Marine Gen. Michael Langley took over as the top U.S. commander for Africa on Tuesday, heading U.S. military operations on a continent with some of the most active and dangerous insurgent groups and a relatively small Pentagon footprint.
Langley, who made history on Saturday when he became the first African American in the Marine Corps to be promoted to four-star general, took over U.S. Africa Command in a ceremony at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany. He is the second African American to lead the command, which has about 6,000-7,000 troops across the continent.
Speaking at the ceremony, the outgoing commander, Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, noted the often limited troops and resources allocated to the continent. “There is a new challenge every day and we don’t have resources to throw at those challenges. So we have to think,” said Townsend, who is retiring after 40 years in the military. “America cannot afford to ignore Africa. The continent is full of potential but it’s also full of challenges and it’s standing at a historic crossroads.
For years, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, turmoil in the Middle East, a greater focus on an increasingly combative and competitive China and the recent war in Ukraine have dominated the Pentagon’s attention. But insurgent groups, including al-Qaida and Islamic State militants, flourish in ungoverned spaces in Africa, a nd al-Shabab continues to be a significant threat in Somalia.
Earlier this year, Townsend warned Congress that the U.S. was “marching in place at best” and “may be backsliding” in Somalia, because of former president Donald Trump’s decision to pull all of the roughly 700 U.S. troops out of the country in his final days in office. His decision forced commanders to rotate small teams of special operations forces and intelligence personnel into the country for short periods of time in order to provide some limited support to the Somali National Army and the mission there.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier this spring authorized the return of about 400 U.S. troops to the embattled country.
On Tuesday, Austin noted that decision, saying that the persistent U.S. military presence to train and assist Somali forces is crucial as al-Shabab’s attacks on civilians grow more lethal and brazen.
He added that the African continent is “on the front lines of many of this century’s most pressing threats—from mass migration to food insecurity, from COVID-19 to the climate crisis, from the drumbeat of autocracy to the dangers of terrorism.” And he said China is expanding its military footprint there, looking to build bases in Africa and seeking to “undermine U.S. relations with African peoples, governments and militaries.”
Both Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted the historic nature of Langley’s appointment.
The Marine, said Milley, “is the right leader at the right time with the right skills to lead this command.”
And Austin, who is the first African American to serve as Pentagon chief, said that young Marines around the world are watching Langley.
“Your extraordinary achievement reminds them that they belong,” said Austin. “And it reminds them that the United States military is deeply committed to making progress, and to breaking down barriers, and to opening its arms wide to all qualified Americans who hear the call to serve their country.”
Langley, who was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marines in 1985. His father was in the Air Force.
He told the gathering that his father always told him to aim high. And now, he said, “I know I have a lot to do. We have a lot to do, as we look at the African continent and their quest for proper security and stability.”
The Marine Corps, which traces its roots to 1775, did not accept Black men in its ranks until 1942, a turnabout that followed the attack on the American air base at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the U.S. entry into World War II.
Most recently, Langley was commander of Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic and Marine Forces Command. He also commanded troops in Afghanistan.
Army Gen. William “Kip” Ward, also African American, was the first commander of Africa Command when it was launched in 2007.