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Africa Command: Militarising or improving US Africa policy?

In my short time in South Africa, few elements of US foreign policy in Africa have raised as much ire or confusion among the people I talk to as the new US Africa Command (Africom).

Officially launched at the beginning of October, despite lingering scepticism both across the continent and in the US, Africom consolidates the way the US Department of Defence (DoD) divides responsibility for the continent among its regional command structures, and aims to provide a new way of doing business for the DoD in Africa and perhaps elsewhere.

Like many South Africans and others in Africa and the US, I am sceptical about what this reorganisation will mean for the continent; for example, will it lead to the increased militarisation of America’s relations with Africa or will it lead to more informed policy decisions at the Pentagon that could benefit the continent in the long run? It would seem that both of these outcomes are possible — what is needed at this critical juncture is an informed discussion involving South Africans and others to ensure that Africom takes the shape of the latter outcome while avoiding the former.

What is Africom?
First and foremost it is important to understand what Africom is. To begin, much has been made of the fact that Africom is new, yet Africa has long been a part of the DoD’s regional command structure. Prior to October 1 2008, three regional command structures had areas of responsibility (AORs) that covered Africa:

  • Central Command (Centcom) had responsibility for Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya;
  • European Command (Eucom) had responsibility for the rest of the African mainland; and
  • Pacific Command (Pacom) had responsibility for Madagascar, the Seychelles and the Indian Ocean area.

Thus, the continent was divided among three separate command structures, none of which had primary responsibility for Africa. Africom will now have an area of responsibility that includes the entire African continent, with the exception of Egypt, and thus represents a consolidation of pre-existing responsibilities that had been dispersed across other command structures. In the words of Africom’s commanding officer, General William Ward, the new structure is about “doing the same things the US military was doing already, but doing them in a better coordinated and a more cohesive way”.

Yet this statement, that Africom is purely a matter of bureaucratic restructuring, is not entirely accurate. Rather, the new command represents the growing strategic importance of Africa in US foreign policy. According to most observers, this strategic importance can be boiled down to three main categories:

  • terrorism;
  • energy; and
  • influence.

The creation of Africom is symbolic of the DoD’s growing preoccupation with “ungoverned spaces”, defined as “physical or non-physical area(s) where there is an absence of state capacity or political will to exercise control”. As the New York Times recently reported, “since the attacks of September 11 2001, a new view has gained acceptance among senior Pentagon officials and military commanders: that ungoverned spaces and ill-governed states, whose impoverished citizens are vulnerable to the ideology of violent extremism, pose a growing risk to American security”. In these terms, Africa is deemed to be replete with such ungoverned spaces and thus poses the risk of becoming a breeding ground and safe haven for terrorists.

Africa’s oil and gas supplies represent a growing share of America’s total energy imports, accounting for as much as 25% of US oil imports by 2015. The Gulf of Guinea, which includes such oil rich countries as Nigeria, along with nearby Angola are the largest sources of such African exports and are particularly attractive due to the region’s superior quality light, sweet crude petroleum, which is easier and cheaper to refine, and the proximity of these reserves to the eastern coast of the US.

The US is facing increased competition on the African continent for access to commodities, largely from China but also from India and other emerging markets like Malaysia. Thus influence with local governments will become increasingly important in the coming years, and building closer ties and cooperation is a prime objective of the US government.

One might argue that a fourth key strategic area, health and the related HIV/Aids crisis, is also of great concern for the DoD, yet less attention has been given to this aspect, perhaps due to the role of the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) in addressing this issue.

While these are the key strategic considerations that have played a large role in spurring on the creation of Africom, other factors played a role as well. For example, Eucom staffers were spending more than half their time on African-related issues, without the requisite resources or expertise given the continent’s tangential relationship to the command’s core responsibility — Europe.

Moreover, the division of the continent across three regional command structures led to problems coordinating activities, particularly along the so-called “seams” of commands.

According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report: “One such seam lies between Sudan (within Centcom’s AOR), Chad and the Central African Republic (within Eucom’s AOR), an area of increasing instability. The United States, acting first alone and later as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), has provided airlift and training for African Union (AU) peacekeeping troops in the Darfur region of Sudan, and although Centcom has responsibility for Sudan, much of the airlift and training has been done by Eucom forces.”

