Defense official discusses new U.S. Sub-Saharan strategy

Defense official discusses new U.S. Sub-Saharan strategy
National Guardsmen participate in training with Moroccan troops in the northern Sahara Desert, June 22, 2022, during African Lion, the U.S. Africa Command's largest joint annual exercise. Photo credit U.S. Army/Master Sgt. Becky Vanshur

As Army Gen. Stephen Townsend prepares to turn over command of U.S. Africa Command to Marine Corps Gen. Michael Langley, a senior defense official discussed new U.S. efforts for the region.

The official spoke on the way to Stuttgart, Germany, where Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III is presiding at the combatant command ceremony at Kelley Barracks.

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The importance of partners is at the heart of the new sub-Saharan strategy for Africa. It is a profound shift for U.S. efforts in the region and looks to restructure U.S. foreign policy to be more aligned with African mutual interests.

"We're seeing a shift in the policy to be more aligned with African interests where they specifically align with U.S. interests,"  the official said. "I know that sounds a bit repetitive, but there has been, I think, a history of the U.S. somewhat imposing and predicting what Africa foreign policy should be from the United States without consulting African partners."

To develop this strategy, U.S. officials from the defense world, the diplomatic world and the development world reached out to African partners to understand what they believe is most critically important. This allowed the officials to develop a strategy that would align with their interests, the official said.

The sub-Saharan strategy folds in nicely with the National Defense Strategy. That document calls for U.S. Africa Command to address three priorities. The first is to counter violent extremism and extremist groups on the continent. The second looks to strengthen relationships with allies and partners. The third is "going after strategic competition, and that's primarily looking at countering efforts by Russia and China," the official said.

The new sub-Saharan strategy takes to heart an African request. "They don't want to be in another Cold War scenario where they have to choose between the West or Russia or China," the official said. "But in that same vein, they would prefer to partner with us in a way that makes sense aligned with their interests, particularly when it comes to security concerns."

And there are security concerns. Extremist groups are metastasizing in the Sahel and the continuing problem of al-Shabaab in East Africa.

Africom is working more with African partners in the lead, using bilateral relationships, multilateral organizations, and even some ad hoc structures that they have created to address some of these issues, the official said.

Africom, from its inception, has been building partner capacity on the continent. These partners now work with international partners to "to try and tackle some of these issues that have really gone beyond … a one partner or even a military solution," the official said.

"What we're trying to do as a whole of government is to really focus on employing 3D efforts — diplomacy, defense and development — to try to tackle what we see as not just a military or violent extremists challenge," she said.

This is not just a counterterrorism challenge, but a problem set that requires solutions nested in economics, development, governance and security. "These challenges are causing instability and are some of the drivers of insecurity that are causing migration and other forms of stability in the continent," the official said.