The U.S. Army Africa commanding general, Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutiera at a telephonic press briefing from Italy on Wednesday, discussed the 2020 African Land Forces Summit that’s running this year from February 18th through the 21st in Ethiopia. He gave rare insight into America’s operations in Africa.
Read the full exchange with newsmen.
FEB. 12, 2020
STAFF: All right, good morning, and thank you all for joining us today. We will be joined by the U.S. Army Africa commanding general, Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier. Maj. Gen. Cloutier will discuss the 2020 African Land Forces Summit that’s running this year from February 18th through the 21st in Ethiopia.
We’re going to begin with his opening remarks and then turn to your questions. We have about 30 minutes to go through this, so we’re going to let everybody ask the question, follow-up, and then we’ll recycle through if we need to. Just a reminder that this is on the record.
Sir, over to you for opening remarks.
MAJOR GENERAL ROGER L. CLOUTIER JR.: Okay, thank you so much.
Well, greetings and good afternoon from beautiful Vicenza, Italy. You know, the 2020 African Land Forces Summit, also known as ALFS, is going to occur February 18th through February 21st in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This will be the U.S. Army Africa’s eighth iteration of ALFS, and — but it’s going to be the first time that our Ethiopian partners host the event, and that’s critically important.
Now, ALF — ALFS provides a forum for more than forty African land chiefs, representatives from allied countries and international partners to meet face to face, for us to build partnerships and really, to openly discuss and develop solutions to all the security challenges on the African continent.
Our theme for this year’s summit is “Tomorrow’s Security Demands Leadership Today.” Our partners have a shared belief that leadership development is really an enduring responsibility among military leaders, and it’s really a vital component to a professional army.
So this year, ALFS is going to be supported by a team of academic experts from the Africa Center for Strategic Study, and some featured guest speakers representing a wide range of experience from the diplomatic and defense communities. So experts are going to provide case studies that’ll focus on regional issues. They’re going to discuss how to continue to develop defense institutions and professional military education for African officers and NCOs. And then we’ll talk some about the support of peacekeeping and humanitarian response missions. I’m really proud to be part of this year’s event.
And that concludes my statement, and I’m ready to take your questions.
STAFF: Okay, just before we begin, just introduce yourself since he can’t see you, please. All right, go ahead, Lita.
Q: Hi, General. It’s Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press.
I was wondering if you could answer a sort of a more general question. There’s a — a new report came out that sort of said that, according to U.S. AFRICOM [Africa Command], the military is sort of switching to trying to contain the threats from insurgents in Africa, rather than trying to defeat it. Can you talk a little bit about what you see is the greatest threat in Africa, and whether or not it’s adequate for the U.S. to try and contain it or if there’s a need to do more to defeat it?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Yeah, okay, so — so there’s a lot of challenges on the African continent that, you know, we’re all well aware of. You know, the AFRICOM command of Gen. Townsend said, you know, in — in his recent hearing that al-Shabaab is one of the biggest threats on the continent; they have aspirations to attack the homeland, so that’s something that we keep a very close on — eye on. But you know, competition with Russia and China on the continent is critically important. We think we have a competitive edge there. Tied into all that, of course, is things like drought and food insecurity that it — that we have to take a look at, and how that impacts violence on the continent.
So if you put all those together, there’s a series of challenges that everybody’s facing, and what we try to do here in U.S. Army Africa is work with our partners, work with our allies, and do what we call stacking overlays to make sure that one, we’re efficient with the resources we have; and two, our efforts on the continent are complementary. We’re not duplicating effort and we’re working together to help our African partners solve these challenges.
Q: Just as a follow-up, can you — what would you say is the most significant threat from an insurgent group in Africa right now? Is it al-Shabaab or are there other emerging or growing threats in Burkina Faso and other places like that?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Well, you know, so al-Shabaab has shown their reach. And, you know, I think the danger that they pose has to be taken very, very seriously. So we focused hard on al-Shabaab. Of course, there’s other violent extremist organizations that operate on the continent, but al-Shabaab we’re looking at very hard right now.
Q: (inaudible) Barbara Starr from CNN. How these days do you plan against the Russian presence in Africa? I would ask you, you know, first, can you spell out for us, your view? We’ve seen a lot about the Russian presence. It’s growing across the continent.
Could you spell out your assessment in terms of regular Russian forces, the contractors, the so-called Wagner Group of people. And, how do you now plan against that kind of potential confrontation?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Yeah. Well, Barbara, thanks for the question. I think — I think we all know that the Russians and the Chinese are active on the continent, both in an advisory capacity, both in, you know, the — the Wagner Group, for example.
