The new commanding general of the U.S.-led counter-terrorism task force in East Africa says he does not see a need for additional American troops to be deployed in the region, even though it is widely considered a hotbed of terrorism. In an interview with VOA, U.S. Marine Brigadier General Samuel Helland says the two-year-old Combined Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa, has made great progress toward preparing partner countries in the region to take on greater security responsibilities.
General Helland says the 1400 U.S. troops under his command will follow the course set by his predecessors, who emphasized close military ties and counter-terrorism training with regional anti-terrorism partner countries, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, and Yemen.
The general says he believes that such close cooperation and training is dramatically boosting the confidence and ability of national security forces in those countries to tackle security problems on their own.
"They are growing stronger every day. They're becoming more and more aggressive. They're taking on more and more responsibilities," he said. "As they grow stronger and become more capable through training, through engagements, through intelligence-sharing and knowledge and all the stuff that goes on out there, I think we're going to see a powerful force here in the eastern part of Africa as they continue to wage this war on terrorism."
General Helland took command of the Djibouti-based task force in late May. He is the third U.S. Marine general to lead the task force since it was established nearly two years ago to combat terrorist groups operating in the region.
In addition to military training, U.S. troops have also provided a variety of services in local communities, including digging wells, rebuilding schools and providing medical and veterinary care.
General Helland says such civil/military operations will continue to be a part of the task force's effort to counter poverty and other conditions that enable terrorism to thrive.
"The most important part of that is the host nation is also physically there and they show a commitment to the people and they show that they are in fact trying to make life better for everybody and that's absolutely important," he added. "Once the people in the hinterlands understand that the governments are there to support them, then stability and security and cooperation will take root in Africa."
U.S. military officials at Central Command, which oversees the task force, say their anti-terror partners in East Africa have already prevented terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida, from recruiting fighters and establishing bases in the region. Without giving details, officials say dozens of operators, planners, financiers and supporters of terrorist organizations have been arrested by every anti-terror partner country in East Africa.
U.S. officials add that they are pleased by what they see as a genuine desire by countries in the region to take on security responsibilities as rapidly as possible.
But some officials acknowledge privately that the task force's long-term goal of supporting national security forces and strengthening regional alliances to fight terror may be undermined by looming political instability, simmering border conflicts, and ethnic and religious tension now preoccupying the governments of these same East African countries.
Eager to keep the focus of partner countries on fighting terrorism, U.S. officials have recently issued warnings to key leaders in the region to resolve domestic and regional disputes peacefully.