Thus, to reiterate, the creation of Africom was not simply a matter of bureaucratic restructuring. Its creation is a direct reflection of the growing strategic importance of Africa to the US, which necessitated a committed command structure rather than the haphazard approach previously pursued under the European, Central and Pacific commands.

What are Africom’s intentions?
As the Mail & Guardian recently reported, “the stated aim of Africom is to build the capacity of African countries to face everything from disasters to terrorism and make the continent more stable”. To do so, Africom is actually designed to increase US government interagency cooperation as well as bilateral and multilateral cooperation with African partners in addressing the three principal strategic areas outlined above, and thus represents a radically different command structure than those currently existing elsewhere in the world, except perhaps the DoD’s Southern Command (Southcom) covering Central and South America.

Thus, Africom will not be just a DoD operation. Rather, it is designed to increase cooperation between DoD, the Department of State and the US Agency for International Development (USAid).

The idea can be boiled down to something along the lines of building wells in ungoverned spaces, which will prevent terrorists from taking hold and gaining the support of local populations. That may be a crude way of looking at it, but Defence Secretary Gates and General Ward have said as much. As stated in the New York Times: “Mr Gates and General Ward said that this work to complement and support American security and development policies would include missions like deploying military trainers to improve the abilities of local counterterrorism forces, assigning military engineers to help dig wells and build sewers, and sending in military doctors to inoculate the local population against diseases.”

The model for this new command is the revamped US regional command for Latin America: “Where previously Southern Command emphasised direct military action, it now focuses on programs to train and support local forces, and assist economic development, health services and counter-narcotics efforts.”

Bureaucratic concerns from within the US government
As admirable as this inter-agency cooperation may be, Africa experts in the US have expressed reservations about what this could mean for US policy in Africa.

From an aid and diplomatic standpoint, there is some concern that the DoD’s new command structure may essentially “crowd out” USAid and State Department initiatives on the continent. For example, while the total percentage of development assistance controlled by the DoD has increased in recent years, the percentage of development assistance controlled by USAid — the US government’s aid agency — has witnessed a commensurate decline. It is not far-fetched to see how these resources could be potentially redirected to focus solely on projects that have a direct bearing on US security concerns, such as so-called ungoverned spaces and unstable oil-producing regions, rather than projects of equal merit but lacking a tangible security connection.

There are related concerns that the State Department could also witness its diplomatic efforts being overshadowed by US military concerns. From personal experience, I can recall conversations with a former US ambassador to two Latin-American countries who described situations in which the State Department had identified projects they would like to support with their host countries but, lacking funding, had to redefine the projects to reflect a US security concern in order to tap into the DoD’s coffers, which the ambassador described as “blank cheques”.

In response to these concerns, General Ward and other supporters of Africom have pointed out that more than one-third of the new Africom staff will be non-Pentagon employees. Moreover, one of two deputy commanders of Africom will be a State Department official. At the moment, that position is filled by career foreign service officer Mary Carlin Yates, a former ambassador to Burundi and Ghana. Yet it remains to be seen how the State Department and its subsidiary USAid will be able to muscle themselves in as equal partners in this endeavour given the budgetary disparities with the DoD and the fact that security concerns, which do not always coincide with diplomatic or developmental imperatives, will be the primary objective of Africom.

Views from African countries
With the exception of a few countries such as Liberia, which has offered to host the new Africom, the reaction of most African countries to Africom has ranged from quiet reservations to outright hostility. Part of this is an understandable gut reaction to any increased foreign military presence by an outside power — be it physical or not — given the continent’s colonial history.

With American troops still operating in Afghanistan and Iraq following the invasions of those two countries, many African leaders have expressed fear at what they see as a possible advance phase for military activity, including invasions, on the African continent. Most of the people that I talk to in South Africa cite this as their biggest concern — that Africom will be used to invade resource-rich countries. DoD officials counter “that the US government could consider the command a success ‘if it keeps American troops out of Africa for the next 50 years'”.

Statements from Ecowas (the Economic Community of West African States) officers that the US military has failed to consult African countries adequately regarding Africom are evidence of additional irritations among African countries. Africom officials respond, however, that they have held many meetings with representatives of African countries since Africom was announced in February 2007.

