Special Online Briefing with General Stephen J. Townsend Commander, U.S Africa Command (U.S AFRICOM)
Telephonic press briefing with departing General Stephen J. Townsend Commander, U.S Africa Command (U.S AFRICOM) on his three years as commander.
Moderator: Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing. Today, we are very honored to be joined by General Stephen Townsend, Commander of the United States Africa Command. With that, let’s get started. General Townsend, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
General Townsend: Thanks, Andrea. How do you hear me?
Moderator: Just fine, we hear you very well.
General Townsend: Okay, thank you. Good afternoon and good morning to everyone out there, wherever you are. As Andrea said, my name is General Steve Townsend. For the last three years, it’s been my privilege to serve as the Commander of the United States Africa Command based in Stuttgart, Germany. I’m excited to speak with all of you today as I prepare to relinquish command of the dedicated group of professional men and women who work tirelessly to support America’s national security objectives in Africa. Working by, with, and through our African partners to promote a more stable and prosperous Africa has been the highlight of my 40 years in uniform. I’ll briefly address a few focus areas and then I’ll open up to your questions. As you all know, Africa’s located at a global crossroads and its security environment is complex, ripe with both opportunities and challenges alike. China and Russia aggressively use diplomatic, economic, and military means to expand their access and influence, converting soft and hard power, investments, seeking new partnerships. This strategic competition is also linked to counterterrorism efforts on the continent. Counterterrorism is a top concern for many of our partners in Africa, and they frequently ask the United States for help. Either the U.S. will assist them or they will find assistance elsewhere. As many of you know, our President recently authorized the U.S. Department of Defense to return a small, persistent U.S. military presence to Somalia. We are in the initial stages of that effort. Our mission in Somalia has not changed. Our forces will continue equipping, training, advising, and assisting our Somali partners to degrade al-Shabaab, an arm of al-Qaeda. This repositioning means little without the support of strong partners across the Horn of Africa.
Djibouti and Kenya are examples of military forces that are strong partners in this vital and volatile region. We will continue to support these partners and others in the region and enable the Somali security forces and the AU mission there, ATMIS, to fight and degrade al-Shabaab. In West Africa, our approach aims to limit terrorist expansion and prevent their further inroads into the Sahel and the coastal states. We work with our partners to provide assistance, address
terrorist advances, and increase the effectiveness of our partnerships. U.S. maritime engagement is also crucial in this region, where piracy and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing presents a devastating economic and food scarcity challenge for our African partners. In North Africa, we’re interested in protecting NATO’s southern flank as well as helping our partners there to monitor and disrupt violent extremist organizations that may try to resurge in
Libya and Tunisia. Just last month, we wrapped up African Lion 2022, where 40 partner nations came together for AFRICOM’s premier annual exercise that combines multidomain forces, joint forces to strengthen our interoperability and enhance our collective readiness. Our ability to exercise with
major non-NATO allies like Morocco and Tunisia demonstrates the U.S. commitment to these partnerships. In Central Africa, we continue to focus our relationships on mostly diplomatic and development efforts that will help our African partners build stronger and more stable governments for their
citizens, and we remain vigilant about events in this region that could affect the larger continent’s security. In Southern Africa, we support enduring partnerships and security cooperation while seeking to approve America’s – improve America’s military relationships with the countries in Southern Africa. Again, thank you for taking the time to help tell the world what AFRICOM does and how we’re
working to build a more secure and stable Africa. With that, I’m ready to take your questions. Back over to you, Andrea.
Moderator: Great, thank you so much. We’ll now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing. For our first question I’d like to go to one in – to actually two questions that are in our questions and answers tab, very similar questions submitted by Ismail Akwei from GhanaWeb in Ghana and Gare Amadou from Le Canard déchaîné in Niger. And the question is: Has any progress been made in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel with U.S. support?
