A breakdown of security in Libya has allowed a significant flow of militants and weapons into other troubled areas in North Africa, according to the top Pentagon official on Africa policy.
The outflow of Libyan weapons and militants has “created opportunities for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to exploit instability and establish new and expanded safe havens,” said Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Amanda J. Dory.
Speaking at a conference sponsored by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies this week, Ms. Dory specifically noted the turbulent situation in Mali, where rebel military forces and Islamist militants have seized control of a large part of the country.
The developments highlight the growing U.S. military interest and involvement in Africa as the Pentagon implements a strategy to thwart militants and terrorist groups across the continent.
According to the U.S. intelligence community’s 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment, Africa-based terrorist groups such as al-Shabab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria and Boko Haram in Nigeria will surpass the remnants of the “core” al Qaeda in Pakistan in terms of threats to U.S. interests and will seek opportunities to strike Western targets in their operating areas.
“Regional cooperation and information-sharing between militaries will be more important than ever as we grapple with the challenges associated with the outpouring of weapons and people from Libya into the greater Maghreb and Sahel regions,” she said.
New policy, new strategy
It is this kind of partnered response that the Pentagon is building upon in its defense strategy in sub-Saharan Africa, which seeks to deepen security partnerships with African nations and regional organizations to address threats and challenges.
“The interests of the United States and Africa converge in important ways,” Ms. Dory said. “The United States is more secure when our friends and allies around the world are secure.”
Defense officials note that President Obama recently issued an Africa directive calling for a focus on strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth and investment, promoting development, and advancing peace and stability.
Ms. Dory’s public remarks Monday were the first by a defense official on the new policy and strategy in Africa.
The strategy calls for the U.S. to leverage its expertise in border security, maritime-aviation security, cybersecurity and financial transactions to counter the illicit movement of people, arms, drugs and money, she said.
J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, said the new strategy is really a continuation of various programs begun by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to build up African military capacity and peacekeeping.
“This is continuity,” he said. “With the exception of a few despotic regimes like Sudan under Bashir and Zimbabwe under Mugabe, there’s virtually no African government that the United States and [U.S. Africa Command] does not partner with, even in the most modest of fashions.”
U.S. forces in Africa
Still, he said, he welcomes the administration’s effort to formulate a new policy on Africa.
“I congratulate the administration for doing it. I think it’s something that’s worthwhile; on the other hand, I think it’s overdue,” Mr. Pham said. “Three-and-a-half years into an administration of a president who was hailed as the first president of African descent, he spent less than 24 hours on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa.
“So it’s long overdue, but it’s going to take more than a piece of paper that doesn’t list priorities to right U.S. policy in Africa.”
One example of a long-existing effort that will continue is the deployment of U.S. Special Forces to Africa.
In October, the president authorized the deployment of about 100 commandos to advise local forces pursuing the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and in April announced a continued deployment through 2013.
“The small teams of U.S. military advisers now present with forward-deployed Ugandan military forces and national military forces in field locations are in LRA-affected areas,” Ms. Dory said.
“At these locations, the advisers have made progress in strengthening the relationships between military officials and … civilian officials and other organizations, enhancing information-sharing and synchronization and helping with training and planning,” she said, adding that regional partners include Uganda, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
Ms. Dory also noted that U.S. military advisers in Congo are supporting U.N. operations as well as the nation’s efforts to drive out militants with the LRA, which has plagued the area for years.
“We’re satisfied with the results of the deployment to date. The advisers have established a good working relationship and foundation with partner militaries,” she said.
The strategy is aimed at informing domestic audiences and partners in Africa that the Obama administration views Africa as important, said retired Army Col. Tom Dempsey, chairman for security studies at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
“Leadership matters, and American leadership matters a lot,” he said. “This strategy is saying that this matters, it matters to us, and we need to do something about it.”