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NAVAL AIR STATION SIGONELLA, Sicily — As of April 1, 2012, Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12.2 have been supporting missions for Marine Forces Africa and U.S. Africa Command.
U.S. Africa Command, one of nine Unified Combatant Commands of the Department of Defense, was created by presidential order in 2007. It is devoted solely to protecting and defending the national security of the United States by strengthening the defense capabilities of African states and regional organizations on the continent.
SPMAGTF-12.2 is comprised of approximately 120 Marines and sailors from 32 different reserve units from across the country.
Lt. Col. Gerard Wynn of 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company, out of Mobile, Ala., has been tasked with organizing and commanding SPMAGTF-12.2. “The mission of the SPMAGTF is twofold,” said Wynn. “First, the Marines are working with partner defense forces across Africa to bring new skills and build on old ones. Also, they are representing the U.S., by building relationships that will allow us to continue to work with our regional partners.”
The first rotation of the newly formed unit, originally established a presence on Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, in October 2011, followed by SPMAGTF-12.2 in April 2012. Both units have been engaged in assisting theater security cooperation and peacekeeping missions within U.S. Africa Command's area of responsibility.
In his 2012 posture statement before the House Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command said, “The SPMAGTF is tailored to conduct theater security cooperation engagements and it is an invaluable asset for the command and increases our ability to engage on the continent.”
The theater security capability provided by the SPMAGTF is part of a larger strategic goal for international security and stability on the continent of Africa. The White House’s 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism focuses on dismantling al-Qaida elements in the Maghreb and Sahel regions, where the terrorist group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb operate, and the East African regions where the group al-Shabab operate.
It also focuses on empowering countries and local administrations, which it says, “serve as countervailing forces to the supporters of al-Qaida and the purveyors of instability that enable the transnational terrorist threat to persist.” Under this overarching strategy, U.S. programs seek to build regional intelligence, military, law enforcement, and judicial capacities; strengthen aviation, port, and border security; stem the flow of terrorist financing; and counter the spread of extremist ideologies.
The strategy, which is also a mandate for U.S. Africa Command, is based on the understanding that stability in Africa is only possible through active engagement by African leaders. Military experts such as former Principal Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy, Ryan Henry, said that no African nation poses a direct threat to the United States or is expected to.
The command concentrates much of its energies and resources on training and assistance to professionalize local militaries so that they can better ensure stability and security on the continent.
During U.S. Africa Command’s establishment Henry said, “U.S. Africa Command’s principle mission will be in the area of security cooperation and building partnership capability."
U.S. theater security cooperation is conducted based on the understanding that stability in Africa is only possible through partnership with, and commitment from African nations and regional organizations.
As Gen. Ham said, “One of our primary foci is support of African nations who are willing and able to provide forces to the African Union Mission in Somalia, and other peacekeeping operations. In support of the State Department’s Global Peace Operations Initiatives and the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance programs, we provide military mentors to support pre-deployment training. We work extensively with the nations of Uganda and Burundi as they provide the majority of forces to AMISOM to date.”
The African Union Mission in Somalia is an active, regional peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union with the approval of the United Nations. AMISOM is mandated to conduct peace support operations in Somalia to stabilize the situation in the country in order to create conditions for the conduct of humanitarian activities and an immediate take over by the United Nations. U.S. Africa Command’s support to AMISOM is an example of its work to counter a direct threat to U.S. interests and its allies.
Gen. Ham, referring to the militant wing of the Somali Council of Islamic Courts that took over most of southern Somalia in the second half of 2006, said, “al-Shabab represents both a terrorist threat to U.S. and regional interests and an insurgent problem to the Somali Transitional Federal Government as well as Somali regional administrations. In a video released on February 9, al-Qaida and al-Shabab jointly announced their formal merger."
According to Gen. Ham, the national defense strategy stresses countering terrorism by violent extremist organizations as a critical mission.
“We conduct operations, exercises, and theater security cooperation programs to prevent attacks against the U.S. homeland or its personnel and facilities abroad and to reduce the threat to our partners and allies,” said Ham.
James R. Clapper Jr., Director of National Intelligence, has repeatedly expressed concern to Congress about the increasing capabilities of al-Shabab in East Africa, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algeria-based Sunni Muslim jihadist group that originally formed in 1998. Terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998; on targets in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002; and more recently in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, and Uganda have highlighted the threat of violent extremism in the region.
The State Department’s 2002 National Security Strategy stated that America is now threatened less by conquering states than by failing ones. This highlights the need for continued cooperation in Africa to build stability and security.
Theresa M. Whalen, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Continuity and Crisis Management, said, “In recent years, analysts and U.S. policymakers have noted Africa’s growing strategic importance to U.S. interests. Particularly the concern over violent extremist activities and other potential threats posed by ungoverned spaces, defined as physical or non-physical areas where there is an absence of state capacity or political will to exercise control.”
Whalen also identified failed states as an “acute risk” to U.S. national security.
The SPMAGTF is, strengthening U.S. Africa Command’s ability to build partnership capacity with African nations to handle violent extremism on the continent. SPMAGTF-12.2 currently has teams of roughly 15 Marines in each Uganda and Burundi to support AMISOM peacekeeping operations.
“The U.S. Marines play an instrumental role preparing the Uganda People’s Defense Force for combat,” said Maj. Mark Haley, a SPMAGTF-12.2 team leader in a recent interview in Camp Singo, Uganda.
“Having gained certain skill sets and experiences from other parts of the world over the past 10 years, we can give that to the Ugandans, who have their own problems with counterinsurgency."
The SPMAGTF teams are prepared to support beyond the needs of AMISOM with humanitarian relief, peacekeeping, counterterrorism efforts, sanctions enforcement, non-combatant evacuations, and maritime security force assistance operations. The SPMAGTF implements a number of efforts aimed at increasing African partner nation capacity to provide security and stability for their own countries and the region as a whole.
“At the moment our work mostly revolves around an exchange of ideas and training techniques with partner defense forces,” said Wynn, “it really depends on each country to decide what they want us to work on. In some countries the Marines are providing training in vehicle maintenance and logistics planning. In others, Marines are discussing best practices in basic military planning, small unit leadership, and command and control. We also have Marines working with our partners to build capabilities in urban warfare, small unit tactics and the use of non-lethal weapons. What’s best about this training is that we can send in small teams of Marines at a low cost and know that we are making a big impact.”
Army Gen. William E. Ward, who preceded Ham as commander of U.S. Africa Command, stated that foreign military assistance programs funded by the State Department -- such as the programs supported by SPMAGTF-12.2 -- help promote the principles of democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law.
The work of the SPMAGTF on the continent directly falls in line with the African proverb, which says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Speaking about U.S. Africa Command’s commitment to its partner nations, Gen. Ham said, “We choose to go far. We choose to go together, with our African partners as well as together with our many interagency partners, to better meet their security interests and to advance the security interests of the United States."