General Townsend: Okay, thanks. So first let me address the threats that we see there. First, the groups. Al-Qaeda is present, mainly in the form of a group known as JNIM, and they are probably the largest and most lethal group in West Africa, but also they have their terrorist competitors ISIS – two groups, main groups: ISIS-Sahara and ISIS-West Africa, ISIS-West nAfrica predominantly being in the Lake Chad region. There is another group there, Boko Haram, that was very much in the headlines a few years ago. They’ve been in competition with ISIS-West Africa. It appears that ISIS-West Africa is now the dominant force in that region. Boko Haram still exists, but I think they’re hanging on. Many of their members have either surrendered back to host-nation governments or have changed sides to join ISIS-West Africa. So those are the threats. And what we see is we see these threats expanding. We see ISIS-West Africa very much expanding in Nigeria. Just a couple of weeks ago, you’re all aware of a major prison break that occurred literally in the outskirts of the capital in Nigeria. And then in Mali and Burkina Faso, al-Qaeda’s arm, JNIM, have been on the march towards the south and they are now nearly investing the capital of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, and they’re starting operations now in the norther regions, border regions, of the coastal states. So this is of great concern, I think, for the world that’s watching.
Our activity in this region is mostly providing support to partners – first to African partners, which the United States provides bilaterally, specifically to the members of what we’re calling now the G4 Sahel Joint Force, formerly known as the G5 Sahel Force until Mali withdrew. Our funding to these countries is – it provides equipment, training, advisory support to allow them to become more effective in their fight against violent extremist groups. We also place liaison officers with all the headquarters in the region. We also provide support to our international partners there. There are American members of MINUSMA and there are also American liaisons and elements supporting the French deployment in the region.
I would say there’s been some progress. There have been some tactical victories. A number of those have resulted in the deaths of very senior terrorist leaders. Al-Qaeda is in – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s emir, Droukdel, was killed about two years ago in a combined operation, and there have been a number of other examples of these victories. However, we’ve always maintained that military force alone cannot defeat violent extremism. The root of this violent extremism is insufficient or poor governance. Because of that, we have to have a whole-of-government approach. That’s what we strive for at AFRICOM with diplomacy and development leading, supported by defense. I would say that the America – many of our partners in the region are recalibrating, and so has the United States, in light of the continued expansion of terrorists, irregular changes of government in the region, arrival of malign groups like the Russian mercenary group Wagner, and recalibration by other partners such as France and others. The United States is also recalibrating our approach and we’re striving to find a way to become more effective in the future. Back to you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. I’d like to now turn to one of our live questions from Pearl Matibe at defenceWeb. Pearl, you can unmute yourself and ask your question.
Question: Hi. Good morning, General Townsend. Please allow me to start off with a very short anecdote. It was exactly this time three years ago, in 2019, when I covered your change-of-command ceremony on July 26, 2019, which was held at Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany. So I just want to say thank you for having you today, making yourself available, and talking to me particularly over the years. This has been tremendous, so thanks for your being available. I might send additional questions to your office, if I may, but I’ll just ask one question to respect the other journalists. General Townsend, one of your earliest country visits was to Kenya, Camp Simba, Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya, but you recently also visited Angola. Can you tell me more details about Africa Command’s motivations for your travel there, maybe to other countries as well? Does Angola outrank South Africa, for example, in terms of military power? What are the outcomes of future planning that resulted out of your visit to Angola? Particularly because just last week, senators were expressing their concern to your successor, Lieutenant General Langley, about Moscow’s use of mercenary organizations, Wagner Group having a foothold in Africa. So please, can you just maybe tell me a little bit more about this influence from Africa Command’s standpoint? Thanks.
