Seven Questions: Gen. William “Kip” Ward
The general in charge of the U.S. military's new Africa Command says his mission is peace, achieved without war.
As if Afghanistan and Iraq were not enough trouble for the incoming Obama administration, another operation is drawing some attention these days. Since the February 2007 decision to create the U.S. Africa Command (Africom), the venture has drawn some praise and a lot of criticism from leaders on the continent. Almost immediately, the Southern African Development Community, a group of 14 regional countries, discouraged its members from hosting any base or troops, claiming that the U.S. military’s presence could be destabilizing. Western and northern African regional organizations issued similar declarations. Although Africom insists its mission will be largely nonmilitary — training African soldiers, delivering aid and resources — fears about the militarization of the continent continue to simmer.
On the two-year anniversary of the decision to create Africom, resistance remains — but acceptance is also growing in places such as Liberia, Madagascar, and Senegal. At the front of the operation will be Gen. William Kip Ward, who heads the command out of Germany. Freelance journalist John Perra spoke with General Ward on behalf of Foreign Policy:, asking him about Africom’s mission, its operations, and controversies.
Foreign Policy: As I understand it, Africa used to be divided between three commands — European, Pacific, and Central. What has changed such that Africa warrants its own command?
William Ward: The fact that a decision was just taken here recently does not reflect the fact that it’s been discussed for many years. It’s something that I think reflects an increasingly different global environment and an ever increasing appreciation for the role of the continent of Africa in this global environment — from its sheer size, its population, and the tension that it has. Now’s the time to reorganize the Department of Defense and its approach to delivering security assistance to Africa to make it more coherent — as coherent as we can make it.
FP: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has warned in recent speeches against the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. Africom, and you know as well, has been called neocolonialism; it has been called a militarization of U.S. foreign policy —
WW: Operative word: has been. That’s exactly right, because we’ve spent the last year reversing that and I think that we’ve been pretty successful with that. Now you don’t hear those terms being bandied about any longer.
We had a ceremony in Washington in October, where we had the administrator of USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] talking about how [US]AID looks forward to working with us. We’ve had members of the Department of State participate in the same forum. We’ve had the African Union and leaders from the African Union saying that, we look forward to working with the command in helping us increase our capacity to provide for our own security. And we’ve had governments of the continent of Africa saying the same thing. What has occurred is an explanation of what the command is as opposed to the misperceptions that were initially out there.
[African resistance] is something that was reflective of a misunderstanding — reflective of a thought that this headquarters means there will be large garrisons of soldiers, squadrons of airmen, squadrons of naval presence in [African] ports. And none of that was the case. But because none of that was understood, that was the perception. I’m not asking any African nation to host any part of the command on the continent.
FP: Where will Africom then be located? Will there ever be a host nation? And if so, what would Africom need in terms of a partnership from a host nation?
WW: [With] U.S. Southern Command, after about 19 years in existence, we finally made the determination where it would be located. We don’t need to make that decision now. The important thing for the command is to be as effective as we can be in delivering our programs in support of African desires and requests, and consistent with our national security and foreign-policy objectives to help Africans to be more capable in providing for their own security. The continent of Africa is over three times the size of the continental United States, so we’ve got to go to these nations from wherever we are, and so the priority for the time being is not finding a headquarters. The priority is causing our programs to be as effective as we can and to start building that capacity to do those sorts of things.
FP: Does the mission of Africom include the hunt of al Qaeda? Is this then a new theater in the war on terror?
WW: A new theater? We’ve had activities on the continent of Africa for quite a while. We inherited the work of three different commands: U.S. Europe[an] Command, U.S. Central Command, U.S. Pacific Command. The counterterror work that was being done on the continent heretofore will continue to be done under the auspices of my command.
FP: China and Russia have made their presence felt in Africa recently, negotiating energy deals, for example. The United States is also expected to get 25 percent of its oil from West Africa by 2015. Is Africom a counterweight to other nations’ exploits in Africa?
WW: We’re not. Our work is not to compete with any other nations’ activities. Our effort is to do what I said: As the nations of Africa seek to be able to have better control of their borders and their resources, [if they] ask us for help in that regard, and where that help is consistent with our national security and foreign-policy objectives, we want to be a factor in that. [Africom] is not a counterweight to China, Russia, India, France, Japan, Britain, anyone else. In fact, we look at certain situations now where there are cooperative efforts being undertaken.
FP: For example, what will your approach be to the perfect storm of crises such as the political and economic crises and cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe? Or what about Somalia, where the United States has recently suggested sending peacekeeping troops? Or the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
WW: It’s probably not my decision. Those decisions are made by our policymakers. Where there are, as I said, military aspects of those decisions, then we would have a role. And we would then go back to our various processes for resources that would support carrying out whatever it is we will be asked to do to bring it into effect.
One of the things that was out there initially was the notion that U.S. Africa Command was taking over development or taking the lead for diplomacy. Not the case. Development, diplomacy, defense, and security are integrally linked programs that all need to be working in some harmonious way. We are only one part of that. Now, where our other partners have things that they do in the form of development and we can assist, complement, support, then we would certainly look to do that as those situations might arise. But we do not take the lead. Do we get involved from time to time? Yes, we do. But it could be in a location where there is a void. Or, in working with those who are responsible for development, say, hey, can you do this part of this in conjunction with what we do?
As an example, [take] the Department of State’s and USAID’s program for helping bring medical assistance to rural locations, training local medical personnel, providing medical equipment, sometimes providing educational equipment, developmental things. Sometimes everything exists other than maybe some small structure. Again, not something that we would typically build but something that makes sense to those people where they are. So where those things are complementary, then we want to be a part of bringing coherency to the effort.
FP: Could Africom be used to improve infrastructure in a nonmilitary capacity?
WW: It’s probably something that theoretically is possible. Where it does [make sense] and there’s a requirement and all agree, then that’s something we could in fact talk about to be sure. But it goes back to the point that we don’t do this because we think it’s a good idea; we do it because it meets the overall foreign policy, national security objectives that, again, are made by persons other than us. So how do we fit in to support that? So if there’s a void, if there’s a vacuum, no one has the capability, it doesn’t exist, then certainly we look to be a part of a discussion, and if we could add value to what’s going on, then we seek to add value. We go where we’re asked to go.
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