BRUSSELS — The commander of the U.S. Africa Command, General David Rodriguez, says U.S. forces are paying close attention to Boko Haram militants in northern Nigeria as the group expands its ties with terrorist organizations on the continent.
AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Command based in Stuttgart, Germany, is the newest of the U.S. military's combatant commands. Its mission is to defend U.S. national security interests by strengthening the defense capabilities of African states.
General David Rodriguez took the helm of AFRICOM two months ago. He sat down for interview with VOA during a visit to the Pentagon Thursday.
Rodriguez said one of the command's top concerns is the spread of militant groups on the continent. The Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram is of special concern, in part because it continues to expand its connections to terrorist groups in the region.
“We're very concerned about that because those connections expand opportunities, expand capabilities and things like that to those networks as they grow and develop, and Boko Haram is a very, very violent network. It is one that has had a very, very negative impact on the northern part of Nigeria, as well as Niger and Chad, and it crosses borders. And it's going to take a coordinated effort by all those nations as well as some good decisions and good thought process for the Nigerian government to help solve that problem," said General Rodriguez.
US officials see the militant activity in northern Nigeria an internal issue and think the problem is best left for the Nigerian government to handle.
Rodriguez says the U.S. military's role on the continent is to provide training and other assistance to the militaries of partner nations that request the help. He said U.S. forces are keeping a close eye on Boko Haram.
“All the things that are destabilizing to a country is what we really want to watch carefully, because those are the things that we have to help build - the African capacity -because that's the best way for them to handle the challenges: in an African way, with African forces. So, that's why we're really working on strengthening the defense capabilities of the African partners," he said.
The only permanent U.S. base in Africa is in Djibouti, and the U.S. says it has no plans to build any other. But reports of expanded U.S. activity including drone operations in Mali and Niger have triggered speculation of much larger involvement.
Rodriguez says the U.S. presence is largely limited to small numbers of trainers who are rotated in and out of countries as requested by the host governments.
“The history of the African nations, the colonialism, all those things are what point to the reasons why we should not go in there in force and everything else, and just use a small footprint with creative and innovative solutions to get high payoff from a small number of people, as well as come in for short periods of time to do exercises, to do operations, to help build that capacity," he said.
While the U.S. is limiting the number of American trainers going to Africa, officials have called for a boost in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and called for a larger number of drones, surveillance aircraft and satellite imagery to improve intelligence gathering on the continent.