General Townsend: Okay. Thanks. I think it was Pearl. Thanks for your remembrance – in fact, your memory is excellent. Today is exactly the three-year anniversary of my command of Africa Command. In fact, I met with General Waldhauser just today. He just happens to be traveling with a group of military students through Germany today, and I met with him and we reminisced about that ceremony three years ago. And off your question, but I’ll just say this for all the reporters on the net: You’re invited to our change of command on the 9th of August here at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart if you would like to come, like Pearl did, and cover that change of command on the 9th of August. That’s subject to confirmation by our Congress of my relief, the incoming commander. But right now we’re planning for that on or about the 9th of August. Okay, so to your question about the trip to Angola. So, first of all, AFRICOM strives to travel and visit to all of the countries on the continent. There are a few that we don’t go to because we have – our nations have strained relationships. But for the most part we try to go to all of the countries. I go to the countries where we have – I invest my personal time in the countries where we have a U.S. troop presence, where we have significantly overlapping, shared security interests and objectives, or where I’m trying to make progress to improve our relationship. Angola recently contacted us and said that they are interested in diversifying their security relationships. Members of the Angolan military have attended a number of our conferences recently. I met with their chief of defense, and he told me that he would like to increase their engagement with the United States and with AFRICOM. So with that, I traveled down there to explore ways to do that, and it’s got nothing to do with the relative balance of power of any of the countries in Southern Africa; it just has to do with we’ve not had a great partnership necessarily with Angola in the past – it hasn’t been bad but it hasn’t been great – and both parties, the Angolans and the United States, would like to improve our military-to-military relationship. In fact, I’d like to improve our military-to-military relationship with a lot of countries in Southern Africa. So that’s what that was about, just improving our mil-to-mil relationship and seeing how we might be able to work together with one another.
And then you asked a question about mercenaries in Africa, and I’ll touch on that here but I think it deserves probably its own question. There are – where we see this most prominently playing out is with Russian mercenary groups, specifically and probably most infamously the group known as Wagner. Though the Kremlin likes to deny it publicly, they are an arm of the Kremlin and they are doing President Putin’s bidding and they – I think that the reason the Russians like that is because they seem to think it gives them some air of deniability, but I question the judgment of anybody who denies that and doesn’t recognize that Wagner is a Russian mercenary group working at the behest of the Kremlin. I don’t think they’re out for the good of any of Africans’ – African nations or people. The only thing I see Wagner doing is propping up dictators and exploiting natural resources on the continent. Maybe that’ll spark another question. Back to you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. And along those lines, we had a – the question submitted from Noe Michalon from Africa Intelligence in France that asks – who asks: “To what extent has the invasion of Ukraine impacted Russia’s presence on the continent?”
General Townsend: Okay. So it doesn’t seem to have affected their military presence on the continent greatly, mostly because there’s not a huge Russian military presence on the continent to begin with. What we have seen is we have seen impacts to the mercenary group Wagner’s presence on the continent. Specifically, they’ve had a number of operatives in Libya, probably on the order of 2,000 or so in the past, and we know they have about 1,000 recently deployed to Mali. I don’t know the numbers of Wagner operatives in the Central African Republic, but it’s substantial. Those are probably – they’ve got a footprint in a number of other countries, but those are probably some of the big ones. We have seen them draw down in Libya to move Wagner operatives to fight in Ukraine. And so that’s what we’ve seen, and it hasn’t had a significant impact that we can tell on the continent so far. They do not appear to be drawing down in Mali, and in fact they appear to be leaning into Mali as much as they have been throughout. In fact they have deployed sophisticated new capabilities like air-defense capabilities to Mali that we have seen appear there recently. So I think that answers your question. Over.
Moderator: Thank you very much. I’d like to go over now to – and take one of our live questions. I’d like to give the floor to Hiba Nasr from Asharq News.
Question: Good morning. Good morning from D.C., and thanks for doing this. I want to ask about – I want to confirm, General, if the reports about – that the Defense Department is looking at alternative locations for the African Lion exercise, and how would this affect the relation with Morocco? Can you say something on that? Thank you.
