US command seeks African liaison officers at Stuttgart headquarters
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 19, 2017
STUTTGART, Germany — U.S. Africa Command wants to better coordinate the battle against Islamic extremists in Somalia by adding liaison officers from participating African nations to its headquarters here.
“We could add them here or we could go there or both,” said AFRICOM’s Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who is hosting some 40 African defense chiefs for two days of talks in Stuttgart. “The purpose is to get a better picture of what is going on.”
AFRICOM also wants to establish closer links with the task force countering extremists in Africa’s Lake Chad region, where the Nigerian-based Boko Haram group poses a threat to several countries.
“One of the ways we can improve our common operating picture is to have liaisons here in Stuttgart,” Waldhauser told the defense chiefs.
The two-day meeting is the first such gathering of African defense chiefs since AFRICOM was founded 10 years ago. It comes as military officials confront a mix of threats that arc from the volatile Horn of Africa in the east to lawless deserts in the vast Sahel.
During the past couple of years, concerns about violent extremism have prompted AFRICOM to assume a more lethal role in some parts of Africa such as Libya and Somalia, where the command conducts periodic airstrikes on militants.
An air campaign last year in Libya to help local forces root Islamic State group fighters out of the coastal city of Sirte was largely a success, Waldhauser said.
“In the north, by working with allies and the forces aligned with the (Libyan) Government of National Accord, we have degraded the ISIS threat significantly,” Waldhauser said at the start of discussions.
Still, Waldhauser said, his command remains focused on taking a “longer view” on security matters in Africa, seeking out indirect military solutions as it coordinates with indigenous forces across the continent.
Founded in 2007, AFRICOM was designed to be a combatant command with a softer touch, focusing on training local forces and carrying out feel-good projects like building wells.
Countering terrorism through airstrikes and an on-the-ground training mission in Somalia highlight how AFRICOM has changed over the years. Yet Waldhauser said the founding AFRICOM mantra of “African solutions to African problems” remains the command’s bedrock.
“We take a much longer view to matters on the continent and really try to understand the context. This creates a dynamic which goes against some of our instincts in the military to actively address a problem,” he said.
AFRICOM’s attention has been increasingly drawn in the direction of hard-power action since the rise of the Islamic State group in Libya and the possible resurgence of the extremist al-Shabab in Somalia.
African Union troops have been the main fighting force in Somalia for several years, but by 2020 their mission, known as AMISOM, is slated to end. A senior African defense official said efforts now need focus more on putting Somalia government forces in the lead.
“AMISON has laid the foundation for a semblance of peace” in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu, said an official who could not be identified by country in accordance with conference ground rules.
Several defense chiefs said efforts must be made to ensure countries don’t rely only on the military option and consider the need for economic development.
A youth bulge in Africa, high poverty rates and security vacuums in remote areas now serve as recruiting opportunity for militant organizations. More focus on development, education and empowerment of moderate religious leaders could block recruitment efforts by extremist, African military officials said.
Some militant groups in western Africa have amassed wealth from kidnapping and illicit trafficking in weaponry and narcotics.
“The West (European nations) are paying ransoms in some cases, and that is facilitating operations,” one African defense official said.
Well-heeled extremists could have the means to entice vulnerable youth in remote, impoverished areas, he said.
Mauritania’s effort to partner with four other nations around Africa’s vast Sahel region is one way to counter the flow of extremists and traffickers who move through the region. The so-called G-5 Sahel alliance, which also includes Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali, has pooled resources to better control borders and share intelligence.
Over the years, AFRICOM has sought to promote efforts among its African partners to take a more regional approach to security problems, something that was less common among the continent’s armed forces a decade ago.
Waldhauser said AFRICOM would also be willing to establish a liaison post with the G-5 group if it wanted a more direct link with AFRICOM.
“Prevention is always better than intervention, and we want to help our partner nation defense forces enhance your security, stability, and prosperity,” he said.