WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. troops in Africa said he wants more special operations forces to handle a growing demand for counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and to help build up Africa’s own militaries.
“I’d like more special operations forces now,” said Army Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, at a defense writer’s breakfast Wednesday in Washington.
Ham said he expects to see incremental increases in the numbers of U.S. special operations forces in Africa over the next couple of years, but doesn’t expect to see a large-scale change until the U.S. draws down in Afghanistan after 2014.
The general is the latest U.S. defense leader to call for more special operations forces, as Washington heads into a budget-slashing exercise. Already this year, several of President Barack Obama’s new crop of top commanders told Congress those elite forces were in high demand, and warned any budget cuts to special operations would threaten national security.
The AFRICOM commander said North Africa’s three main terrorist groups — Al-Shabab, in East Africa; al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM; and Nigeria-based Boko Harem — are showing increased signs of collaboration in training and operations. Each group, he said, is a significant security threat to the United States because they have publicly voiced intent to target the U.S. and are gaining capacity to attack U.S. interests.
“I have questions about their capability to do so, but I have no question about their intent to do so,” Ham said.
Officials briefing reporters later at the Pentagon about recent intelligence across the region also said the groups are showing alarming signs of “cross-pollination,” particularly in exchanging trainers and in shared anti-government ideologies, but officials were not foreshadowing a pan-African alliance.
“I wouldn’t go down this ‘Legion of Doom’ theory where they’re all going to join hands,” said a senior defense official, speaking anonymously per Pentagon rules.
Those comments follow Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s warning this summer that as Al-Qaida’s core elements in Pakistan diminish, particularly since the death of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. expected the group to shift its center of gravity to Yemen, Somalia, and across the Middle East and North Africa.
“If left unaddressed, you could have a network that ranges from East Africa through the center and into the Sahel and Maghreb, and that I think that would be very, very worrying,” Ham said.
When the U.S. started the specific combatant command for Africa in 2007, opponents were concerned the U.S. was seeking to militarize America’s presence in Africa, move its headquarters from Germany to the continent and eventually set up permanent U.S. bases.
Ham said that in his six months as commander African leaders are not pushing back at the American presence.
“We keeping getting asked to do more and more and more, and go to more places,” he said. “More exercises, more military-to-military engagement, more and more requests for interchanges, and I don’t recall anybody saying, ‘We don’t want you to come here anymore.’”
The biggest U.S. military activity under AFRICOM so far has been its participation in NATO’s Libya mission. Ham expects the U.S. will send a normal contingent to protect the embassy in Tripoli, once re-established, and later maybe some trainers for exercises. But he did not expect the U.S. would lead any permanent foreign military training there, station troops or conduct any operations.
Ham said that most U.S. forces are training and helping Africa’s own militaries. He declined to give details about the levels of U.S. counterterrorism operations, including the military’s use of armed drones over Somalia. But he acknowledged Special Operations Command-Africa has grown, he works closely with U.S. Special Operations Command and has a “wonderful relationship” with SOCOM’s Adm. William McRaven.
Ham said he is confident other commands will support AFRICOM whenever they have “high-priority assignments.”
“We have what we need, but I kind of like not talking about that,” he said, not wanting to reveal operations to terrorist targets.
At Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, the U.S. presence for a spectrum of missions is also expanding, in acreage, housing and other facilities designed to meet an influx of additional troops.
“In Djibouti, we have grown. It’s a little bit larger. It’s a very, very interesting and important hub, not only for U.S. Africa Command, but for Central Command, of course Special Operations Command, for Transportation Command,” Ham said, “It’s a very, very important place for us.”
Ham said special operations forces require enablers, but not a large infrastructure base, so small teams that are out training in countries like Mali are a “pretty bare bones operation,” where host nations provide barracks and other sustainment.
Ham doesn’t think Lemonier will grow much more. “I think it will probably plateau, at least for a while,” he said.