General Townsend: Okay. So the short answer is yes, we are. Our U.S. law – our Congress passed our defense law for Fiscal Year ’22 that requires us to look at diversifying the exercise, and by diversifying the exercise, looking at maybe moving the exercise or elements of the exercise to other areas on the continent. We are engaged in that because we believe – in America we believe in civil control of the military, and our civilian leaders in our government have told us to do that. So we are faithfully doing that. What does that mean? So we’re looking at other places where we can have parts of – parts or all of African Lion to be conducted in the future. But here are the facts: Morocco has been our host for 18 African Lions, and they have a tremendous capacity to do it; their military capacity is very high; they also have the infrastructure, the training ranges, all of that. They are a fantastic host. So what we did this year is we used what we called a hub-and-spoke approach. So the hub, the center part of the wheel, was Morocco, but we had a spoke in Tunisia that was not insignificant. It was in excess of 500 personnel. We had a spoke in Senegal and we had a spoke in Ghana.
So we are going to – because we’ve been directed to do it, we are going to continue this exploration of how we might further diversify African Lion, and I think I would like – I am interested in having other African countries volunteer to host – co-host some or all of African Lion. We will send teams out to make these assessments and surveys, and happy to diversify the exercise. It will be difficult to find any country in Africa, I think, that can probably approach what Morocco has been able to do over 18 years. That will be hard to find someone who can do that, certainly on year one. So anyway, I hope that answers your question. We have been directed to diversify African Lion, but Morocco has been a fantastic host and I look forward to working with them on – we, AFRICOM, will work with them on future African Lions, I am sure.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. We have time for one more question, and it’ll go to Jo Otero from Baptist Church Enquirer in the United Kingdom. His question is: “I know you have had a long and distinguished career and wonder, what are your feelings about retiring and beginning life again as a civilian and what are your future plans?”
General Townsend: Okay. Well, thanks for that question. I would just like to say that it’s been a fantastic 40 years in uniform, and AFRICOM has been the highlight of those 40 years. I love working in this job because the continent is so big and complex and diverse. So coming to work every day is an education and it’s always fascinating. So it’s hard to beat a job like that. But 40 years is enough of doing anything, even if you love it. So it is time for me to pass the torch to a younger generation of leaders, and it’s time for me to take off the uniform. As I said, we plan to pass the AFRICOM colors to a new commander on the 9th of August here, and I will step down and soon retire within a couple of months, and I am going to spend some time with my three grandchildren. I have a granddaughter that I haven’t even met in person yet, and I’m very much looking forward to meeting her and spending time with my other grandchildren. So I think that’s – my feelings are I’m not really looking backward and I don’t feel regretful; I feel excited about what I’ve done over the last 40 years and I feel even more excited about the next 40 years. And I think with that, I’ll just close with thanking all of you for taking time today to participate in this call. Your work helps to bring awareness to issues that impact people in Africa and around the globe, and I appreciate your commitment to tell the story about what America is trying to do in Africa. America really does believe in a more – that a more stable and secure and prosperous Africa is not only good for Africa and the African people, it’s good for America and America’s security as well. We really believe that. And so that sort of guides everything we do. I appreciate the media’s commitment to keeping us accountable and transparent. The challenges that I discussed today can only be resolved if all of our countries agree to work together. We’ve come a long way in this, and there’s a still a lot of work to do. And I know that my successor here will be more than up to the challenge of leading the men and women of AFRICOM. It’s been my great honor to serve as their Commander for the last three years, and I look forward to seeing what AFRICOM does next alongside all of our partners in Africa and around the world. Thank you very much.
Moderator: And thank you, General Townsend, for joining us and for giving us the opportunity to host this briefing for you. Thank you also to all of the journalists who have joined us. Shortly we’ll send an audio recording of the briefing to all the participating journalists and we’ll provide a transcript as soon as it’s available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, so you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. Thank you again to everyone for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another press briefing soon. This ends today’s briefing.