The US Africa Command Public Affairs Office had the opportunity recently to discuss command issues with AFRICOM Commander General Carter F. Ham. We asked his thoughts on everything from the evolving mission of AFRICOM to countering the Lord’s Resistance Army and dealing with future Department of Defense budget cuts. Below is an edited excerpt of our interview.
Q. Could you offer us your views on the mission of US Africa Command and how it’s evolved since you took command last year?
A.“We focus on two aspects of our mission statement. The first is to strengthen the defense capabilities of our African partners. And we do that because we know if their defense capabilities are strong or stronger, they’ll be more capable of dealing with threats and maintaining security not only in their own nations, but regionally as well.
“And the second part of the mission … is to be prepared when directed by the President and the Secretary of Defense, to conduct military operations in the interest of the United States. I don’t think our mission has changed all that much. In the past year, I think what has shifted perhaps, is a refocus … on the military aspects of our mission, and particularly in the realm of countering violent extremist organizations, which are unfortunately starting to emerge in Africa.”
Q. Could you please offer your views on how the operations, exercises and security cooperation programs work to assist African militaries and African organizations?
A. “Our engagement with our African partners, whether bilaterally, collectively or through the African Union regional organizations are an absolutely integral part of what we do. Engagement remains a very key component of what Africa Command does. It is through these exercises, through operations, through seminars and other training, other mil-to-mil activities, that’s frankly how we seek to … strengthen [our partners’] defense capabilities.”
“A part of that engagement that’s often overlooked, frankly, is how much we gain from those exercises. Every time we have the opportunity to put a U.S. service member in contact with African units, that American service member comes back to his or her service, or if it’s in Africa, coming in person, when they come back to the command, they have more capability than when they began that engagement. So this relationship, I think this engagement to me, is the very essence of a genuine partnership, where it works to the mutual benefit of the contributing organizations.”
Q. The Counter-LRA mission has garnered much public attention. What key points would you like to clarify regarding that operation?
A. “Here is an organization, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, which has terrorized a large number of people in four different states – Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo – for a number of years. Traumatized kids, murdered thousands of people, caused large-scale displacement of populations in a very wide region.
“The contributions of Africa Command to countering the Lord’s Resistance Army are focused on finding ways to help the four nations more effectively collaborate, coordinate and synchronize their efforts to achieve the end state of defeating Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. That’s best done through support, advising and assistance, rather than US military persons in the lead actually conducting the operations to try to find Kony and capture him.”
Q. You have mentioned before that AFRICOM’s effect is disproportionate to the investment. Would you care to offer some insight into that?
A. “We don’t consume a lot of resources. We don’t spend a whole lot of money in the larger scale of things. We’re not a big consumer of large-scale military forces. We don’t very often require aircraft carriers or fighter wings or army brigades and Marine Corps regiments and battalions. That’s not the kind of organization that we are. We’re at our best when we have leader-to-leader engagements, when we have small teams of military and civilian experts that are embedded and cooperating with their African partners.”
“What I like best about this command is you may find at any one time, a wide number of small teams, in many cases, individuals or pairs of people around the continent engaging with their African partners. It doesn’t take a lot of money, doesn’t take a lot of people, but the effect – everywhere there are Americans, military and civilian, from the command, contributing to African security, I believe that that has disproportionate positive effect.”
Q. Regarding budget matters … How do you see the command using what are sure to be fewer dollars in the future?
A. “We’ve been mandated for the coming fiscal year to reduce our budget by six percent. I’m absolutely convinced we will be able to sustain the level of activity that is required for us to achieve our mission, but at slightly lower cost. We’re looking for more and more ways where we can operate more effectively and, again, prioritize our efforts on the most important missions. We can do that … by instilling a consciousness across the command, so that each one of us –military, civilian, our DOD and our non-DOD staff as well — focus on asking ourselves the question each time we’re preparing for an activity. Is there a better way to do this? Do we really need all these people? Can the conference be curtailed by a day or two?”
Q: And to follow up on that … will anything change about AFRICOM’s mission due to the budget cuts?
“When you look at the priorities established in [the Defense Strategic Guidance] document — countering violent extremists, maintaining access, building partner capacity, sustaining relationships with our allies and partners — that’s what we do. It’s at the very core of Africa Command’s mission.”