The Truth About Africom
No, the U.S. military is not trying to take over Africa. Here's what we're actually doing.
I feel fortunate that I can say that I was present at the inception of U.S. Africa Command (Africom), the U.S. military headquarters that oversees and coordinates U.S. military activities in Africa. Starting with just a handful of people sitting around a table nearly four years ago, we built an organization dedicated to the idea that U.S. security interests in Africa are best served by building long-term partnerships with African nations, regional organizations, and the African Union. At the same time, however, there has been a great deal of speculation and concern about Africom. We believe our work and accomplishments will continue to speak for themselves.
Still, many of these concerns raise important issues, and it is important to continue to address and clarify Africom’s position on these issues. There is great work being done by and for Africa nations with Africom’s assistance, and the success of the missions between these partner nations inevitably affects the security of the United States and the world as a whole. During our work in designing Africom and helping guide it through the early years of its existence, a number of lessons have helped inform our decisions and ensure we performed our job responsibly and effectively.
Lesson 1: Africom does not create policy.
One of the most serious criticisms leveled at Africom is that the organization represents a U.S. military takeover of the foreign-policy process. This is certainly not true, though I suspect some of our more outspoken critics have been so vocal about this that it is quite challenging for them to change course.
Let there be no mistake. Africom’s job is to protect American lives and promote American interests. That is what nations and militaries do. But we also have found that our own national interest in a stable and prosperous Africa is shared strongly by our African partners. By working together, we can pursue our shared interests more effectively.
Africa’s security challenges are well known. They include piracy and illegal trafficking, ethnic tensions, irregular militaries and violent extremist groups, undergoverned regions, and pilferage of resources. This last challenge includes oil theft, as well as widespread illegal fishing that robs the African people of an estimated $1 billion a year because their coastal patrols lack the capacity to find and interdict suspicious vessels within their territorial waters and economic exclusion zones.
As a military organization, most of our work consists of supporting security and stability programs in Africa and its island nations. Our focus is on building capacity, both with African national militaries and, increasingly, with Africa’s regional organizations. One of our biggest success stories is the Africa Partnership Station, a Navy program that partners Africom with African and international sailors to put together a multinational staff aboard a U.S. or international vessel. This creates what some have called a "floating schoolhouse," where the staff share a host of ideas, ranging from basic search-and-rescue techniques to advanced concepts of maritime domain awareness.
Across the continent, we work closely within the framework of the overall U.S. government effort. As a military organization, we do not create policy. Rather, we support those policy decisions and coordinate our actions closely with the State Department, U.S. embassies in the region, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other U.S. government agencies that have been trusted partners in Africa for decades.
Lesson 2: Africom must work hand in hand with the diplomatic corps.
It’s no secret that Africom’s early rollout was met by concern within some quarters of the foreign-policy community. We’ve worked hard to allay those concerns. Despite the warnings of skeptics, the past three years have not seen any dramatic increase in numbers of U.S. personnel or military funding directed at Africa. Depending on how you count the figures, the U.S. military represents between 5 and 10 percent of all U.S. government spending in Africa, and we do not anticipate significant future shifts. We believe diplomacy, development, and defense should work hand in hand — and in balance — to achieve long-term security. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has spoken eloquently about the need to increase funding for diplomacy and development and has warned of what he calls "excessive militarization."
The U.S. military has been working with African militaries for decades, but the work was not sustained and integrated as effectively as it probably could have been to complement and better support the activities of other agencies of the U.S. government. In many ways, Africom was devised as a test platform for helping the military as an institution to better understand its role in supporting diplomacy and development. State Department and USAID officials serve in senior billets on the staff, advising the military on the best way to support their agencies. And yes, they frequently send message traffic back to their home offices to help ensure the military understands its subordinate role in Africa.
All the U.S. military’s work in Africa is done with the approval of U.S. ambassadors. We take that seriously. I have seen anecdotal stories of military personnel showing up in an African nation unaware that they ultimately report to the U.S. ambassador of the host nation in question. If you run across one of those stories, take a look at the date. There’s a strong chance that incident took place before or not long after October 2008, when Africom formally became responsible for everything the U.S. military does in Africa. One of the reasons Africom was created was to help put an end to that kind of confusion.
Lesson 3: Keep our footprint in Africa limited.
We have also been accused of looking to establish military bases across the African continent. This was false when the rumors arose at the time of Africom’s creation and remains false today. Africom’s headquarters is in Stuttgart, Germany, and we are not looking for any other location. Misconceptions arose when, in the early months of 2007, some people in the U.S. Defense Department community considered the idea of positioning small teams regionally to better coordinate the command’s day-to-day partnerships. However, there was never a formal search, and as soon as the command opened its doors in October 2007, we made it clear that we intended to stay in Stuttgart for the foreseeable future.
