.S. play in such a force? Who can fill the space in the Sahel military as France is set to end Barkhane in the coming months?”
Lt Gen Smith: Yeah, thank you very much. So we very much appreciate France’s leadership in the Sahel. They have had a significant number of forces there for a period of time trying to address exactly those issues that both the ambassador and I started off with, kind of the underlying causes – helping, working by, with, and through our African partners in that region.
So we already participate with the French. We provide support to them in terms of logistics, in terms of information sharing, in terms of air refueling for aircraft, and we have forces and then liaison officers kind of on the military and on the civilian side that maintain very regular contact with our French counterparts. So we will wait, obviously, as France has made some internal decisions, and we’ll see how that plays out over time and what that means for our military continued involvement. I absolutely expect that we will continue to stay involved with France. They are great partners and have been leading for a very long time in the Sahel region.
Ambassador, anything that you would add?
Ambassador Young: No, thank you, Lieutenant General Smith. I think you covered all the issues that are important. One way or another we will continue to work with our African, French, and regional and international partners to address these issues of common concern.
Moderator: Thank you very much. That was indeed the last question we have time for today. I’d like to turn to our speakers to see if they have any closing words, starting with Ambassador Young.
Ambassador Young: To AFRICOM, to our partners, AFRICOM  is a continent of opportunities. African prosperity is in the U.S. national security interest. AFRICOM is committed to advancing this prosperity working by, with, and through our partners in ways that reinforce that shared objectives.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much. General.
Lt Gen Smith: Nothing further to add, Justin. Thank you very much.
Moderator: I’d like to thank Lieutenant General Smith and Ambassador Young for joining us today, and also thank all the journalists on the line for participating with your questions. This concludes the call. Thank you very much.