Despite increasing activity by the Islamic State and other terror organizations on the African continent, and an expanding mission for U.S. service members deployed there, AFRICOM is likely to remain under-resourced for the foreseeable future.
In a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the most worrisome worldwide threats, representatives of U.S. intelligence agencies agreed their top concerns are the ongoing cyber attacks from U.S. adversaries; a potential great powers conflict with Russia or China; and the need to counter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Those concerns align with the National Defense Strategy that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis unveiled earlier this month, and the 2019 budget request released Monday at the Pentagon. And while that approach does not abandon Africa, it does push resources toward what the Pentagon and intelligence community view as the more existential threats.
“We have entered a period that can best be described as a race for technological superiority against our adversaries, who seek to sow division in the United States and weaken U.S. leadership,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told committee members.
Justified as that focus may be, the U.S. risks losing ground in Africa, where approximately 6,000 troops are deployed in training, advisory and counter-terrorism roles with partnered forces across the continent. Those forces have worked to counter new cells of Islamic State and other terrorist group-affiliated fighters taking hold in across Northern Africa. U.S. airstrikes have targeted al-Shabab militants in Somalia and targeted Islamic State militants in Libya.
But for many Americans, the October ambush by Islamic State-affiliated fighters in Niger that killed four soldiers was startling. The incident not only revealed the extent of U.S. involvement on the continent but also led to public discussion of the support they are receiving,
Since the attack, U.S. forces there have changed how they go out on missions. The attack also highlighted the lack of dedicated casualty evacuation air assets.
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Benjamin J. Higginbotham, who just returned from serving as the senior enlisted leader for Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, said the limited resourcing for U.S. Africa Command has affected the extent to which U.S. forces can counter the terrorism threat there.
“With those limited assets and the vast distances associated with that area of operations, we have to be very sensitive as to what operations we can posture ourselves — should one of our service members get in trouble — [so] that we can actually pull him or her out,” Higginbotham said. “Personnel recovery and casevac is one of the biggest challenges there, especially in this resource-constrained environment.”
Coats said ISIS and other groups, such as al-Qaida and Boko Haram, would look to take advantage of ungoverned spaces in Africa.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s annual unclassified Worldwide Threat Assessment report, which was the impetus for the hearing, lists nine African countries where the risk in 2018 is high that violent extremist groups will conduct terror attacks or take advantage of weak local governments.
When asked during the Pentagon’s budget briefing Monday if the renewed focus on the great-powers threat meant U.S. Africa Command would continue to have to do more with less, Lt Gen. Anthony R. Ierardi, who leads the Joint Staff’s resourcing and force structure efforts, said the level of support still has to be determined.
“As the National Defense Strategy is implemented, resources will be allocated appropriately to meet the missions of the combatant commanders and the National Defense Strategy,” Ierardi said.
“It’s frustrating for everyone,” Higginbotham said during an interview last week as he was welcomed as the next senior enlisted leader for the Defense Intelligence Agency. “It’s understandable, but frustrating … but I think everybody would say the same thing.
“We’re doing the best we can with the resources at hand,” Higginbotham said. “We would love to have the resources that CENTCOM has to get after that threat. But in the grand scheme of things, the priority’s just not there.”
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."