Fifteen months ago, with little fanfare, Pres-ident Bush announced the creation of the United States Africa Command, or AFRICOM, to address the strategic importance of Africa to the United States and the rest of the world.
Touted by the U.S. government as an effort to increase political stability and economic opportunities in the troubled continent, the move also raised suspicions in some quarters about oil imperialism and an unprecedented attempt to meld American military might with diplomatic objectives.
Africom “will enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy and economic growth in Africa,” Bush declared when unveiling the proposal.
Africom — a joint mission of the U.S. Department of Defense and State Department — is the result of an internal reorganization of the U.S. military command structure, creating one administrative headquarters with 53 African countries. The Defense Department currently oversees African affairs through three commands: U.S. Central Command, the U.S. Pacific Command and the U.S. European Command, all of which would be consolidated under Africom — interestingly with Europe doing a lot of the heavy lifting initially.
In fact, as the African operation begins to take shape, it still doesn’t have an actual home in Africa. Currently, Africom is based in Stuttgart, Germany, and will remain there for the foreseeable future. Pentagon officials contend they have been extended several invitations from African countries to house the mission, but none have yet been accepted.
“There have been no final decisions made at all with regard to locations for Africom,” said Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, during a symposium on Africom at the Brookings Institution. “It is not our intention to put military bases on the continent.”
Whelan went on to explain why Stuttgart is a sensible logistic location for the initial headquarters. “We knew we would be relying on the European Command to bring Africom to fruition,” she said, adding that there are currently about 400 U.S. Africom personnel in Stuttgart, including both State and Defense Department officials.
Some experts suggest that Africom hasn’t found a home in Africa because many African countries are wary of its existence. “African countries for the most part, except Liberia, have said they don’t want anything to do with Africom,” said Sean McFate, program director for the Bipartisan Policy Center, during a symposium in late March sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Washington, D.C.
“The reaction from Africa has been very negative,” agreed Gayle Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who also spoke during the World Affairs symposium. “There was really only consultation after the fact. It was presumptive that the United States would forward-deploy a command to Africa that already knew what it was going to do but hadn’t had those conversations with Africa.”
She added: “There was a profound question of sovereignty.”
However, Mark Bellamy, a retired U.S. ambassador now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Africom should be welcomed by Africa and Americans, although he was also critical of some phases in Africom’s rollout.
“Apart from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, no other military initiative has gathered as much attention or debate,” observed Bellamy, who served as U.S. ambassador to Kenya from 2003 to 2006, during which time he directed U.S. counterterrorism programs in the Horn of Africa. “Our current system is having Africa considered as an afterthought by three different regional commands with different priorities. It ought to be welcomed. It gives us an important new interface.”
But some foreign policy experts argue that Africom is leading the U.S. military into areas of specialty in which it is not trained, particularly diplomacy. According to the Pentagon, the mission will focus on war prevention rather than war fighting. “Africa Command intends to work with African nations and African organizations to build regional security and crisis-response capacity in support of U.S. government efforts in Africa,” says Africom’s extensive Web site.
But in addition to training local militaries, Africom will also engage in “soft power.” Africom’s Web site touts the many humanitarian and other assistance missions that U.S. military personnel have performed — from donating school supplies in Kenya, to providing medical care to children in Djibouti, to preventing malaria in Uganda, to even scientists with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration teaching Ghanaian fisheries observers techniques in survival swimming at a local swimming pool.
Indeed, Africom is the first of its kind in that it will be led by both Pentagon and State Department officials, with a top-ranking four-star military general at the helm, assisted by a State Department official as his deputy.
“It risks leading the Department of Defense into areas it should not be engaging in,” Bellamy said at the World Affairs Council symposium. “There are a number of misgivings both in Africa and the United States.”
McFate of the Bipartisan Policy Center agreed. “Critics ask, ‘Does this represent the militarization of U.S. foreign policy?’”
Maj. Gen. Arnold Fields, a retired Marine Corps officer now at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said he wished the U.S. government would be more forthcoming about its mission in Africa, instead of making it seem as if it’s all about building schools and sewer systems.
“We are reluctant to acknowledge our national security interests as if there were something wrong with protecting our national security interests,” he said. “We should not deny those interests. If we were more open, there would be less suspicion.”
But there is plenty of suspicion about the motives behind all this altruism, especially in light of soaring oil prices. The United States currently gets more than 15 percent of its oil from Africa, which could go up to 25 percent by 2015. That was one of the figures emphasized by the African Oil Policy Initiative Group, which issued a report in 2002 that helped to launch discussions about establishing Africom.
Whelan, in an interview with reporters at the State Department last year, rejected the claim that Africom was about securing oil supplies. “Africom will not be in the business of protecting natural resources,” she said.
Whelan also dismissed claims that Africom could act as a buffer against China’s emerging economic presence on the continent. “The command is being created to more efficiently focus U.S. military efforts in Africa and we hope the U.S. relationship with China will actually be positively impacted by this, not negatively impacted,” she said, adding that Africom is not an attempt to lay some sort of geopolitical claim to Africa itself.
“This isn’t about a scramble for the continent,” she insisted. “I think this is about the United States recognizing that the continent is important in the context of the 21st century, both politically, economically and in the context of security, and that we need to focus our attention on it in a much more efficient way, at least on the Department of Defense side, than we have done in the past.”
Many believe that a major motivation behind the U.S. mission in Africa is preventing terrorists, particularly al-Qaeda, from establishing a solid base of operations in vulnerable parts of the continent, especially Somalia or the Horn of Africa.
Lauren Ploch, an Africa analyst with the Congressional Research Service, didn’t mention al-Qaeda or Somalia by name, but alluded to the terrorism factor during the Brookings briefing. “It’s clear that the threat of terrorism plays a very important role in U.S. foreign policy,” Ploch said, noting that HIV and poverty reduction are two other central elements of the Africom mission. She argued that U.S. foreign policy now “reflects the realization that American security strategy is less affected by conquering states than by failing ones.”
But this worry hasn’t swayed everyone in the U.S. government. “There is no one view from the Hill,” Ploch said of the mixed congressional reaction to the Africom plan. “I don’t think you can even say there is one committee opinion.”
Even the name itself — Africom — has been a point of contention for some observers who believe the term “command” would be imply U.S. dominance over Africans and detract from the mission’s acceptance.
“We were aware of the pitfalls that using the term ‘command’ in a very broad sense might bring, but given that it falls within our unified command structure and system, it was difficult to come up with some phrase that would have been more palatable,” Whelan of the Defense Department said. “I think we’ve made it clear we’re not commanding Africans — we’re commanding Americans dealing with Africa.”
Bellamy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said now that Africom is out of the box, there is no turning back. And he encouraged the U.S. government to make a serious, sustained effort to engage the continent’s governments and contribute to their economic and military security — or risk embarrassing failure.
“It’s important that we present and operate Africom as an enduring, long-term investment in Africa,” he said. “If it is viewed as a serious, long-term commitment — a partnership — over time it will find acceptance and win a place. If it is episodic as [American interest in Africa] has been in the past, Africom will have a short and unhappy life.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.