WASHINGTON – The United States and its Western allies are forced to face a grim reality in Africa where years of work to curb the spread of terrorism, whether inspired by al-Qaida, the Islamic State or groups locals, have failed and may soon be overshadowed by the need to focus on adversaries like China and Russia.
“Despite our best efforts, this terrorism continues to spread,” the commander of US forces in Africa, General Stephen Townsend, told a virtual defense forum on Tuesday.
“The spread of terrorism has continued relatively unabated,” Townsend added, noting that the fate of future efforts may depend on the ongoing review of the posture of the US Department of Defense forces, which will determine whether his command get more troops or resources or be asked to find ways to do more with less.
This is not the first time that Townsend has drawn attention to Washington’s struggles to prevent the spread of terrorist groups and ideologies across Africa.
The US general sounded the alarm last year, telling lawmakers: “Western, international and African efforts are not doing the job… ISIS and al-Qaida are on the march.
Around the same time, the US Africa Command began to change its language when it spoke of terrorist groups in Africa, speaking of “containing” them rather than “degrading” them.
Last November, the Pentagon Inspector General was equally blunt in his final report on US counterterrorism operations in Africa, warning that major terrorist groups, such as al-Shabab linked to al-Qaida in Somalia and various affiliates of the group terrorist Islamic State, also known as ISIS or IS, maintained their strength if not grew.
However, Townsend’s latest assessment comes just a day after the 83-member Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS announced plans to form an African task force to combat the terrorist group’s expansion on the continent.
It also comes as U.S. military leaders await the results of a force posture review, initiated by President Joe Biden’s administration, to determine how Washington can best allocate troops and resources as it moves forward. focuses more on the dangers posed by increasing competition from the great powers. with China and Russia.
Earlier this month, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told lawmakers he would not predict when the review would be completed, but assured them the focus “will be on making sure, that whether in Somalia or elsewhere in the world, terrorists do not have the capacity to threaten our homeland. “
Ongoing review of posture of US forces – “I’m not predicting when we’ll finish this job” by @SecDef Austin
“The objective will be to ensure that if it is in #Somalia or some other place in the world where terrorists do not have the capacity to threaten our homeland “, he adds
– Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) June 17, 2021
Somalia’s al-Shabab base, which has up to 10,000 combatants, was of particular concern.
Al-Shabab is “the largest, best-funded and most kinetically active branch of al-Qaida in the world,” Townsend warned on Tuesday, noting that, left alone, the group could possibly pose a risk not only to the region but for the United States itself. .
– Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) June 29, 2021
And he warned that efforts to contain the terror group were not aided by former President Donald Trump’s decision to pull all US troops out of the country last December.
“It is undeniable that our rather sudden repositioning out of Somalia earlier this year introduced new layers of risk and complexity,” he said.
“The best way to engage with partners is side-to-side and face-to-face,” Townsend said. “We have limited opportunities to do this when we fly in and out for training and counseling.”
Concerns have only grown, senior Somali military officials told VOA that additional US restrictions on airstrikes in Somalia – there has not been a single US airstrike since January 20 – have failed. further emboldens al-Shabab, an assessment supported by intelligence from UN member states. .
It remains to be seen how much that will change once the United States completes its review of the forces posture, with senior officials repeatedly emphasizing the need to face China as the biggest “stimulus challenge” ever. highlighting the existential threat posed by the Russian military.
“We have given our recommendations to our civilian leaders and we are waiting for them to render their judgments,” Townsend said.
Washington’s European allies, however, are hopeful that the United States at least finds a way to continue supporting the Somali government.
“We are welcomed and invited there by the Somali government,” said Vice-Admiral Hervé Bléjean, Director General of the General Staff of the European Union, on Tuesday, speaking at the same virtual forum as Townsend of the Africa Command.
“The war is far from over and they need help,” Bléjean said. “You can really feel the atmosphere of insecurity there. “
Central African Republic
Bléjean and other European officials also see the need for the United States to remain involved beyond Somalia, particularly in response to Russia, which has sent mercenaries from the Wagner group linked to the Kremlin to Libya and the Republic. Central African.
“I was in the Central African Republic last week. I saw Wagner… they are everywhere,” he said. “They bring nothing to the country except immediate security responses, perhaps, at the cost of committing a lot of… human rights violations. Rights and atrocities.”
– Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) June 29, 2021
“[The Russians] are very happy that they destabilize [the situation]», Added Bléjean.
The path to follow
Other officials and experts fear that, whether due to Russian mercenaries, climate change or terrorism, the African threat will only increase and be worse without Washington’s help.
“We are discovering a huge arc of instability,” said Portuguese Minister of National Defense João Gomes Cravinho. “As the United States focuses on the Indo-Pacific, it is very important that, through its engagement with the European Union, the United States remains a relevant partner. “
Former African security officials like Samira Gaid, who served as a senior adviser to former Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, also see the need for the United States to stay.
“The support provided by the United States is tangible … to defeat the insurgency,” she said, expressing hope that Washington could take “a greater role in the security sector among the [Somalia’s] the partners.”
Critics of the US approach to counterterrorism in Africa, however, warn that terrorism and instability will only spread if Washington continues to engage in the same way it has in these past. last years.
“The United States is losing the war,” said Jennifer Cafarella, research director at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
“We have expended tremendous efforts over the past two decades against various [terror] elements, ”she said, noting that there have been short-term victories. “But all of this activity hasn’t stopped these groups from adapting and evolving.”
Harun Maruf contributed to this report.