WASHINGTON — U.S. forces in Africa face two threats that they can perhaps mitigate but not control, Pentagon officials said today.
One is dealing critical blows against terrorist groups such as al-Shabab and ISIS. The second is slowing China and Russia’s penetration and influence on the continent, they said.
Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said China is quickly learning how best to invest in mineral extraction operations, then build railroads to haul product to the coasts for export.
That gives them an economic vise to tighten control in targeted nations, he said. He warned that China’s penetration into Africa is part of a long-range plan flush with resources, while the U.S. operations are limited.
“China has been there for quite some time and we try to show them (African nations) that we are the better partner,” Waldhauser told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It is a difficult task.”
He said China has “read our playbook” and replicates what has helped the U.S. succeed in Africa, then enhances those activities.
“Mineral extraction is a matter of influence, especially in areas where we are not or where they can see we are backing away,” Waldhauser said.
He said Beijing has been particularly aggressive in securing ports along the western coast of Africa, which “puts their ships in the Atlantic,” he said.
Waldhauser quoted one Africa leader who said the difference in approach between Moscow and Beijing in Africa is that “the Chinese bring the money and the Russians bring the muscle.”
He noted that the Wagner group, which consists of Russian mercenaries, has roughly 175 operatives in the Central African Republic — including some in the president’s cabinet.
“They’re influencing the training as well as the same time having access to minerals in that part of the country,” Waldhauser said. The Wagner group is the same mercenary outfit that operates in Syria, Pentagon officials have told reporters.
In the battle against terrorist groups, Waldhauser said the U.S. made 35 strikes against al-Shabab in Somalia during 2017, increasing that to 47 in 2018. There have been 12 this year, he said.
The strikes are designed to help the Somali government battle the terrorist but are not designed to be the key element that defeats them, Waldhauser said.
“We know they are causing problems, we know they are deterring, we don’t know how much,” he said. “At the end of the day these strikes are not going to defeat al Shabab, but they are going to provide the opportunity for the (Somali government) and the Somali National Army to grow and assume the security of that country.”
Somalia and Libya are the two African nations where the U.S. military has permission to strike, he said.
Waldhauser said ISIS forces in Africa are estimated at up to 4,000. “They have been very aggressive in the summer and into this year (taking) large pieces of real estate in Nigeria,” he said.
He estimated the number of Boko Harem terrorists at 1,000 on the continent.