The Defense Department’s coming near-total withdrawal of troops from Somalia follows its 2019 re-assessment of its force posture in Africa, aimed at shifting finite resources to great power competition. While it is appropriate to conduct such reviews and execute needed adjustments, America needs to recognize how its military presence in Africa helps protect the homeland from terrorism and compete with great powers such as Russia and China.
Africa is a vast continent comprising a land mass three times larger than that of America. It boasted eight of the 20 fastest growing economies in 2019. Under its surface, the continent holds 30 percent of the world’s unmined minerals, 8 percent of its oil, and 7 percent of its natural gas.
Yet many African countries face great challenges: climate change, desertification, food and water scarcity, poverty, unemployment, trafficking, and piracy. Often coupled with poor governance and security, these phenomena prove favorable for the recruitment and spread of terrorism by violent extremist groups.
Over the last decade, the frequency and distribution of violent attacks, and the number of terror organizations perpetrating them, have increased substantially. The Africa Center for Strategic Studies noted 3,471 violent events last year that contributed to the deaths of 10,460 African men, women, and children. Many of these events were perpetrated by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and various regional affiliates.
Notably, each of these organizations is a part of, or pledged to, the terror networks of Al Qaeda or Islamic State, both of which, through fear underwritten by ruthless violence, seek to establish the caliphate and attack Western civilization – especially the United States. A report released last week by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies suggests that withdrawing U.S. forces from regions where Al Qaeda or Islamic State operate will not prevent these groups from pursuing their stated ends.
As Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, put it, “a secure and stable Africa is an enduring American interest.” Through security cooperation and other related programs – like the African Partnership Flight and State Partnership Program – Washington can support Africa to prevent further atrocities wrought by terrorism. Doing so not only empowers countries like Niger and Somalia to develop the capability to undertake the burden themselves, but also reduces the risk that terror organizations export attacks to the U.S. homeland.
Further, these partnerships often afford America the access needed to kill top violent extremists. A U.S. airstrike earlier this year that resulted in the death of Yusuf Jiis, whom the U.S. identified as a “foundational member” of Al Shabaab, is a prime example. Targeting key Islamist militant leaders has likely helped depress Al Shabaab’s activity last year.
While U.S. security cooperation, and the force presence that comes with it, undoubtedly disrupts and degrades transnational terrorism, Washington must also acknowledge that the vital program helps to curb the growing influence of China and Russia.
China views Africa as key to its global ambitions. Through diplomatic overtures, peacekeeping contributions, and economic initiatives, Beijing has sought to deepen relations across the continent. The persistent engagement is paying off. China is now Africa’s chief bilateral trading partner, biggest infrastructure financier, and third largest arms supplier.
Further, the CCP operates a permanent military base in Djibouti and retains access to 41 other ports, many of which have the ability to serve dual-use functions. This not only allows China to secure its supply chain, but also affords Beijing the ability to contest others along critical sea lines of communication.
Moscow, though not as active in Africa as Beijing, also sees the continent as a top priority.
Over the last seven years, Russia has doubled its African access agreements, most recently obtaining approval by the Sudanese government to establish a naval base. This will help the Kremlin project power to the Indian Ocean and reinforce its position on NATO’s southern flank.
Security cooperation must be part of a whole-of-government approach to confront the competition playing out in Africa. It can help America secure the access needed to advance its national interests while also denying that same access to others. General Townsend highlighted this fact in testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee in January. He noted that China and Russia “do little to counter violent extremist groups” and that many African countries view the U.S. as a partner of choice. Yet the commander of U.S. Africa Command noted a message shared with him by an African leader: If America will not provide counterterrorism expertise and capability, “a drowning man will accept any hand.”
Some may argue that the United States needs to cut its presence in Africa in order to shift finite resources to competitions playing out in the Indo-Pacific and Europe. However, the combatant command’s posture is already an economy of force. It pales in comparison, for example, to the approximately 60,000 troops and tens of billions of dollars allocated to U.S. Central Command. At a cost of roughly 6,000 personnel and 0.3 percent of the defense budget, America can afford this investment.
The vital relationships and influence America garners through security cooperation comes at a discount to American taxpayers. Washington would be wise to bolster these efforts to confront the rise in terrorism and great power competition alongside our African partners.
This article was originally published on Defence One.
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