Why the Pentagon should pay less attention to Africa.
The U.S. military has left Iraq and will leave Afghanistan soon. One might assume that this means a lower level of U.S. military operations overseas. Not so fast. Military operations in Mali and the connected Algerian hostage crisis have highlighted a major shift in U.S. military strategy and overseas engagement, especially in our support for security forces in Africa.
Gradually, through a growing security assistance program and special operations forces action, U.S. engagement in Africa is shifting from a focus on governance, health, and development to a deepening military engagement. And while the Pentagon portrays this expanding military engagement as a way to empower Africans, it is actually building security relationships that could backfire, harming our long-term foreign policy interests.
The United States has had military relationships at a low level in Africa for some time. Before 9/11, these took the traditional form of educating African military officers in the United States though the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET), at a cost of roughly $10 million a year. And the United States has had for decades a small Foreign Military Financing program, providing equipment, training, and services to select African militaries at a cost of around $20 million a year. Neither program has been a centerpiece of U.S. overseas security assistance.
The slide into Africa began in earnest after the Rwandan genocide and the 1998 embassy bombings. A larger U.S.-funded training program was started in the 1990s as a peacekeeping initiative, ultimately morphing into the Bush-era Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI). Through GPOI, the United States has been providing more training to African militaries, seeking to enhance their ability to conduct peacekeeping operations. By now, hundreds of thousands of African soldiers have been trained and are involved in operations in the Horn of Africa — and perhaps soon in Mali — at a cost of nearly a billion dollars.
A focus on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations has driven this engagement forward, especially in East Africa. It is not easy to obtain data on how much has been spent on these efforts, but they include training and arming African counterterrorism forces, increasing the presence of U.S. Special Operations forces, and developing closer ties with military operations spreading from North Africa to the central African countries bordering on the Sahara Desert, and from Djibouti to the Atlantic.
In 2008, this scattered engagement by the U.S. military was pulled together in the creation of a new U.S. regional command. Africom was intended to be a new kind of command, one that integrated military operations with the broader U.S. diplomatic and foreign assistance efforts in Africa.
This is now the key to the "slide" — after decades of leaving Africa pretty much alone or engaging through health and economic assistance, the United States is now seriously involved, but driven by the mantra American "security." Mixing these messages (development, health, and security) is proving difficult for the African countries. They have begun to wonder why the United States has suddenly developed an interest in their continent. Uneasy African governments resisted the notion that Africom should actually be based on the continent as the United States wanted, so the headquarters remains in Stuttgart, Germany.
Well, they might have reason to be concerned. A growing "security" focus for U.S. engagement in Africa changes things. So does the growing lead the Pentagon and the Special Operations forces are taking in that engagement. When security takes the lead, too often, governance and development step aside. And, while the security focus is ostensibly intended to strengthen African capacities to provide national and regional stability, they have the consequence, intended or not, of dragging the United States into Africa’s internal politics, at a potential cost to our long-term interests.
In Mali, for example, the appearance of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has led some in the U.S. military to warn that the Maghreb (that is, the Northwestern rim of the continent) is becoming a terrorist haven and to suggest that the U.S. cannot prevent this reality with a light, indirect military footprint. Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who overthrew the elected Malian government in 2012, was trained under IMET. In Algeria, the United States has partnered with an authoritarian regime in the pursuit of counterterrorism operations.
This increasing focus on security coincides with a broader trend over the past decade towards giving the Pentagon greater direct authority for security assistance programs overall. Where the State Department was once in the lead, DOD is now directly responsible, funded through its own budget, for a growing share of U.S. security assistance, accentuating the pronounced bias in those programs toward DOD’s needs, requirements, and missions.
The largest DOD programs have trained and equipped the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, at a cost well over $50 billion. They provide considerable budgetary support to the militaries of Jordan and Pakistan. By the time the United States left Iraq, the Pentagon was directly responsible for more than half of total U.S. funding for security assistance worldwide.
African programs are now part of this pattern. Especially in Africa, DOD has put the label of "Building Partner Capacity" on its activities. That the programs surely do. But especially in Africa, these activities support a particular kind of capacity — counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. These competencies are unhinged, in large part, from broader U.S. foreign policy objectives in Africa, and provide a sneaky way of pulling the United States into security relationships that may not serve our long-run goals for African state building or development.
