Soon after General William E. (Kip) Ward became the first commander of the United States Africa Command, known as Africom, in October 2007, he summed up his vision for his new undertaking in a posting on the Africom web site: "Years from now we want Africans and Americans to be able to say Africom made a difference — a positive difference."
Prior to Africom's creation, responsibility for coordinating U.S. military activity in Africa was divided among three other regional commands. The decision by President George W. Bush sparked considerable controversy and debate, and African governments and non-governmental organizations have reacted with a mixture of caution and outright rejection. Ward, who joined the U.S. army in 1971 and is the only African American four-star general on active duty, believes much of the criticism is waning, as he explained in an interview with AllAfrica in his Pentagon office. Excerpts:
Africom evokes varying reactions and is perceived quite differently by various constituencies. What is the core mission?
Our mission is providing sustained security engagement, working in cooperation and conjunction with our partners, friends, allies. We do our best to help Africans increase their capacity to provide for their own security, and we do that through this notion of sustained engagement, working with the African nations to help them build their structures . . . and doing all of that clearly in line with our foreign policy objectives as opposed to things that anyone of us wearing the uniform think might be a good idea.
We aren't independent operators. We do things that are in line with our foreign policy objectives for the various nations, the continent itself. Our efforts complement and support the achievement of those foreign policy objectives. It's a continent that is rich and diverse and full of opportunities - [and] clearly has challenges. It's important work. It doesn't reap overnight results, but we have to be committed to sustained engagement.
What is Africom's role in combating terrorism?
Terrorism is something that plagues many parts of the world, and Africa is not immune. We are not there to eradicate terrorism for Africans; we are there to work with Africans as they attempt to deal with their own issues of terror, or violent extremism that's committed against innocent civilians. Our role is working with the security structures of the nations to increase their capacity to deal with terror problems. That was going on before the command was created.
We've taken over those programs in a more cohesive and focused way by spending time with these nations, working with them in a very dedicated and collaborative way to do the sorts of things that increase their capacity to provide for their own security, from their borders to how they work together amongst themselves in a region, how they understand the environment, and then clearly the capability of their security forces to deal with the threat of terror and the threat of violent extremism.
That involves training?
It involves training. It also involves equipping, communications, the ability to talk to one another, the ability to see what's going on in their borders [and] territorial waters - to help them be able to have better control over their territory.
What about on-the-ground activities - pursuing terrorist groups, for example? Is that part of Africom's mission?
Africom does not, as its stated mission, go out and pursue. Clearly, should we be directed to do something by our president, our Secretary of Defense, then we would do that. But, as a part of our day-to-day activities, we are not on the ground pursuing terrorists, as you might find in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are those who believe that Africom was created to set up U.S. bases in Africa. In congressional testimony a few months ago you rejected that and talked about the importance of creating 'infrastructure nodes' and 'forward operating sites'. Could you elaborate?
As I've stated over and over again, and as President [Barack] Obama restated, we are not about establishing bases and garrisons on the continent where there are battalions of soldiers and squadrons of seamen and airmen. That's not the case at all.
What we look to do is work with our African partners and friends where there are requirements for infrastructure or logistics hubs or doing the sorts of cooperative activities we do, where we can stage supplies, if needed, for humanitarian [missions] - natural disasters, locations that are suitable for those sorts of things, locations that could be used to add to our flexibility of working with our friends on the continent in various parts of the continent.
It's a huge, huge continent. Having sites, locations identified from which, should an emergency arise, we can operate in partnership with the African nations for staging of supplies, for conducting training activities, for conducting humanitarian assistance sorts of activities, then identifying those locations, is what that was about.
Given the vast distances that you will require, places where you can use for your en route infrastructure, moving from place to place - logistics movement of various things as we conduct those sorts of activities for the continent. That's what I was referring to - those sorts of sites and locations.
But not bases?
Not bases. Obviously there is a base in Djibouti. The creation of the command did not put it there. It was already there at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti. We did inherit that as a part of our taking over responsibility for the conduct of Department of Defense activities on the continent of Africa.
From the time you spent in Somalia with Operation Restore Hope, you know how the disastrous experience there made it politically unpalatable for successive administrations to commit boots on the ground in Africa, even when genocidal killing erupted in Rwanda and conflict turned to carnage in Liberia. With Africom in place, won't there be expectations, in Africa and elsewhere, of significant U.S. involvement in the event of large-scale conflict or humanitarian disaster? How do you address those expectations?
You can't predict those sorts of things. It's kind of hard to determine what we would do or not do. Our actions would be a direct result of our foreign policy objectives. We don't have standing forces. It would be a decision that would be made by our government. If there is a requirement for a military activity, then we would be the command responsible [for the command and control of that military activity], after having been properly resourced by our nation to do that job.
If troops were called for, you are saying they would have to be found somewhere else.
What role is Africom playing in resolving the horrific ongoing conflict in eastern Congo?
We don't have a direct role. We are not involved in activities dealing with the insurgents or the rebel groups. That's for Africans to deal with. We are hopefully doing things to increase their capacity to more effectively deal with those sorts of things.
We are working with those nations that we have bilateral relationships with to help them increase their own capacities to control their borders, to increase the effectiveness of their military forces that are there, from command and control, to communications, to equipment, the training things.
The recent collaboration amongst some of the nations in the eastern Congo to address those common threats we would see as very positive. We encourage those nations who have those internal threats to continue to cooperate with one another. To the degree our foreign policy objectives indicate a degree of support for that, then we would certainly be the ones doing that.
