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America’s Africa Misadventure

This month, the Pentagon launched the U.S. Africa Command (Africom), spurring debate and showcasing two contrasting worldviews within...

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This month, the Pentagon launched the U.S. Africa Command (Africom), spurring debate and showcasing two contrasting worldviews within the United States on how best to pursue its foreign policy objectives. That the United States must engage with Africa is not in question; what causes controversy is the mode and nature of its engagement.

On one side, the ideologues of neoconservatism advocate more military bases, a larger troops presence in Africa, and, if required, direct military action on the continent. For that, they envisage five new military bases and permanent Africom headquarters in Africa by the end of 2008. (Africom is for now based in Stuttgart, Germany.) Contesting this militaristic approach are those who believe that Washington’s political, economic, and even military interests in Africa are best served by relying primarily on nonmilitary means of engagement and formulating a more nuanced Africa policy than the gun-toting posture that Africom signifies. Given the Bush administration’s proclivity to shoot from the hip, it is hardly surprising that it has decided to accede to the former view by bringing out the bayonet to deal with Africa.

Influenced and shaped by ultra-conservative think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Center for Security Policy, and, to a lesser extent, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Africom is yet another example of the Bush administration’s policy of unilateralism and its obsession with displays of military power. Other elements of U.S. power—political supremacy, overarching economic and diplomatic clout, and unmatched capacity to deliver humanitarian aid—have been either ignored or, as in the case of Africom, made subservient to the new military command.

Supremacy of the Pentagon Africom turns upside down the fundamental principle of civilian supremacy over the military. The Bush administration has tried to assuage fears of U.S. militarization of Africa by calling Africom an "interagency structure." In addition to military objectives, President George W. Bush wants us to believe that Africom will "bring peace and security to the people of Africa" and promote "development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth" (USINFO, State Department, February 6, 2007).

More pious words have come from Ryan Henry, the principal deputy under-secretary of defense. Quoting Henry, the Heritage Foundation tries to reassure the skeptical African states that an important measure of Africom’s success will be "if it keeps American troops out of Africa for the next 50 years … the entire purpose is to diffuse and prevent crises on the continent by increasing regional capabilities, thereby reducing the need for U.S. or multilateral military intervention" (Heritage Foundation, Web Memo No. 1644, September 27, 2007). To achieve that, Africom staff will include officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the departments of State, Agriculture, Treasury, and Commerce. A former diplomat, Mary Carlin Yates, has been named as one of the deputies to Africom head Gen. William "Kip" Ward.

But, as an analysis from the Council on Foreign Relations argues, Africom is not likely to be any different from other regional military commands in execution. "The small size of other government offices in comparison to the military means that it may be difficult to hire enough nonmilitary staff. Even if interagency personnel are brought into the command, it is not clear how instrumental they will be in the command’s decision-making processes. … [H]aving a State Department official as deputy commander is ‘uncharted territory’ for the Department of Defense," writes editor Stephanie Hanson of the Council on Foreign Relations in a May 3, 2007 backgrounder.

For all practical purposes, the nonmilitary component of Africom will be fully controlled by the Pentagon. In other words, the State Department and other civilian departments will play second fiddle to the military in a region where they ought to be taking the lead themselves.

The Pentagon has failed to clearly spell out the terms of nonmilitary conduct of the Africa command and is sticking to its policy of not informing either Congress or the media about the details of its future operations. Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-NJ), chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, held a hearing on August 2 regarding the U.S. military’s intentions on the continent. Afterward, he said, "I was shocked and dismayed when I learned from a newspaper of the administration’s plans to establish Africom" (FinalCall.com, September 16, 2007). Observing that there had been no discussion with the subcommittee concerning the structure of the new command, Payne said: "Makes me wonder how the government informed our African partners and allies."

To answer Payne’s query—it didn’t. Which partly explains the adverse reaction from most of Africa to the new military command. This diplomatic failure is all the more glaring given the fact that planning for this command has been going on for the last 10 years or so. If it were intended to help Africa fight epidemics and poverty or assist peacekeeping missions, one would think that at least the countries involved would have been taken into confidence. But Washington has done all the planning and launching of Africom unilaterally.