So we know they’re out there. But let me — let me give you a story. So I was in an African country recently, I was meeting with a senior ground commander there. And the senior ground commander said to me, ‘you know what, we’ve had a longstanding relationship with the Russians and to be quite honest, we feel like the world is passing us by. And we — we know what capability the United States Military has, we know what you stand for, and we want to become closer partners with you.’
So the competitive edge that we have, Barbara, on the African continent, I think, is the professional nature of our military, the discipline of our soldiers, the great training that we can provide, and the fact that we — we believe we’re the partner of choice.
So that’s how we compete head-to-head with them. And really we focus here at U.S. Army-AFRICOM: building partner capacity, doing defensive institution building. And, again, helping our African partners develop solutions to their own problems.
Q: But do you see a growth — and you’ve mentioned the Chinese a couple of times — do you see Chinese military forces on the continent? And where do you see them? And how has the Russian presence grown? Because if you want to build partnerships, I assume, you have to have some kind of baseline of what you’re operating — the environment you’re operating in.
So, again, if you could just say anything about your assessment — AFRICOM’s assessment on the Russian presence, how much it’s grown, and what Chinese presence are you seeing?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Well, so, you know, we know, for example, the Chinese, their first military base overseas is in Djibouti. So we’re well aware of that. And we’re well aware of their economic activity throughout Africa, and kind of, you know, that economic approach that they’ve taken, you know, trying to build infrastructure, trying to run ports, for example. So we’re well aware of the Chinese activity and what they’re doing on the continent.
The Russian activity that we’ve seen has been constant and steady in some areas. We’ve seen growth in others. But again, Barbara, you know, my assessment is, when you put what the U.S. military brings to the table against what Russia or China brings to the table, we’ve got a competitive advantage.
Q: Hey, sir. Thomas Gibbons-Neff at New York Times here.
During Gen. Townsend’s testimony, he talked about force protection at Manda Bay and said that there might be other sites that need additional force pro. Do you think U.S. Army Africa needs to fly in more troops to the continent to plus-up force protection, outposts at certain installations? And I have one follow-up.
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Yes. So the first thing, you know, with respect to Manda Bay, I think — I think I’d like to take a moment to honor the memories of our three Americans, you know, Spc. Henry Mayfield Jr., Mr. Bruce Triplett, Mr. Dustin Harrison, who lost their lives in service to our nation on the 5th of January at Manda Bay.
Here’s what I can tell you. The protection of U.S. personnel and U.S. facilities is my number-one priority as a U.S. Army Africa commander. And so with respect to all of our posture locations that where — from where we operate in Africa, we take a very deliberate approach to the security there in making sure that we have policies, procedures and plans in place to ensure the protection of our personnel in our facilities.
And then I’ll tell you, if we’re doing an activity on the African continent and I feel like the risk is too high, then I’m not going to do it. Until the conditions are set in my mind and I feel that the risk has been mitigated, I’m not going to execute something that I don’t need to do.
Q: Right, but do you need more troops to mitigate that risk? I mean, you have the — the E.A.F. [East Africa Federation] — or I think that’s the acronym — at Manda Bay, kind of plussing up their, you know, previously poor defenses. So I mean, in that case, if there’s other positions that need that kind of personnel, that would call for an increase in troops, not — not so much a reduction.
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Yeah, so — so specifically with the posture locations where U.S. Army Africa operates from, I’ve been there on the ground, and laid eyes on them. I feel pretty comfortable with the amount of forces that we have at those locations that — that are providing security.
But — but, again, this is something that I look at every single day as a commander. And we have to do a constant reassessment of, you know, what are we doing there, what does the situation look like, do we need to plus-up, do we not.
Right now, you know, speaking today, I feel comfortable with the security we have at our posture locations.
Q: And, sorry, the follow-up question. I mean, would you say that that story you were telling about the senior army leader, talking to you about how he wants to partner more with the Americans, I mean, is that how you would define great power competition on — on the continent?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Yeah. Well, I mean, I — I think it’s — it’s a great example of what the United States military brings to the table. You know, we are doing a — an African alumni symposium back in — in — near Washington, D.C., coming up in a couple months. And what we’re doing is, we’re bringing leaders from African nations who have attended African schools,* back for kind of a reunion, if we will.
