US, Kenya Sign Defense Agreement Ahead of Haiti Security Mission

The United States and Kenya signed a defense agreement Monday aimed at strengthening counterterrorism efforts in East Africa and supporting Kenya's efforts to take the lead in a security mission to Haiti.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Kenya's Defense Minister Aden Duale signed the five-year agreement Monday in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Austin said the United States is "grateful to Kenya for its leadership in tackling security challenges in the region and around the world" and thanked the country for its willingness to take the lead of a multinational security force to combat gang violence in Haiti.

He said the Biden administration would work with Congress to secure the $100 million in funding that it pledged for the Haiti mission last week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

"The United States stands ready to support that important mission by providing robust financial and logistical assistance," he said.

Austin urged other nations to follow Kenya's example and provide more personnel, equipment, support, training, and funding for the planned multinational security mission to Haiti.

Kenya has pledged to send 1,000 security officers to Haiti to counter gang violence that has surged since the July 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise. The security mission, which has yet to be approved by the U.N. Security Council, was requested by Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry last October.

On the regional fight against al-Shabab, Austin said the U.S. government deeply values its partnership with Kenya in countering the militant group.

While in Djibouti on Sunday, Austin praised Somali forces for making "impressive progress" in the fight against al-Shabab but cautioned that the terror group still can "export terror from ungoverned spaces."

Austin met with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in Djibouti as part of his first visit to the African continent as defense secretary. Earlier, Austin met with the Djiboutian president and defense minister, thanking them for hosting the United States' primary base in Africa and for supporting Somalia in its fight against extremist groups.

Before departing Monday for Nairobi, Austin thanked U.S. troops at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, highlighting what he called their "very impressive" role in evacuating U.S. diplomats from Sudan in April.

"This facility is really important. We stood up a capability here following the 9/11 attacks as we were working our efforts against violent extremist organizations," Austin said.

"Since that time, not only has this location helped us to do that, but we've also expanded the kinds of things that we can do from this location to include some of the things that you recently helped us with like evacuating our diplomats from Sudan."

Somalia's army and allied clan militias have continued to drive al-Shabab fighters out of central Somalia as part of the country's military offensive since the president declared "total war" against the militants in August 2022.

But terrorists continue to strike at Somali forces, with a truck bombing near a security checkpoint in the central Somali town of Beledweyne killing 21 people and wounding 52 others Saturday. Security forces had been tipped off about the truck and were inspecting it when it detonated, Beledweyne District Commissioner Omar Osman Alasow told VOA.

The meeting between Austin and Mohamud came two days after a small arms fire attack on a military barracks in Kulbiyow, Somalia, left one U.S. contractor and a partner force member injured, a senior defense official told VOA.

A pro-al-Shabab outlet claimed the attack injured four U.S. forces and nine members of Kenya's forces. The senior defense official told VOA that was "overblown," adding that no U.S. service member was injured, and the contractor's injuries did not require medivac.

Recent violence has led Somali officials to seek a 90-day delay in the scheduled drawdown of African Union peacekeepers to account for what the Somali government calls "several significant setbacks."

"He [President Mohamud] wants to do everything that he can to maintain momentum," Austin said in response to VOA, without commenting further on the Somali request to the African Union.

Three thousand African Union forces are expected to withdraw from Somalia by the end of this month, with all African Union forces set to withdraw by the end of next year.

Pulling support for Somalia too early, or not devoting enough resources to countering Islamic extremists in Africa, could allow terror groups to overrun the country much like the Taliban did while the U.S. was withdrawing its military forces there, says Bill Roggio, a former soldier and editor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Long War Journal, which publishes reporting and analysis of global counterterrorism efforts.

"We're operating on the margins against these jihadist groups, barely keeping them contained," Roggio told VOA.

Wagner Group in Africa

Meanwhile, U.S. defense officials say the U.S. has not seen a withdrawal of a substantial number of Wagner Group forces following the death of its leader last month.

"Wagner still has a substantial presence on the continent," Austin told reporters Sunday in Djibouti.

More than one month since Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin's death, the U.S. has not yet seen a "decisive shift" in Wagner's relationship with the Kremlin or signs that Moscow has absorbed the group's operations across Africa, a senior defense official said.

"I think what you'll see in the future here is probably some competition within the ranks to [see] who's going to be the next leader," Austin told reporters Sunday. "I think you'll also see potentially the Russian government moving to either replace Wagner with some other kind of element or using Russian forces to support efforts on the continent."

Wagner forces will likely be able to sustain its presence in Africa in the near term, Austin added but will struggle to do so in the mid-to-long term without support from the Russian government.

One senior official told reporters that some governments have expressed regrets to U.S. officials after allowing Wagner to operate in their countries.

U.S. officials also said there have been signs of Wagner forces trying to "exploit" the political situation in Niger since military forces seized control and removed the president from power in July, without elaborating.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced Sunday that France will pull its ambassador out of the country and end its military presence in Niger by the end of the year. The military junta had repeatedly requested for the French ambassador to leave, saying France did not recognize the junta as the legitimate leaders of Niger.

The announcement is a significant hit to France's policy in Africa. France had stationed thousands of troops in the Sahel region to fight jihadi groups in response to requests from state leaders, but French troops pulled out of neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso in recent years following coups there.

U.S. force posture in Niger has remained steady at about 1,000 forces since the junta took power in July, but the U.S. has moved some of its forces within Niger from a base in Niamey to a base in Agadez, about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from the capital.

Austin said the U.S. has not resumed counterterror operations with Niger's military forces but has conducted intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions to protect its forces from potential threats.