WASHINGTON -- U.S. Army Africa is boosting its security efforts across the Lake Chad Basin this year to deter extremist groups and help embolden nations in the distressed region, the acting commander said.
A lifeline for many in the region, Lake Chad has drastically shrunk due to inefficient damming and irrigation methods. Today, the lake is just about 10 percent of what it was in the 1960s.
"That's putting a lot of stress on the livelihood of the 40 million people that live in that area," said Brig. Gen. Eugene J. LeBoeuf.
The emergence of extremist groups, such as Boko Haram and an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group in West Africa linked to an ambush that killed four Special Forces Soldiers Oct. 4, has also fueled instability.
Roughly 7 million people are now internally displaced or refugees in the area, a number that continues to grow on a daily basis, he said.
To help stabilize the region, the command is increasing its theater security cooperation activities, which can range from providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support as well as logistics and counter-improvised explosive device training to host nation militaries.
In fiscal year 2018, the command expects to conduct 271 such activities -- a 20 percent jump from the year before -- in addition to its four major "Accord" exercises and routine medical readiness training events. About 80 percent of the upcoming activities will involve the countries in the Lake Chad Basin: Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.
"That's where our focus lies primarily in building that capacity for our host nations to be able to do those operations themselves," he said earlier this month in an interview at the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition.
One such mission is at Contingency Location Garoua in northern Cameroon, where a U.S. Army-led task force is using unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver ISR capabilities to the Cameroonian military to support its fight against Boko Haram.
Many USARAF activities on the continent fit into its priority of setting the theater, which is intended to make it easier for U.S. forces to arrive in a country when an emergency occurs.
This kind of strategic readiness became helpful in Liberia during the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014, which went on to kill thousands of people in the small West African nation.
Using relationships already forged by the Michigan Army National Guard, as part of USARAF's state partnership program, U.S. forces were quickly able to gain access in Liberia to help slow the spread of the deadly virus, the general said.
"You can't surge trust," he said. "In an emergency or crisis it's too late to establish trust in a relationship. You have to do that in advance."
Those connections could also be beneficial if Americans, such as U.S. embassy personnel, needed to be evacuated from an African country during a crisis, he added.
But U.S. military operations in Africa come with its challenges. At 3.5 times the size of the continental U.S. and with more than 2,100 languages, Africa presents a complex mission for the command that relies on the ongoing support of host nations.
"When you have relationships with friends and families you have to continue to cultivate those relationships," he said. "It's the same thing with setting the theater. You have to continue to cultivate enduring relationships."
USARAF has seen recent success on this with the growth of its African Land Forces Summit, an annual event that brings together African land force commanders to discuss challenges and the ways ahead.
Malawi held the last summit in May, which had 42 of the 53 African nations and four international partners participate. European military leaders have also shown interest in further engaging African nations after USARAF officials were invited to give a presentation last month during the European Land Force Summit in Rome.
"They were just amazed at the scope of our engagement across the continent," LeBoeuf said.
While more assistance for African nations is expected in the near future, the general said security and stability efforts would likely be ongoing for decades to come.
"We're at a long game. We're talking generational changes," he said. "When you look at the whole of Africa and the whole of individual nations, it's generational for them to continue to develop and meet their aspirations. It's not going to happen overnight."