Because what we’re finding is, a lot of the senior leaders in Africa have attended U.S. schools. And they go back to their countries, and based on the training we give them, based on the values that we teach them and the leadership traits that we teach them, they go on to be senior leaders in their country.
So an example of that is the alumni symposium, where we’re bringing those junior leaders together because we think they’re going to be the future commanders on the ground. So I think that’s an example of global power competition.
STAFF: I’m going to go to Sylvie from AFP next, but I just wanted to round out and just remind everybody that we’re here to have a discussion about the African Land Forces Summit, so if you can wrap that in so that we can …
Thank you, General, for indulging us, but if we can move toward …
But, Sylvie, go.
Q: Hello, General. This is Sylvie from AFP.
You mentioned al-Shabaab as the main threat in — in Africa, and you said they want to attack the homeland. Can you elaborate on that? Do you have examples of attempts of attacks on the homeland?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: (untranslated comment in French). No — So look, there’s aspirations to do that. I — I — I am not aware of any specific plans or activities that — that they’re contemplating. But you know, Gen. Townsend in his testimony alluded to that — the aspirational nature of what al-Shabaab wants to do. That’s why, if there is a potential threat to the homeland, it makes al-Shabaab somebody that we have to keep an eye on.
Q: Okay, thank you.
STAFF: Do you have a follow-up, or are you good?
Q: Sir, Richard Sisk, Military.com.
In the upcoming summit, can you tell us about the status of AMISOM [Africa Union Mission in Somalia] in Somalia? Are the Kenyans still indicating that they want to pull out? What — what is the status there?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Yeah, well — well, look, you know, I can’t give you specifics on what the Kenyans are thinking, directly thinking with respect to AMISOM, but what I can tell you is at ALFS we’re going to have an opportunity to talk about a lot of that. So what — what ALFS is going to do is bring 40-plus African leaders together on the ground. It’s going to bring interagency partners, allies. It’s going to bring think tanks, and we’re going to talk about issues like that. We’re going to talk about peacekeeping. We’re going to talk about AMISOM. The A.U. [Africa Union] is going to be there, so we’re going to talk about troop-contributing countries and what we’re doing. So ALFS is going to provide us a great opportunity to dig into that a little bit.
Q: What’s the — what’s the size of the AMISOM — AMISOM force in — in Somalia right now?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Yeah, I — you know, I can’t answer that specifically. I can — I’ll get with Colonel Dillon, my P.A.O. [Public Affairs Officer], and he’ll have to dig into that. I can’t answer that number right now.
STAFF: We’ll go Jeff and then Lita.
Q: Thank you, General. Jeff Schogol with Task & Purpose.
A few years ago Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army seemed to be a major focus of both you and your partners. Now that you’re attending this summit in Ethiopia, can I ask, is Kony and the LRA even part of the discussion or has he just kind of dropped off into irrelevance?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Yeah, so — so the mission that, you know, that — that was focused on him was ended a while ago, several years back. I don’t remember the exact time, but it was when I was the chief of staff at AFRICOM, so that mission has concluded.
Q: Do you know — any indications whether Kony is alive or dead?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Yeah, nothing that — nothing that I’m aware of. I — I couldn’t answer that one right now.
STAFF: So Lita, then Jeff.
Q: Hi, General. It’s Lita Baldor with AP again.
I just want to circle back to Barbara’s question in terms of the — this upcoming summit. Are you seeing Russia or China putting forces into Africa, much like the U.S. does, in efforts to train and otherwise work with companies as a direct competitor to the U.S. in that sort of training relationship? And is that one of the, just, points of discussion that’s going to be talked about at the this (inaudible) summit?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: So — so we — we do see Russian activity in terms of, you know, those — those — the Wagner Group and things like that. We also see them doing things in an advisory capacity. We see them wanting to sell military hardware in different areas. We also know that, you know, they have extractive designs where they want to extract natural resources out — out of the continent. We keep a pretty close eye on it. It ebbs and flows. We’re pretty dialed in on where they are and where they’re operating. And so I wouldn’t say I see a huge uptick. I would say that at least from where I sit, I’ve got a good eye on it and I — and I know what they’re doing.
Q: Can you say about how many countries are you seeing them operate in, and what’s the rough estimate size of the force? And the same question for China.
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Yeah, I’m sorry, I missed your question.
