Think Again: Africom

U.S. Africa Command was launched to controversy and has been met with skepticism ever since. Behind two years of mixed messages, a coherent mission might finally be emerging. Here's what you need to know about the world's next U.S. military hub.

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
U.S. Military: CJTF-HOA
U.S. Military: CJTF-HOA
U.S. Military: CJTF-HOA

As if the U.S. military weren't busy enough in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's now got another project looming: building an entirely new Africa Command from the ground up. For years, the Department of Defense split the continent between three existing commands - Central, European, and Pacific. But on February 6, 2007, the George W. Bush administration announced that Africa was finally going to get individual attention.

As if the U.S. military weren’t busy enough in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s now got another project looming: building an entirely new Africa Command from the ground up. For years, the Department of Defense split the continent between three existing commands – Central, European, and Pacific. But on February 6, 2007, the George W. Bush administration announced that Africa was finally going to get individual attention.

If the move was meant as demonstration of Africa’s crucial importance to the United States, however, it was received as more of an insult. From the moment that U.S. Africa Command (Africom) was even mentioned, rumors began to fly. The command was surely looking for a permanent home on the African continent, critics said, and the new military organization would lead to a burgeoning U.S. military presence in the region. Some, including most of the governments in Sub-Saharan Africa, feared a sort of neocolonial U.S. engagement. Meanwhile, Africom failed (and still fails) to clearly explain its mission, adding credibility to the rampant doubts.

Two years later, fevers have cooled, but Africom remains a contentious issue. Here’s a look at what the command really is (and isn’t), and why it fits in quite nicely with the world of counterinsurgency traditionally left to commanders in the Middle East and Central Asia.

"Africom was created to fight terrorism."

Only in part. To understand the question, it’s important to look first at one of the most seemingly simple yet actually most devilish questions about the command: What does Africom really do? After the command’s launch two and a half years ago, even the U.S. government struggled to figure that out. Africom’s civilian counterparts in the State Department, for example, felt both confused and threatened. How did they fit in, now that Africom would be running the show? The command’s impenetrable and vague mission statement doesn’t help matters. Africom, it says, "conducts sustained security engagement through military-to-military programs, military-sponsored activities, and other military operations as directed to promote a stable and secure African environment in support of U.S. foreign policy."

This internal lack of direction is one reason that Africom has been so vulnerable to criticism. It’s clear that Africom’s main job is to get to know African militaries – to help train them, to help boost their professionalism, and to generally serve as a good example to countries, many of which have never had a military that was subservient to a civilian government. Part of this will be enabling African countries to staff U.N. peacekeeping missions, a project already begun under the State Department’s Global Peace Operations Initiative.

But after that, things get fuzzier. Analyst J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, mentions energy security as one primary goal. "[T]he significance of Africa for the United States’ energy security cannot be underestimated," he wrote in The Brown Journal of World Affairs in the Fall/Winter of 2008. Places such as Nigeria are becoming the default big suppliers as policymakers shift dependence away from the Middle East.

And yes, terrorism is important too, not least because it’s probably the most pressing concern from the U.S. perspective. One good indication about how the United States started looking at Africa after the September 11 attacks was the Pan-Sahel initiative, an attempt to boost the capacity of local troops in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger to find and root out local terror. A second initiative, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, followed two years later, adding five more countries to the list. Such programs reflected a shift in security mentalities that began to see poverty, discontent, and poor governance as root grievances associated with terror. And they’ll certainly continue under Africom.

So for those worried about an oppressive U.S. military presence in Africa, the question may be less what the U.S. troops are doing as what missions they are training African troops to carry out. And here, it is myopic to see Africa purely in terms of terrorism, oil, and peacekeeping. All three of these key interests, while critical to the United States, are less likely to be the complaints of your average African. Much more needed than counterterror squads is good policing, any resident of Johannesburg or Lagos will tell you. But pickpockets and armed robbers don’t score too high as U.S.-dubbed strategic threats.

For some African countries, a strong military may even be counterproductive, particularly if other sectors of the government fail to improve in tandem. As one analyst put it at a recent conference on Africom, making the military more professional than the government sounds like a recipe for a coup. Look no further than Guinea for proof: The military takeover of November 2008, was initially greeted with protests of joy on the streets of a country cursed by decades of lethargic and corrupt civilian leadership. If that military has been trained in counterterrorism tactics, one can imagine the relative ease with which they could put down any would-be opposition.

"Africom wants to find a base on the continent."

No — at least, not now. Of all the rumors that clouded Africom’s rollout two years ago, none was more persistent than the idea that Africom was looking for an African base. It didn’t help dispel whispers when several African governments unilaterally condemned Africom and refused to welcome U.S. troops; Liberia was the only country that offered to play host.