Perhaps no other country has been as vocal in its opposition to Africom as South Africa. Former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota publicly urged Southern African Development Countries (SADC) to use their influence in the African Union to encourage other African countries to oppose Africom. Yet, as Jackie Cilliers of the South African Institute of Strategic Studies points out in the Mail & Guardian, “there appears to be a bit of a disconnect between the political statements that have come from South Africa and a few others and the reality of collaboration [with the US military]”.

Stoking this hostility has been the question of where the Africom headquarters would be located. When first announced in February 2007, the Bush administration made it clear that it would like to have a headquarters or several regional headquarters based on the African continent. Currently, the only sizeable US military presence in Africa is at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti where approximately 1 500 US personnel are based and from where, among other things, they advise the AU mission in Sudan.

Following months of hostility and statements such as those of Mr Lekota — “We have no quarrel with Africom as such, but the issue of its location on the continent” — the US has decided to keep Africom based in Stuttgart along with Eucom, at least for the time being. Africom officials are now at pains to convince their African counterparts that the US has no intention of building bases in Africa.

Of greater concern for the US, however, should be the message that Africom is sending to its African counterparts. A senior South African Department of Foreign Affairs official told me that from South Africa’s perspective it seems that the Clinton administration viewed Africa as a continent of promise waiting to be unleashed — as evidenced by efforts such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) — whereas the Bush administration views Africa as a threat needing to be contained, as evidenced by Africom.

Concerns from civil society
Civil society in the US and Africa are concerned mostly about the possible consequences of America militarising its relationship with Africa. As the Africa director of Human Rights Watch states, “while Africom could boost international capacity to detect and respond with credible force to African humanitarian catastrophes like Darfur and their massive rights abuses, selfish strategic considerations may end up prevailing”. Along these lines there is a fear that energy security and counter-terrorism will take precedence over human rights, similar to the way in which US efforts to contain communism trumped human rights during the Cold War.

Charles Cobb Jnr and others have cited additional fears that the US military could be easily manipulated into supporting despotic regimes who “use security as an excuse to clamp down on things they don’t like” or inserting themselves into local conflicts they do not understand on the basis that these conflicts bear some connection to the global war on terror.

In Africom’s defence
Even before Africom was officially up and running on October 1 2008, the DoD had numerous initiatives in operation on the continent: the Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa, the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership (Operation Enduring Freedom — Trans-Sahara), the International Military Education and Training programme, and the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance Programme/Global Peace Operations Initiative are perhaps the most prominent examples. Whether you like it or not, the US Defence Department is active in Africa.

With so much activity on the ground, one must ask whether it would not be preferable to have a committed team of personnel who have a growing knowledge of Africa-specific issues, rather than tangential interests. Such a team could hopefully better understand local conflicts and avoid deleterious actions such as those that occurred recently in Somalia. As the CRS Africom report stated: “If US agencies, both military and civilian, are able to coordinate more efficiently and effectively both among themselves as well as with their African partners and other international actors, they might be more successful at averting more complex emergencies on the continent.”

As the AU continues institutionalising its regional political and security structures, one could also envision a situation in which Africom provides a much-needed helping hand for regional initiatives attempting to address civil wars and other conflicts across the continent. Perhaps such help could prevent future atrocities such as those that occurred in Rwanda and continue to take place in Sudan.

What do you think?
As one of the continent’s most powerful actors, the views of South Africa’s government and its people should be of critical interest to Africom’s officers and personnel and a constructive dialogue between South Africa and the US is needed. South Africa should be a part of the discussion and not just ignore Africom or dismiss it out of hand, but rather offer constructive criticism and useful insights to make sure that it avoids the many pitfalls described above, if that is possible.

In light of the dangers and potential benefits of Africom outlined above, how would you like to see the US, and more specifically the US military, engage the African continent? Do you want a completely hands-off approach? Or would you rather see increased engagement in the form of Africom? If you support Africom, how would you like it to take shape? What concerns do you have? What hopes do you have for the new command structure? How would you like to see South Africa engage the new Africom? Should South Africa oppose the new command, work with it to design programs and initiatives that could benefit the continent as a whole, or even host a regional headquarters for the command?