Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat—The name ‘Central Command,’ or CENTCOM for short, has become familiar to anyone who follows developments in the Middle East. One of the US military’s nine ‘combatant commands,’ it is responsible for American forces in a slice of the globe running from Egypt in the west to Afghanistan in the east, and as far north as Kazakhstan.
Of the remaining five, United States Africa Command, ‘AFRICOM,’ is the one that oversees American forces and defense-related links in the Arab states of North Africa, as well as the rest of the continent. Recently, AFRICOM was in the news for supervising a project to improve communications for allies in North Africa and the Sahel as part of efforts by the US military to help local allies tackle Al-Qaeda affiliates and other Islamist terrorist groups. In addition, a few months ago President Barack Obama and Djibouti’s President Ismael Omar Guelleh signed a 20-year lease agreement for the Camp Lemonnier, the biggest US military base in Africa, which is run by AFRICOM and has reportedly played a key role in American drone campaigns.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to the head of AFRICOM, Gen. David M. Rodriguez, who took command last year after a 28-year career in the US Army, including service in Afghanistan and Iraq, both in 1991 and after the 2003 invasion.
Asharq Al-Awsat: AFRICOM was established six years ago, according to its official biography. Why was it set up, and what exactly does it do?
Gen. David M. Rodriguez: Prior to US Africa Command’s formation, three separate Combatant Commands conducted engagements with African nations: US European Command, Central Command, and Pacific Command. Because Africa was growing in strategic and economic importance in global affairs, AFRICOM was established and given responsibility for US military activities across the continent—minus Egypt, which remains under the purview of US Central Command.
Assigning a single command with primary responsibility for US military activities in Africa allows for more effective prioritization and management of security cooperation efforts with our African partners.
AFRICOM’s mission is to work with interagency and international partners to build defense capabilities, respond to crisis, and deter and defeat transnational threats in order to advance US national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.
We have successfully deepened our collaboration with African, European, and interagency partners. We’ve supported US government responses to crises, and I think we are becoming more effective at this. I also believe we’ve been effective in many areas in helping partners to build capacity, and in enabling partners and allies, to respond to regional threats.
Q: You were quoted saying that AFRICOM is “led by the Department of State in executing the command’s mission.” Could you elaborate on that? Isn’t AFRICOM part of the Pentagon? What happens when State and Pentagon differ?
Yes, AFRICOM falls under the Department of Defense. The US State Department is the primary US government agency responsible for US foreign policy and diplomacy. AFRICOM’s activities support comprehensive US government efforts that are led by US ambassadors.
When the secretaries of state and defense disagree on policy matters, there are established processes for resolving these differences. If necessary, decision-making may be elevated to the president.
Q: You talked about a “new generation of political, social and economic leaders” in Africa. How are they different from the previous generation?
Technology and globalization have broadened the perspective of a wider range of Africans than ever before. Today’s youth are increasingly linked to one another and to the world through new and more affordable communication systems and through the advent of innovative technologies such as social media. Access to education, after decades of decline, is now increasing. Today’s youth know more, sooner, and are more vocal. They are not afraid to point out the inconsistencies of their governments.
Because of this, African governments and leaders, like others around the world, are being held accountable to a greater degree than ever by their people.
Q: The Washington Post recently published an article warning against the “militarization” of US policy in Africa. The author of the article argued that the Pentagon was driving the agenda, not the State Department. The article also alleged that relations between US military officers and some of their African counterparts undermined African civilian leaders. What is your response to these claims?
As I noted, the US Department of State is the primary US government agency responsible for US foreign policy and diplomacy. Everything AFRICOM does in Africa is at the request, or with the approval of, the respective host nation and US ambassador.
AFRICOM operations, exercises, and security cooperation programs are tailored to support US foreign policy objectives. Our military-to-military activities and security cooperation programs reinforce the role of a professional military in a democratic society.
Q: The attack on US diplomats in Benghazi is being discussed in the Congress again. How save was—and is—Benghazi, and other American embassies in North Africa? Also, how do you strike the balance between fortifying an embassy and allowing it to keep doing its job as a diplomatic outpost?
The US Department of State is responsible for the security of our embassies, and the host nation has the responsibility for security outside of the embassies. There is currently no US military presence in Benghazi.
In general, AFRICOM, in close collaboration with the Department of State, monitors the security situation wherever US personnel are located. It would be impossible to generalize the security of all US diplomatic facilities in Africa, but the State Department has made a number of improvements to physical security, and AFRICOM is also better able to support the State Department in responding to threats to US diplomatic posts today than it was in the past.
As far as the size and specific security conditions of our embassies, I would refer you to the US Department of State.
Q: What are the effects of the current instability in Libya on AFRICOM’s attempts to combat terrorism in the region?
Part of our mission is to deter and defeat transnational threats. AFRICOM primarily contributes to US and international counterterrorism efforts in Africa by building partner capacity and enabling partners and allies.
Libya’s instability has had regional security impacts. Libya’s porous borders have allowed the flow of fighters, weapons, ammunition, resources, ideology, and tactics, techniques, and procedures. Addressing the security challenges associated with instability in Libya will require a coordinated regional and international effort.
The US and Djibouti recently agreed to extend the presence of AFRICOM there. There have been reports in the press that US military facilities there have been used to conduct drone strikes in Yemen. Can you comment on these reports?
AFRICOM’s activities comply with international law. I’m not going to provide details of the use of remotely piloted aircraft, but what is important to know is that AFRICOM closely coordinates with our African partners to support a range of security missions, including surveillance, counterterrorism, bilateral security assistance, and counter-piracy.
In general, I would refer you to President Obama’s May 23, 2013 speech, in which he addressed the framework for US policy on this topic.
Regarding Yemen, it would be better to address your questions to US Central Command.
Q: Let’s turn to the conflict in South Sudan, which began in part as a military mutiny. What was AFRICOM’s role in the country before the fighting began? Didn’t AFRICOM train their army? What went wrong?
AFRICOM has supported US security sector reform programs, led by the State Department, in South Sudan. As a result of the instability and ongoing active fighting, military-to-military engagement with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army is currently on hold.
Q: What about the situation in Somalia? Fighting against Al-Shabaab has dragged on for years, with some criticizing the role of Kenyan and Ugandan forces and saying the fighting has become increasingly sectarian, that it has led to revenge attacks in both countries. What is your view?
The Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab remains a persistent threat in Somalia and broader East Africa. Al-Shabaab reacted to previous losses of territory to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Somali National Army (SNA) by shifting to more asymmetric attacks. Although AMISOM and the SNA have achieved some gains against Al-Shabaab, their limited ability to pressure the group has allowed it to increase its lethality, operational sophistication, and reach.
It is inaccurate to characterize Kenyan and Ugandan forces as participating in a religious conflict in Somalia. Kenyan and Ugandan military activities in Somalia, as well as those of Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone, are conducted in support of AMISOM, a peacekeeping mission that has a mandate authorized by the United Nations Security Council.
AMISOM is working with Somali forces to counter Al-Shabaab and protect Somali citizens, who have borne the greatest impacts of Al-Shabaab’s violence. AMISOM is also helping to develop the capacity of Somali forces.
It is true that Al-Shabaab is increasingly targeting AMISOM troop contributing countries, which underscores that Al-Shabaab is a regional problem that requires a regional solution.