Africa Militarized In addition to establishing the Pentagon’s supremacy over U.S. civilian departments, Africom is also designed to further militarize the continent whose humanitarian and security problems it purports to address. An AEI analyst proposes that new U.S. bases "will be created in North Africa (possibly Tunisia), West (either Ghana, Liberia, or Senegal), East (likely around the current U.S. taskforce in Djibouti), and southern Africa (perhaps Botswana) with a further chapter in Addis Ababa" (AEI, July 27, 2007).

U.S. military contingents already cover East Africa from its base in Djibouti, comprising 1,800 troops. Other strategic parts of the continent are within striking range through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI) and from Egypt (which is still under Centcom). The 2002 TSCTI enables a U.S. military presence in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The initiative was extended in 2004 to cover Algeria, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is permanently stationed in the Gulf of Aden. In all, more than 6,000 U.S. soldiers are already on the continent. The number of special services personnel hunting terrorists in different parts of the continent is a matter of conjecture. Africom’s inception this year was preceded by increased U.S. naval activity in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea and establishment of a P-3 Orion aerial surveillance station in Algeria, which made Africa wary of the growing U.S. military presence and Washington’s future intentions.

So, with East Africa, North Africa, and the Maghreb (northwest Africa) already directly manned or within striking distance, one of Africom’s goals is to expand the Pentagon’s influence to the regions outside of its military dominance. This is where Africom faces the stiffest resistance.

States in southern Africa almost unanimously oppose Africom. Both South Africa and Nigeria have vowed to resist the new command and are rallying other countries to this cause. As the Financial Standard, a leading Nigerian paper, put it: " Several African countries’ resistance to the United States’ proposed African Command is one which the African Union should spearhead in order to spare the continent the agony of being the sparring ground for the United States."

South Africa, an aspirant to regional leadership, has flatly rejected to cooperate with Africom. South Africa also leads the Southern African Development Community, which has taken a firm stand against a permanent U.S. military presence in the region. Mosiuoa Lekota, the South African defense minister, has refused to meet with General Ward, the head of the new command. "Africa has to avoid the presence of foreign forces on her soil," he said.

Mozambique, Botswana, and Zambia are also following South Africa and Nigeria’s lead. Mozambique is strategically located, and its long coastline is an ideal location for U.S. warships. The country also has large untapped natural resources for which outside powers are competing. But even after recently receiving $500 million as humanitarian aid, Mozambique remains opposed to the idea of giving Africom space for a permanent base. The perception of America in southern Africa was neatly summed up by the chief spokesman of Zambian government, Mike Mulongoti, who said that allowing America in would be "like allowing a giant to settle in your home" (Telegraph, October 2, 2007). All of them complain of not being consulted by Washington before the launch of Africom.

So, in a region where a higher level of U.S. engagement has been long overdue and ought to have been welcomed by all quarters, Africom has elicited widespread suspicion. Given its emphasis on using the military and its interventionist framework, Africom will in all likelihood be counterproductive for U.S. strategic interests in the region. The remote command has already divided African countries along pro- and anti-Africom lines. Instead of bringing stability and peace, many African leaders argue that Africom will exacerbate Africa’s already precarious security situation. This argument is based on the lessons of Washington’s recent military incursions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in Somalia.

Objectives Ill-Defined It is not clear what U.S. policy objectives the new command is geared to achieve. Some U.S. officials describe Africom’s mandate as aimed at prevention of conflict, rather than at military intervention. "Some people believe," said Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, "that we are establishing Africom solely to fight terrorism or to secure oil resources or to discourage China. This is not true" (Telegraph, October 2, 2007).

But so acute is the credibility deficit of the Bush administration that its words are often taken to have the opposite meaning. When Washington says it’s not talking about terrorism, oil, or China, then that’s exactly what many people perceive it to be talking about. At least, most African countries believe so. They see military motives behind Washington’s rhetoric of peace, cooperation, and humanitarianism.

Africom is also marred by a lack of clarity in its objectives that arises mainly from the administration’s doublespeak. Likewise, it is also incongruent with the challenges America faces in and from Africa. Terrorism, competition for resources with economic powers like China and India, Africa’s civil wars and other military conflicts, and the assortment of humanitarian crises afflicting the continent—none of those warrants a military response of the kind and scale that Africom signifies.

