The presence of American soldiers on the field is still strategic. General Michael Langley, the new commander of Africom, has the task of forging military pacts with many African countries and of facing new threats: from jihadist hotbeds to the expansion of Beijing and Moscow’s spheres of influence.
Michael Langley is the new general at the head of Africom, the United States African Command. A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, Langley is the first African-American general decorated with four stars in the Marine Corps’ 246-year history. He assumed the position in August 2022, becoming Africom’s sixth commander since the US military command, headquartered at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany,
was established in 2007.
His appointment did not come by chance. Langley knows the African continent well, having led the US Marine Forces Europe and Africa between 2020 and 2021, during which he coordinated the largest Africom military exercise with Moroccan military leaders, African Lion. The operation was repeated in June 2022, with the mobilization of 7,500 soldiers sent by ten NATO countries located between Kenitra, near Rabat, some southern regions of Morocco (including Al Mahbes, in Western Sahara, on the border with Algeria), Senegal, and Ghana. Langley previously served in Egypt and Somalia in Operation Restore Hope between 1992 and 1993.
The map of Africom
Africom is one of 11 foreign military commands reporting to the US Department of Defense. Its scope includes 53 African states (with the exception of Egypt which falls within the Middle East area), 11.2 million square miles of land area (three and a half times the size of the United States), nearly 19,000 miles of coastline, more than 800 ethnic groups and over a thousand languages. The command employs around 2,000 units, 1,400 of which are stationed in Stuttgart. Hundreds more operate between MacDill, Florida and Raf Molesworth, UK air bases. Offices connected to the central one in Stuttgart are spread across 38 countries.
These also include key stations in Africa, at the headquarters of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States and the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre, located in Accra, Ghana. Also in Africa, at Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti, is the headquarters of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. It is from here that, in particular, land-based anti-terrorist military operations on the continent are launched. The other command centres, in addition to Stuttgart, are in Ramstein (also in Germany), Vicenza and Naples (Italy).
At an operational level, one of Africom’s flagship initiatives is a program that provides for the support of its state national guards with the defense forces of African countries. There are currently 15 pairings, including those of the New York and Massachusetts National Guards with the armies of South Africa and Kenya, respectively.
In 2019, Africom released a list of some of its military outposts on the African continent: 13 are permanent (classified as Enduring Footprint), 16 are non-permanent (Non-enduring Footprint).
It is a partial list since it does not include foreign bases on which Africom relies (such as Singo in Uganda and Thiès in Senegal), nor does it refer to other sites where the command is working undercover to extend its range of action on the continent.
The main threat that Africom faces on the African continent has always been that of terrorism. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2022, Africa represents the global epicentre of international terrorism, with groups such as al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin in the Sahel in constant turmoil. At the end of October, Africom launched new air offensives in the Buulobarde area, 200 kilometres northwest of Mogadishu, in response to two attacks carried out by jihadists in Kismayo and Beledweyne. It was the occasion that prompted President Joe Biden to send several hundred American soldiers back to the country, a year and a half after Trump’s withdrawal.
However, the ‘real’ test facing General Langley is that of countering the growing Chinese and Russian influence on the African continent.
In fact, the two powers are exploiting the triple food, energy and economic crisis, triggered at a global level by the war in Ukraine, to their advantage, hoarding new business and new allies, especially in East Africa and the Sahel.
According to Africom’s top management, after having built its own base in Djibouti from where it aims to more closely control the strategic Bab el-Mandeb strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Beijing is now aiming to obtain an outpost along the Atlantic Ocean coast of Africa as well. A scenario that the US wants to hinder at all costs through the establishment of maritime exclusive economic zones with its West African partners. In the confrontation with Russia, Africom has instead targeted the Wagner contractor group – permanently positioned in Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Sudan and Libya – and the arms trafficking managed by Moscow on the continent.In its plan to widen its sphere of influence in Africa, the Kremlin is bringing pressure to bear on the direct and indirect effects of the conflict in Ukraine, following a simple scheme. Increased food and economic insecurity is worsening the state of already long-standing crisis contexts.
East Africa (especially Somalia, the Ethiopian region of Tigray, Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan) and the entire Sahelian belt are increasingly pushed to one side by the grain crisis, by the increase in fertilizer prices (over 200 %) and the inflation of foodstuff prices (more than 40%) and by restrictions on the import-export of minerals and other raw materials with Moscow and, secondly, by the effects of climate change. All of this opens up new manoeuvering spaces for jihadist groups and exposes local governments to further vulnerability, which are looking for the best offer of low-market security. It is in these spaces that the Kremlin is finding a niche in Africa. These are gaps that Africom must plug if it does not want to see the supply channels of resources from Africa at risk. This is the real reason that keeps the US with its boots firmly on the ground in this continent. (US soldiers with Botswanan force members. Photo: Sgt. Sean Carnes)