Q: Oh, can you say how many countries they are operate — Russia is operating in, and what the relative rough estimate size of the force? And a similar question for China — are they only at Djibouti, or are they in other countries?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Yeah, so — so I think, you know, again, you know, Africa is key terrain for China and Russia. I — I — I’m not going to get — you know, specifics, numbers and countries are not something I want to talk about, but what I can say is, you know, their activities are prevalent across the continent. Again, you know, I think Russia’s goals are predominately for their benefit, you know, for kind of resource or extractive resource efforts to kind of extract the resources out of that. I think they’re operating in northern Africa, particularly in Libya, and I think, you know, Russia probably wants a position on NATO’s southern flank.
Q: General, thank you very much for doing this. Jeff Seldin with Voice of America.
Two questions — first one, in the latest Inspector General report that just came out on the situation in — of counterterrorism operations in Africa, it said that in west Africa the — the goal for the U.S. military is simply now to contain the terror groups, as opposed to degrade the terror groups. I was wondering if you could explain a little bit more about what that entails and — and why that strategy has now been adopted.
GEN. CLOUTIER: Yeah, so, well — well, here — here’s what I can specifically talk about. So if you kind of — if — if you look at — at what our mission is, U.S. Army Africa is in, you know, west Africa, it’s to build partner capacity, right? And so if you look at, you know, kind of numbers, in F.Y. ’18 we did just under 200 events; the same in F.Y. ’19. But in F.Y. ’20, we’re upwards of 330 theater security cooperation events. So, you know, my workload as the commander of U.S. Army Africa has gone up. And again, we focus on building partner capacity, defense institution building.
And then, with respect to the West, you know, we want to make sure that we’re, again, stacking overlays, and we’re complementing the efforts of our African partners and our allies, like the French who are operating in that area.
Q: As — as a follow-up, the report also raised some concerns about the time it would take to get some of the African forces up to speed, where they would be rest — less reliant, specifically on U.S. assistance and action. How much longer is it going to take before some of these forces that you’re partnering with are able to do some more of these missions alone, like we’ve seen to some extent in Iraq with the Iraqis doing missions by themselves? How close are some of these African forces? Are any of them capable of actually doing that?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Well, I’ll tell you, you know, in — in the African area — or the AFRICOM area of responsibility, there’s 53 different countries and they’re — they all have different strengths and weaknesses. Some are more willing than capable; some are more capable than willing, and so there’s a pretty broad spectrum.
And what we do with our mil-to-mil activities and with our theater security cooperation events is, we focus on developing capacity in that specific partner. And our partner gets a vote; so we just don’t go in to, you know, our African partner and say, “Hey, this is what we’re going to do for you.” It’s a dialogue, and we say, “Where do you think your strengths are? Where do you — where do you think your weaknesses are? Where do you see yourself in five years, and how can we help you develop that?”
And one of the things we really focus on is defense institution building, because it’s the institutional part of their militaries that we want to grow so that there’s, you know, a long-term sustainable capability so they can continue to grow leaders and continue to grow capability.
STAFF: Barbara, did you have a follow-up?
Q: I do.
General, I mean, we all recall that you have extensive knowledge on what happened in Niger, of course. And now you have the Manda Bay attack. And what I wanted to ask you, because you have so much knowledge in this area, you’ve now had two attacks with fatalities.
You mentioned how important force protection is, how do you — how do you make sure that you don’t have a third? How — how — how does something like Manda Bay happen, that you still have facilities that are so poorly protected?
And how do you make sure, in like a more of a Niger scenario, when you send forces out, essentially into extremely remote areas, you have protection for them, you have medevac for them? How do you make sure this doesn’t happen again?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Yeah, so Barb, so first of all, you know, with respect to Manda Bay, there is an investigation ongoing right now and I don’t want to get in front of that.
I can tell you, you know, based on my experience as an investigating officer, is sometimes you go into an investigation with certain thoughts, and they change over time as the facts become known.
What I can tell you, Barbara, is, so post — you know, Tongo Tongo, there were a lot of lessons learned there, and some different criteria and rules were applied across the continent to ensure that we mitigate risk, and commanders have a very good handle on what we’re asking our troops to do versus what we don’t want them to do. And then, really, you know, it takes — it takes command leadership that has to go out and physically walk the ground and get eyes on it.
And so with respect to U.S. Army Africa’s posture locations, I’ve gone there. I’ve looked at the ground, I’ve walked it with the leaders. When I feel like there’s something there that’s not right, we take immediate, decisive action.
And again, like I said earlier, if I’m not comfortable with the risk, or I feel like the conditions aren’t set to do the mission, we’re not going to do it. And so that’s kind of the approach I’ve taken.
