The new US administration of President Joe Biden has inherited from the previous administration of Donald Trump a series of controversial issues from around the world, including in the African continent.
Among them is the rising influence of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in some countries, such as the Sahel region, as well as Somalia and Mozambique. In addition, there is the issue of Russian attempts to increase Moscow’s influence, as appears to be the case in Libya and Sudan.
However, not all these issues are a burden for the US. Sudan, for instance, appears to be an opportunity for the US to increase its influence. And it is clear that the US does not hide its interest in this relationship with the new authorities in Khartoum after decades of differences with the former regime due to its connections with extremist Islamist groups.
How does the US Africa Command see these challenges and opportunities in the African continent? What does it want in Sudan? What is its objective in Libya? What is its role in the Sahel? What steps is it taking to counter ISIS in Mozambique? And is it going to leave the fight against Al-Shabab, after its withdrawal from Somalia?
To answer these questions, Asharq Al-Awsat has interviewed Colonel Christopher Karns, Director, US Africa Command Public Affairs. Here’s the interview:
What does the US want in Sudan, which was recently visited by a US Africa Command delegation led by Ambassador Andrew Young, deputy to the commander for civil-military engagement, and US Navy Rear Adm. Heidi Berg?
“In Sudan, we're looking to renew partnership and enhance security cooperation. US Africa Command is looking to help further Sudanese efforts to professionalize their force, promote regional security and stability, advance the rule of law, and ensure transparency and accountability of Sudanese forces to the civilian-led government and the populace,” Karns said.
He added: “The recent engagement was a positive step in gaining understanding and identifying possible areas where increased cooperation and support can occur. Additional visits will occur, and we’re exploring exchanges and training opportunities. Other areas discussed include increased information sharing and ensuring stronger regional coordination and cooperation to address security needs and regional threats. Sudan is looking to bolster and strengthen government and military institutions. There are now pathways for partnership in place after the rescission of Sudan’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 2020. The visit served as a start to future engagement and cooperation.”
“US Africa Command maintains a strategic focus on helping to strengthen African partner institutions and capabilities while supporting efforts of other international partners facilitating security and stability on the continent. The engagement in Sudan represents a new beginning for partnership between the US and Sudan.”
Asked about Russia’s interest in increasing its presence is Sudan, especially the issue of having a naval base in Port Sudan, Karns said: “We are aware of Russia's reported interest for an increased presence in Sudan. We would refer you to the Government of Sudan for further information. As a sovereign country, Sudan will engage with other countries and make decisions they feel are in their country's best interest.”
The Wagner Group
On the role played by the Russian Private Military Company Wagner Group in the African continent, the Colonel told Aaharq Al-Awsat that the Wagner Group remains “an area of concern.”
“This group continues to seek profit and advance their own interests, often at the expense of the African country who employs them. It is important countries continue to strengthen and build their own security capabilities rather than employ the Wagner Group and their predatory practices.”
He added: “Russia has increased its engagement with African nations to gain access, enhance their global power projection capability, increase arms sales, as well as access minerals and other raw materials. US Africa Command's primary objective is to strengthen the security forces of our partners and promote greater regional security and stability which leads to increased economic development and prosperity. We look to work with partners to counter transnational threats and malign actors.”
Karns also stated that “the US uses a full complement of resources and tools of the US government, including economic and diplomatic, to assist our African partners to ensure stability and security for their citizens. We are excited about the potential to deepen our partnership with Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We will build a relationship based on trust, transparency, and a mutual commitment to ensuring security, peace, and prosperity in Africa. We will continue to engage and learn from one another.”
He also said: “The presence of Russian mercenaries anywhere in Africa creates concern because they undermine governments. It is important that Russian private military companies' operations don't disrupt progress being made by African countries in the area of governance, defense and security. Their actions undermine US and African partner efforts in African countries to promote civilian control of the armed forces, accountability, and transparency.”
On Libya, Karns explained that the US Africa Command rejects foreign military interference in the country.
He stated strong support for the Libyan ceasefire agreement, including the immediate withdrawal of foreign military forces and mercenaries. “This includes the need for the departure of Russian proxy forces, which we currently estimate to be approximately 2,000 Wagner forces in Libya.”
As for the Democratic Republic of Congo, Karns said: “Engagement in the DRC built an awareness of mutual areas of interest, a desire for further partnership, and highlighted a need for enhanced regional security cooperation to root out groups such as ISIS and the influence of malign actors. The rising influence of ISIS in the region requires monitoring and strong regional cooperation and pressure against its network. Africa cannot become a safe haven for ISIS. Malign actors as well as criminal and terrorist activity need to be disrupted via a regional and international approach.”
On Somalia, he said “the US Africa Command continues to adjust to meet mission objectives and ensure continued pressure on the Al Shabaab network. Engagements will continue in various forms as we work to isolate and maintain pressure on Al Shabaab as part of a regional and international approach to degrading its network.”
As for the Sahel region, the Colonel explained that “the US is not the lead in the Sahel, we serve in a supporting role. We’ve provide a range of support to the French and African partners to include intelligence, aerial refueling, airlift, and training. A whole-of-government approach and working with partners to address the drivers of extremism remains a central approach of our strategy.”
As for Mozambique, he said AFRICOM continues to monitor ISIS there.
“Wherever ISIS presents itself, it is important for African partners to apply pressure to this dangerous terrorist organization to prevent it from taking root and expanding its influence. Regional cooperation and international partnership will be important to disrupt and degrade the ability of ISIS to operate and conduct operations in African countries,” he added.