Delays to the funding of United States aid and military activities in Africa and the Middle East could raise the threat of attacks on American interests significantly, a senior Defense Department official and two regional commanders told a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on March 23.
Members received testimony from Dr. Celeste Wallander, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, General Michael Kurilla, Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), and General Michael Langley, Commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).
Kurilla’s assessment was that terrorist organizations, primarily ISIS and al-Qaeda, had the capabilities to launch an “enabled attack against U.S. or Western interests abroad” within six months.
All agreed that China’s and Russia’s increasing influence in Africa and the Middle East, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, needed a more comprehensive, more focused response from Washington.
A Somali security soldier points his weapon at a poster bearing a photo of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri during an anti Al-shabab rally in Mogadishu on Feb. 23, 2014. (Abdifitah Hashi Nor/AFP via Getty Images)
Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) set the tone for the hearing when he referred to China’s recent “peacemaker” role that resulted in a normalizing of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
International relations experts say the agreement between Riyadh and Tehran could transform the Middle East by ending the current Arab-Iranian divide and aligning the region with Beijing.
Rogers said China’s brokerage “provided a lifeline to Iran at a very dangerous time. The Ayatollah continues to fund and equip terrorists targeting American troops; he’s providing [President Vladimir] Putin with advanced weapons to perpetrate the brutal invasion of Ukraine and his regime is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons. We absolutely cannot allow that to happen.”
He said President Joe Biden’s decision to “unilaterally and unconditionally withdraw” American forces from Afghanistan had undermined national security.
“It has left a security vacuum with the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS filling that vacuum. The assessment is that some of these terrorists could attack the U.S. within as little as six months.
“I remain very concerned that we are no longer in a position to detect an imminent attack and stop it. That’s because the president’s so-called ‘Over the Horizon’ counterterrorism strategy is a farce.
“Without reliable partners on the ground and nearby facilities to launch assets, our ability to strike these terrorists is severely limited. We cannot allow for blind spots, especially in [Africa and the Middle East].”
U.S. Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), then ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, now the Chairman of the committee, gestures during a hearing on “Ending the U.S. Military Mission in Afghanistan” in Washington, on Sept. 29, 2021. (Rod Lamkey/REUTERS)
Rogers said lack of adequate resourcing for U.S. troops in Africa had led to a worsening security situation, “especially in the west, where terrorist havens are expanding.”
He and other committee members expressed concern about the presence of Russia’s Wagner Group in Africa where it was propping up illegitimate regimes like in Mali.
“We’ve seen the coups and the violence and the chaos that has followed,” said Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.).
“Certainly we continue to have the challenge of the violent extremist organizations operating there, but Russia and China’s presence is making that worse.”
He called for a greater American understanding of the reasons for more countries in Africa and the Middle East working closely with Beijing and Moscow.
“There are things they see to their individual country’s advantage. It’s not enough for the U.S. to show up and say, ‘We’re better than them; you have to be with us.’ We have to understand in great detail why these countries are working with China and Russia.
“What is being offered by China and Russia that we aren’t offering? How can we effectively counter that … to make sure China and Russia don’t begin to have dominant control in those parts of the world?”
Smith said he was particularly concerned about al-Shabaab in Somalia, which continued to be the “most well-organized and effective arm of al-Qaeda. President Trump’s unilateral decision in the dying days of his administration to simply pull out of Somalia without any sort of plan to follow up also had consequences.”
Wallander said her department would continue to work with partners in Africa and the Middle East to “disrupt” terrorist activities.
“We will continue to stand with our partners and allies to win what we view as the competition of coalitions that is becoming increasingly critical to our common security.”
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) speaks during a hearing in Washington on April 12, 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Wallander added the U.S.’s advantage in achieving objectives such as denying Iran a nuclear weapon was its ability to work alongside “capable partners” in coalitions.
“While others seek to strategically compete, there is no combat-credible, willing alternative prepared to share cutting-edge capabilities and invest vital national resources in support of regional security and defense of others within the rules-based international order.”
She said Washington could not afford to overlook Africa’s geopolitical importance to U.S. national security.
“Many of the world’s most pressing challenges, and global solutions, will emanate from this continent as it continues to grow in political and economic power.”
But Wallander said Africa’s “extraordinary potential” remained threatened by political instability, democratic backsliding, transnational threats, and the “entrenched and growing presence” of extremist groups.
“In East Africa, we remain steadfast in our support of regional initiatives to combat the threat from al-Shabaab in Somalia.
“In West Africa, we remain focused on countering ISIS and JNIM [militant Islamist coalition Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen] by investing in and supporting our security partners,” she told the committee.
But Wallander acknowledged, “The security situation continues to deteriorate in the Sahel and coastal West Africa. Growing threats presented by VEO’s [Violent Extremist Organizations], governance challenges and lack of development opportunities have exacerbated conflicts in the region.”
She said recent changes of government in “key” African nations “challenge U.S. military assistance, as well as access and influence to help counter advances by malign actors, namely Russia and the PRC [People’s Republic of China].
“The PRC is the only country with the intent and, increasingly, the capability to fundamentally reshape the rules-based international order, and Africa is key to U.S. strategy to prevent the PRC from achieving its objectives.”
Chinese People’s Liberation Army personnel attending the opening ceremony of Beijing’s new military base in Djibouti on Aug. 1, 2017. (AFP via Getty Images)
China has built an extensive military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, barely six miles from an American base. Beijing has also announced it wants to build a “spaceport” there, as well as a naval base off the coast of West Africa, to give its warships access to the Atlantic.
Langley said he was concerned about the strategic implications of these developments and that if they came to fruition, it would allow China to “establish a platform for power projection. That changes America’s strategic calculus going forward.”
To prevent this scenario, Langley argued that Washington had to use all means at its disposal to ensure the U.S. was African nations’ “partner of choice.”