But Africom is not searching for a base today, even if it had been before getting so seriously spurned. From its current locale in Stuttgart, Germany, Africom is well positioned for its so far limited tasks (which, as mentioned, still need clear definition) and has no desire to move. It has no permanent troops at its disposal, so the command has to request men through the Department of Defense as tasks arise. And as for the rest of Africom’s 1,300-staff, which includes 300 Special Operations, 250 intelligence, and a big chunk of civilians, getting around Africa is actually easier from Stuttgart than, say, Monrovia. To fly from West to East Africa, you have to fly through Europe anyway.

Might Africom have a real presence in Africa someday? Many believe that the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), founded separately in 2002 and now under Africom’s purview, might be a sign of what is to come. Based in Djibouti, the 1,500-person troop and civilian contingent has been active in regional training programs, counter terror, intelligence operations, and humanitarian assistance. Call it a trial run?

"Africom will militarize foreign aid."

Perhaps. A major objection to Africom has been the fear that the new command would "militarize" foreign aid, with soldiers taking over traditionally civilian tasks. The danger would be twofold: Not only would the military be less effective in carrying out humanitarian jobs, but it would compromise the neutrality of independent aid workers, as the line between military and civilian blurred. The State Department was among the first to raise this concern. As an Office of the Inspector General report released this summer explained, there was "considerable internal debate [within the Africa Bureau] about the wisdom of military funding of U.S. development and public diplomacy activities in Africa."

The fear stems from the very real dominance of Africom, and the Defense Department in general, over the State Department when it comes to manpower, funding, and agility. Africom’s emphasis on development as one of the major means of "conflict prevention" also raises questions about what the military will be doing. And the military’s hands are usually far less tied by paperwork, earmarks, and procurement restrictions than civilian agencies, particularly the notoriously bureaucratic U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Lacking any clear policy on the matter, a de facto solution has arisen, summed up neatly in the Department of Defense’s field manual on Stability Operations: "Many stability operations tasks are best performed by indigenous, foreign, or U.S. civilian professionals. Nonetheless, U.S. military forces should be prepared to perform all tasks necessary to establish or maintain order when civilians cannot do so." In other words, if State can’t do it, Defense will — so long as it has the funding and authority.

The jury is still out as to whether this emerging shift of responsibility is a good one. Sometimes, the military is indeed right for the job — for example, when the task is actual military training, funds for which are today still allocated to State. There are also nonmilitary situations in which soldiers can be useful: When the civilian government in South Africa was still denying the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the U.S. military helped train South African soldiers in prevention — a sort of "back door" public health measure. Africom’s military staff would rather not become the developers, and they readily acknowledge that this is not, and should not be, their role. But lacking the civilian capacity to fill the gap, they might just have to adapt.

"The fight between the Department of State and the Department of Defense in Africa is over."

If it is, Congress didn’t get the memo. Over the last two years, there has been a decrease in the tension between the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense over the division of tasks in Africa. But while the two agencies are now largely in agreement that Africa needs a civilian surge (Defense Secretary Gates once lamented that the military personnel on one aircraft carrier outnumbered the entire Foreign Service), Congress hasn’t caught up. Revamping the State Department with a massive increase in personnel, funding, and jurisdiction, a promise made by current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is as yet a pipe dream.

Why is it so hard to get funding for State? In many ways, State’s relative decline is a vicious cycle: Congress believes that State lacks capacity to carry out projects, so it assigns them elsewhere, often to Defense, which is relatively more equipped. Each time this happens, State loses a chance to build itself up, and so Congress’s impressions are reinforced.

To be fair, some in Congress may be starting to catch on. A recent flap over information operations (IO), the blanket term for military programs meant to "influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision making while protecting our own," according to the Department of Defense dictionary, shows that Congress is beginning to question whether the DoD should always win out over State. IO overlaps with Public Diplomacy, a task traditionally held within the State Department but increasingly carried out by Defense. The House Committee on Appropriations recently cut the Department of Defense’s budget for IO in half, explaining, "The Committee has serious concerns about not only the significant amount of funding being spent on these programs, but more importantly, about the Department’s assumption of this mission area within its roles and responsibilities."

Still, no big change is in sight for the balance of power between the military and civilian sides. For the moment, Africom will have to muddle along.

"Africom will be a command ‘unlike any other’"

It will have to be. Africom promises to be "A Different Kind of Command," with staff from multiple U.S. agencies and a mandate that differs substantially from other military posts. Africa command even drew on a revolutionary new military doctrine that added steps to the traditionally defined four-phase process of U.S. military engagement: deter/engage, seize initiative, dominate, and transition. Africom falls into a new "phase zero," before any of these other four: conflict prevention. According to a participant at a recent Africom conference, that means doing everything possible to avoid having to get involved in "another 25-year Plan Colombia" to clean up a long-term, well-entrenched mess — a reference to the $5-billion plus involvement of the United States in that country’s drug and insurgency problems.

What remains to be seen is how well this mission can come together. Africom has quite a similar job to, say, forces in Afghanistan who are hoping to rebuild broken militaries, foster economic growth, and all the while boost daily security. The counterinsurgency and the African Security worlds are beginning to merge, or at least mix, in the world of ideas in Washington. The two groups may well share also their failure or success.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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