Our footprint in Africa remains purposefully limited. We have only one forward operating base, at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, established in 2002 under the U.S. Central Command. In 2008, Africom inherited the base, which is an ideal site for supporting our military-to-military programs across eastern Africa and also serves as a key node in the Defense Department’s global transportation infrastructure. We are not seeking any additional bases.
We also have a few dozen program officers and liaisons working across the continent, mainly in U.S. embassies. This hardly means, however, that we are building "mini-Africom headquarters" in U.S. embassies, as some have suggested. What we’ve done is send one or two staff officers to join embassy teams so that our diplomats do not have to spend their time coordinating military programs. It is common practice worldwide for a small number of military personnel to play a supporting role in a larger diplomatic mission. Our ambassadors continue to be the president’s personal representatives within each nation.
Lesson 4: Africom is most effective when it listens to the concerns of its African partners.
We have spent the last three years meeting with African leaders, African media, and African people. Mostly, we have been listening. And what we have heard is that many people across Africa have an interest in long-term stability.
The consistent message we hear from the leadership and the people of Africa is that they want to provide for their own security. Despite sometimes difficult histories, many African nations today are working to develop professional security forces that follow the rule of law and protect all their peoples. African nations today make up more than 40 percent of all international peacekeepers deployed throughout Africa with the United Nations and African Union. Their goal is for Africans to make up 100 percent of the peacekeeping forces within Africa. By building a regionally focused African Standby Force, the African Union seeks to play an ever-greater role in bringing peace and security to turbulent regions on the continent.
Rather than deploying large numbers of U.S. military forces, we accomplish our goals by conducting hundreds of what we refer to as "capacity-building" events each year. Africom sends small teams of specialists to dozens of countries to offer our perspective on military topics such as leadership, the importance of civilian control of the military, the importance of an inspector general program, the finer points of air-traffic control and port security, aircraft maintenance, military law, and squad tactics for a unit preparing for peacekeeping deployment or patrols against violent extremist groups — the list goes on. Even though we are showing and explaining how we do business, we are not imposing U.S. methods upon our partners. After all, our practices might not be right for them — that is a question they must answer, based on the information they receive not only from us, but from their many international partners.
We also take part in military exercises that promote cross-border cooperation and coordination. We participated in Exercise Flintlock this May, which was designed to help nations in West and North Africa cooperate more effectively on cross-border threats from illegal traffickers and violent extremist groups. Another exercise, Africa Endeavor, brought together 25 African nations in Gabon to coordinate their communications technology. This is a surprisingly challenging task, due to the fact that this diverse array of nations uses a hodgepodge of computers and radios made in different countries throughout the world. Not only do these exercises solve practical problems — they provide former adversaries or strangers with opportunities to develop a shared history of working together to solve problems. This year’s Africa Endeavor exercise is scheduled to take place in Ghana, and we are expecting 30 nations to be involved.
Lesson 5: Don’t expect instant results.
Our partners in Africa warn us that we must adopt an "African time" perspective. We should not expect quick results or approach the continent with a "make it happen now" mindset. At the same time, we do see slow, steady progress. Coups are decreasingly tolerated as a means of acceptable regime change, and in some cases, such as Mauritania, we have seen militaries take stock of the international community and make steady progress in restoring civil authority. Much of our work is aimed at reinforcing African success stories so that we can work together as capable partners to address regional and global concerns. Tensions in Sudan as next year’s referendum on southern independence approaches can be reduced if regional neighbors build cooperative relationships with all parties in Sudan.
Somalia remains a country in daily conflict, with a people so fiercely proud of their independence that any lasting security solution must be African-led. As I write this, the Ugandan People’s Defense Force is operating deep inside neighboring nations, with an unprecedented level of intergovernmental cooperation, to end the decades-long reign of terror by the Lord’s Resistance Army, an extremist group that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the U.S. military is one small player in a much larger international effort to help that nation reform its security sector. We have provided some funding to renovate medical facilities that provide support to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, and we are currently conducting a six-month pilot project to train a model military unit in the Congolese Army. Although this program includes basic military skills training, it also emphasizes respect for human rights, the rule of law, and an understanding of the military’s role in a civil society.
As we conduct our daily and weekly activities across Africa we believe we share a long-term vision with our African partners: Sustained security programs can, over time, help support the conditions for economic development, social development, and improvements in health — so that people will continue to see progress in their lives and growing prosperity in their communities.
That is how we support U.S. foreign policy in Africa, while also promoting the long-term aspirations of the African people. It has indeed been a personal honor and a privilege to be a part of the creation of Africom.