The major problem is context. Focusing on our security interests in Africa risks ignoring the need for stronger, more capable, more responsive civilian governance and economic development. While DOD likes to argue that security comes first, before governance and development, the risk of militarizing our engagement in Africa is that it will end the development of fledgling accountable governance in Africa (and elsewhere) and increase hostility toward the United States.
Much as Iraq and Afghanistan reproduced the sad lessons of Vietnam, our slide into Africa risks becoming a sequel to a film we have already seen. Two decades of repression and "disappearances" in Latin America followed from a U.S. security and covert assistance program in the 1960s that focused on our fascination with and fear of insurgents and communists — at the cost of democracy and warm and fuzzy feelings about America. Cloaked in the mantra of "Building Partner Capacity," here we go again, this time in Africa.
And we are headed there just as we are learning of deep flaws in our security assistance programs. On January 7, the International Security Advisory Board to the State Department, chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry, described U.S. security assistance programs thusly:
There is,…so far as this Board has been able to determine, no comprehensive definition of what "security capacity" means in this context, nor an overall strategy for determining how much to spend and how it should be allocated. Nor is there a coherent system for making those decisions or for evaluating the effectiveness of the program being undertaken.
And, while the Government Accountability Office concluded last year that the risks of unintended consequences, perverse incentives, and moral hazards from U.S. security assistance programs were considered in some of the planning processes, it produced no evidence either that they were actually taken into consideration, or that such consideration led to any decisions not to undertake a security assistance effort in a specific country.
I observed these problems firsthand when I oversaw these programs at the Office of Management and Budget in the 1990s. U.S. security assistance programs, in Africa or elsewhere, have never been embedded in a strategic design or reviewed in the context of our overall engagement with a country or a region (unless considering any opposition activity in any country as an agent of the Soviet Union constitutes sensible strategy); they have never undergone a systematic evaluation for effectiveness; and they have been increasingly driven by the narrow military or quasi-military objectives of the Defense Department.
There are a lot of critical things to say about U.S. security assistance. Many of them I said in a Stimson Center report I co-authored with Becky Williams two years ago, A New Way Forward: Rebalancing Security Assistance Programs and Authorities.
The fundamental problem, bolstered by the Perry report, is that the U.S. plans its security assistance programs in a strategy and policy void and, with a focus on "security" but not "governance," they are largely implemented to meet the bureaucratic, regional, and program priorities of the Defense Department, in this case, Africom. The choice of countries, programs, and individuals to receive support in Africa is driven largely by the military — the regional combatant commander, the military services, and DOD policy officials. While the State Department has input into these decisions, State simply lacks the staff and the interest to overcome the "security" orientation to these programs.
U.S. security assistance, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan, does put "security" first and "governance" second, which is characteristic of these Africa programs. Sounds like a Tea Party projection of the U.S. constitution overseas. The downside is that by putting security first but having little or no strategy to help African countries develop effective governance, too many of them will end up insecure in another way: hostage to a strongly developed military-paramilitary-gendarme-police force which is the only effective form of political power. As the Perry report said in its subdued way: "In many countries, whether intended or not, the U.S. is choosing sides in the partner nation’s political process when it provides assistance to security forces."
Algeria and Mali, and the desperate-looking, one-dimensional focus on terrorists in the Maghreb, combined with the expanding appetite of U.S. Special Operators, suggest that we are entering another generation of misguided efforts to strengthen militaries and their security cousins at the expense of governance capacity and economic development in Africa. Each new "partner" with whom we are "building capacity" draws us more deeply into the internal politics of these countries, becoming a commitment, first with money and equipment, then training, then co-operation, then implicit political support.
Africa can and should do better. And, lest we slide down that slippery slope to military commitments in fragile states, we should do better as well. There is no doubt that bad guys operate in the Sahel. It is less clear that they threaten our interests. The context for our engagement should be responsive and accountable governance, conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and development — none of which is a core skill in the military, as well-intentioned as they may be. If the supported country feels a need for a security dimension in its approach to these three critical tasks, then, and only then, should the State Department oversee the introduction of support for security forces, under the authority of a legitimate government.
I fear we are getting this wrong, and may live to rue the day we see the outcome of this un-strategic, un-evaluated set of programs.