But the lessons we learned from Tongo Tongo, we are applying everywhere. And I know for a fact that, you know, I talk to Gen. Townsend repeatedly and it’s something that he is very, very concerned with and something that he takes seriously. So, you know, the protection of U.S. forces and facilities is Gen. Townsend’s and my number-one priority.
Q: Can I just ask you if — hopefully you can name locations, I understand if you can’t. But when you went out and did — and looked at these places yourself, it sounds like you found places, locations where you weren’t too happy with what you saw.
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Oh, well, you know, so we — I’ve been in the Army a long time. And so I think it’s important, when you go to a location with a fresh set of eyes, things jump out at you — jump out at you that people who have been on the ground for six or eight months, you know, may not have the same type of sense for.
So I think it’s incumbent upon senior leaders to walk the terrain, to analyze it from a friendly and an enemy perspective and then kind of, you know, put those fixes or those changes in place that you think.
And, again, nothing is static in Africa. Things change. So what might have been good six months ago, may not be right now. So we have to constantly reassess.
And so every week, just about every week, I have a dialogue with Gen. Townsend and this is what we talk about. We talk about risk, we talk about force protection, we talk about posture and what things we need to do to keep our soldiers and facilities safe.
STAFF: All right, last one, T.M.
Q: Hey, sir. Thomas Gibbons-Neff again.
Kind of going back to Wagner Group, I mean, it’s been such an amorphous term that’s been thrown around, you know, Wagner here, Wagner there.
And I was just — just wondering if you kind of clarify, you know, do you think, you know, how Wagner operates on the African continent is similar to how it’s operated in, say, Ukraine and Syria, with a, you know, Russian uniformed C2 kind of controlling the contracting portion? If you can talk about it. I understand, obviously, if that kind of goes to the classified realm.
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: So — so what I — what I can — I can’t talk much about how they’ve operated outside of our A.O.R. [area of responsibility]. I mean, I can tell you that, you know, we know how they’re operating on the continent, we’ve got good visibility on them and we’re kind of tracking what they do.
I think beyond that, I probably shouldn’t comment.
STAFF: All right (inaudible), sorry, sir. One more.
Q: Hi, sir. Luis Martinez with ABC News.
With the ongoing review of COCOM force posture, what have you heard from your counterparts about what they want to see from the United States’ commitment to the region in terms of forces? And what it might mean for them if there’s a possible realignment inside the — the COCOM?
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Yeah, so you know, I think this whole review is to make sure that — that our resources are aligned with the National Defense Strategy. AFRICOM was asked to do an assessment. You know, the message – the message I’m relaying to my partners is that, you know, we’re not walking away. We are still engaged. Like I said, the number of theater security cooperation events that I am doing in U.S. Army Africa is — is up above 300.
And let me give you two examples of something else that we’re doing. So the African Land Forces Summit in Addis Ababa will bring in all those leaders, together with the interagency, with our allies to talk about issues and to let them know that the United States and the U.S. military is still committed to being great partners.
Another example is Exercise African Lion, which is going to take place in late March, April of 2020. We’re bringing together a total of a little over 9,000 soldiers. Now, that’s including African partners, allied nations and a little over 4,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from the United States. It’s the largest exercise that we’re doing. And so, you know, we — we are showing commitment in that regard.
And so my message to our African partners is, we’re not walking away, we’re still here, we’re the preferred partner of choice. And, you know, so ALFS and African Lion are two examples.
STAFF: Thank you, sir. If you have closing remarks, we’ll do those before we end.
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Was that over to me? I’m sorry.
STAFF: Over to you, sir.
MAJ. GEN. CLOUTIER: Okay. So, yeah, I guess I would close by saying, again, I think — I think we — we should all be proud of the young men and women that are wearing the uniform and — and, you know, from where I sit, our Department of the Army civilians that are out, engaged on the continent every day. They’re doing a phenomenal job and they’re great representatives of the U.S. military and the United States of America.
ALFS-20 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is going to be a phenomenal event where we are bringing African partners, the interagency, our allies together to talk about problems that are common to all, and figure out how we can create efficiencies and work together to solve them.
So I’m really excited about ALFS. I’m taking off on Friday to fly down to Addis, and we’re going to get — get into it. And I’m really looking forward to the discussions and the outcomes of the conference.
STAFF: Appreciate it. Thank you, sir.
And thank you all for coming.[*Eds. note: the upcoming African alumni symposium is for leaders from African nations who attended American schools.]