Oil, Terrorism, and China Terrorism, especially as related to al-Qaida, is minimal in Africa. There have been three major terror attacks in the last 10 years—all in East Africa. With the exception of Somalia in the Horn and Algeria in Maghreb, even the most vitriolic neocons have failed to spot any potent al-Qaida activity or regrouping elsewhere on the continent. That may not remain so if more U.S. troops are stationed on the continent. As the example of Iraq illustrates, a U.S. military presence can engender al-Qaida-type groups in places where there were previously no signs of them.

If anything, countering al-Qaida in Africa requires better policing rather than a full-scale, continent-wide military command. Even in Somalia, the main target of America’s anti-terror effort, military means have failed to achieve the desired objective. The military approach of conducting air strikes and employing naval warships to capture a handful of suspected al-Qaida elements in Somalia is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

The primary objective of Africom, in the view of most African analysts, is thus reduced to oil and to containing China. The Standard, an influential Kenyan newspaper, analyzed U.S. motives by linking oil to Africom. It noted that the establishment of Africom coincided with Tanzania’s announcement that it had "hit commercially viable oil deposits along its coast. This comes just over one year after Uganda struck its own black gold in the west. And suddenly rumors of Americans calling on the region are rife."

The article noted that the traditional sources of America’s oil in Latin America and the Middle East are "tightening the grip on their resources. Which is why East Africa is believed to be the next oil frontier the West appears determined to hold onto" (October 8, 2007).

In this regard, competition with China requires economic and political means, not a military command like Africom. China is purely a trade and investment competitor in Africa, where its military presence is nonexistent. Beijing has no military plans for the continent, which is one of the reasons why Chinese companies and investors are so welcome here. If America increases its presence in Africa, many African leaders fear its rivals—Russia, Iran, China—will also jump into the fray.

This is not what the continent needs, says Jakkie Cilliers, an analyst for the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. "Our concerns are developmental concerns. They are [related to] poverty and they [are] related to the absence of functioning states on the continent, and there is very little military forces can really do to deal with those major challenges," said Cilliers. Cilliers says that many people in South Africa do not see this as a means for America to help Africa, but rather as America looking out for its own interests (Voice of America, October 3, 2007).

"The history of U.S. engagement will be that this is about U.S. interests and the United States will do whatever it wants to do in its interest. And Africa, as is often the case in the past, will be a spectator," added Cilliers.

Opposition to Africom is not unqualified. As a Financial Standard editorial suggests: "The American troops are welcome provided they operate within the ambit of the laws of their host countries. The African Union must work to spell out clear conditions for the presence of American troops in Africa. Those conditions should not be violated by the American command when they come in."

Recent history, however, suggests that expecting the Bush administration to abide by either international law or respect the national laws of other countries is naivety. With this new military command Africa likely has entered an unprecedented phase of militarization.

Najum Mushtaq is a writer based in Nairobi, Kenya, and a Right Web contributor (https://rightweb.irc-online.org).


Sources Vince Crawley, "United States Creating New Africa Command to Coordinate Military Efforts," USINFO, State Department, February 6, 2007.

Brett Schaefer and Mackenzie Eaglen, "Clarifying the Future of AFRICOM," Heritage Foundation, Web Memo No. 1644, September 27, 2007.

Stephanie Hanson, "Backgrounder: The Pentagon’s New Africa Command," Council on Foreign Relations, May 3, 2007.

Saeed Shabazz, "President Bush’s Latest Foreign Policy Stake in Africa," FinalCall.com, September 16, 2007.

Mauro De Lorenzo, Terence McNamee, Greg Mills, "U.S. Sweet Talk Fails to Seduce Africa," American Enterprise Institute, July 27, 2007.

Editorial, "The Africom Controversy," Financial Standard , undated.

Sebastien Berger, "Africa Shuns New U.S. Military Command," Telegraph, October 2, 2007.

Kari Barber, "African Reaction Mixed on New American Military Presence," Voice of America, October 3, 2007.




Najum Mushtaq, "America's Africa Misadventure," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, October 16, 2007).

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