Piracy is a major problem in both East and West Africa. Does Africom have a role there?
We do. But, again, it goes back to how littoral nations, on both east and west coast of Africa, know their territorial waters. Their ability to govern their shores [and] their borders requires them to understand what goes on in their territorial waters.
Obviously piracy on the east coast of Africa is largely a result of lack of effective governance in Somalia for so long. How that continues to evolve will portend the future for reducing the piracy threat on the east coast of Africa.
On the west coast, [and] the ability of those nations to govern their territories, their borders is what will ultimately impact illegal trafficking and piracy. Working with them to increase their capacity to deal with those threats - to secure their borders, [improve] their customs regimes [and] the capacities of their maritime forces, increase their readiness – that is how we help them address those types of problems.
The Obama administration is providing arms and ammunition to the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia. Does Africom have a role there?
We are not directly involved with the Transitional Federal Government at this point in time. We are partnering with the nations of Africa who look to work with them to support training efforts. But we are not directly involved.
Is Africom the only U.S. command with a civilian component?
The other combatant commands have civilian components in varying capacities. Southern Command, focusing on South America, has a civilian deputy. There has been an evolution towards some of those things in other commands. But our command was stood up to have a civilian component that's represented inside our command structure. One of my two deputies is a State Department ambassador, and that deputy is not there to do Department of State work. But the work our command does is better informed because of the expertise that is brought to our planning, our execution from the knowledge that they have, their experience.
Also [involved are] the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, Agriculture - such that the work that we do better supports and complements the work that is being done by other parts of our government.
We are not doing their work, nor are we directing their work, but we better understand [their work] because we have, inside our command, expertise that they bring to our staff processes, our planning processes and our execution processes.
Is the civilian component of Africom fully operational or is it still gearing up?
It's gearing up. It's certainly not complete [but] I'm satisfied with it at this point. Until they have additional capacity to have persons assigned to our command, that will be something that won't be realized to its fullest. But there's a very healthy exchange. Persons are inside the command at some number, and we look for those numbers to continue to grow over the coming years as their capacity to participate is strengthened.
By undertaking civilian tasks like building schools or drilling wells, how do you, at the same time, instill in soldiers you are training in Africa the concept of separation of military and civilian roles.
We clearly recognize the distinction between the role of the military in government as opposed to the role of the military in support of its government. The humanitarian projects we do are done by military who have skill sets for that particular activity. Where those things can be done in support of our foreign policy objectives, where they can be done in support of the partner nation, then we all benefit.
Soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen get valuable training in their construction skill requirements - and, by the way, while they get that valuable training, they're also helping out a partner nation. As part of that, side by side are the militaries from the [African] nations so people see their military doing things on their behalf. That really exemplifies and illustrates how militaries work in support of their people, and doing things that have been determined - not by us - but by the local civilian administration, also by our country teams, our Department of State representatives in country, our ambassadors, the USAID program managers.
We are doing things that wouldn't otherwise be done. We aren't doing things in place of someone else, and we do them in a way that highlights this very important distinction: That the military works in support of its people, in support of its government, and doing those things that the government has in fact indicated are appropriate to do.
Because of the nature of the task being done, they also support the military skill set from those that are involved in doing the projects. You have sailors or soldiers who are construction engineers drilling wells. Those are skills that we need in the military for operating in various austere environments. As opposed to doing it in a place where it doesn't matter, we can enhance that skill in a place where people need that particular service, especially when it's not being done by anyone else - and in conjunction with the host government and our country team there in the partner nation.
The way you avoid either supplanting or replacing, for example, USAID activities, is through coordination?
Exactly - coordination with the USAID construction team, but also [with] the host government. Where do you have a need for something that's not being satisfied by anyone else?
Are we always perfect? No. But that's the goal. And, as I said, when people see their soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines working side by side with our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines to bring them something good, it begins to change that mentality of soldiers or militaries who may have been considered as oppressors of their population to being more of protectors and providers for their population.
The administration's budget for the financial year 2010 has a large increase for Africom. Assuming you get additional funds, will this change or add to anything you're doing now?
It probably does not mean a change in what we do. It means we can be more focused. We can sustain our effort to a greater degree. Again, these are not short-term requirements or endeavors. These are long-term activities. And it's not doing for the African nations; it's assisting them as they try to do for themselves - to increase their capacity to do things. As we get additional resources that we can commit to that, it makes those efforts a bit stronger and makes them more relevant to providing the sort of training assistance, the developmental support that will matter to the African people. The type of projects and activities remain basically the same.
Africom had a rocky beginning. As you travel throughout Africa, do you find that the perception of Africom is changing?*
The perception is changing, and it's changing because of what people are not seeing. What the Africans are seeing is not something that they were led to believe by some might be the case. What they are seeing is an enhanced, more dedicated approach to our working with them as true partners, listening to them and doing things with them that clearly are in our interests. Having a stable Africa is in our national security interest. But also, having Africans be responsible for that likewise is in our security interest. Not doing for them; helping them do for themselves.
Will Africom operate out of Stuttgart for the foreseeable future? Are you looking at having more operational capacity on the ground in various parts of Africa?
Stuttgart is a planning headquarters. There is no operational capacity in Stuttgart at all. Our capacity to do our work resides in our security assistance apparatus on the continent. They operate out of our embassies by and large. So the headquarters, as far as I can see for now, is going to remain in Stuttgart.
Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee (March 2009)
(a campaign launched by U.S. and African organizations opposed to Africom)