The Great Security Shift

The United States wants to help rid Africa of corruption, coups, and terrorism. And it's going about it all wrong.


The White House is hosting a major summit of African leaders this week. Elected and unelected heads of state and officials from nearly 50 African countries are in Washington, D.C., to discuss the future of the U.S. relationship with Africa.

The White House is hosting a major summit of African leaders this week. Elected and unelected heads of state and officials from nearly 50 African countries are in Washington, D.C., to discuss the future of the U.S. relationship with Africa.

The sad part about this meeting is that the administration’s Africa policy is gaining visibility and attention not so much because of progress in African economic development but because of heightened U.S. attention to security issues in that continent.

The single-mindedness of the administration’s focus on terrorism and security has dragged the United States, and especially the U.S. military, into the internal security affairs of a growing number of African countries, from the 14 countries involved in the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) program to Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, Niger, Liberia, and now Nigeria.

It seems like the United States cares most about Africa when administrations perceive that U.S. security interests may be at stake. We really pay attention when we think terrorists and insurgents are paying attention. When that happens, the "security assistance" mavens take over, applying those models so carefully (and unsuccessfully) crafted in Iraq and Afghanistan. Army trainers, private contractors, Special Operations forces, and even the National Guard swoop in to spiff up the indigenous militaries and security forces of selected African countries.

It is a dangerous model of engagement, one that could well lead to policy and operational failure, to a weakening of our civilian engagement in Africa, to serious destabilization of governance in a number of countries, and to a "blowback" that will actually compromise U.S. national security and our credibility in Africa.

The United States has been involved in Africa for some time, though the continent’s former imperial powers, especially France, have been more deeply engaged. More recently, China has become a major player, with growing investments and foreign assistance. The history of U.S. engagement in Africa has been, in fact, quite complex, revolving principally around development assistance and the provision of food and humanitarian relief. We have also had a somewhat sordid history of providing political and military support to some of Africa’s more distasteful dictators in some countries, ranging from Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia to Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Zaire for 32 years.

U.S. development and social assistance in Africa has traditionally been the responsibility of USAID. When I was associate director at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the 1990s, the Clinton administration set aside more than $700 million a year for African economic development, health, education, and many other programs. But it was not very effective assistance, if the purpose was economic and social development. First, the assistance was smaller than it seems, as it was scattered over 50 countries, meaning less than $100 million a year for any one of them. Some, like Ghana, were countries that showed signs of economic progress and growth, while others, like Congo (formerly Zaire) were systematic economic and social basket cases. Second, USAID scattered its assistance like fairy dust through a large number of activities — from health clinics to wells, to crops, to schools, and beyond, meaning the total for any one country was spread so thin it could hardly have had a significant impact.

The Obama administration is doubtlessly pointing out at the summit this week that it has upped the African ante in development assistance.

According to USAID data (extracted for this piece by my Stimson Center colleague John Cappel), U.S. development assistance to sub-Saharan Africa averaged roughly $675 million a year during the Bush years, but had risen to an average of over $1.13 billion a year through fiscal year 2012. Moreover, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (a 2004 Bush initiative) has signed "compacts" or "threshold agreements" with 19 African countries, through which it will provide another $5.3 billion in foreign economic assistance to Africa. The most significant U.S. social investment in Africa is the $5 billion a year the State Department oversees to fight and control AIDS, the bulk of it spent in Africa.

These economic and social investments appear to be working. Economic growth rates in many African countries, according to the World Bank, have accelerated in recent years, reaching annual growth rates over 6 percent in 2013 in such countries as Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mauritania, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania.

It is not clear, however, that official development assistance is the cause of this growth. Billions of public dollars spent on African development over the past 45 years by the United States, Europe, and international institutions like the World Bank did little or nothing to accelerate economic growth in the continent. A more important source of growth might be the "discovery" of Africa by foreign investors (who began to pour private capital into the continent early in this century). According to the Hudson Institute’s Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances, in 2013, private capital flows from the United States to the developing world were 3.5 times larger than official U.S. development assistance. (The index does not provide data by recipient country or continent, however.) According to the International Business Times, private equity investment in African countries has been growing rapidly in 2014, faster than such investment in Latin America, China, or India.

But it is clear that increased government assistance and private investment have not eliminated security problems in Africa. From Boko Haram to Saharan terrorists, to coups in Mali, to the uneasiness of Somalia, to ethnic conflict in Kenya, to the endless Congo wars, to the search for Joseph Kony, Africa has been perpetually insecure, marked by coups, inter-ethnic conflict, and, today, extremist insurgencies. And the United States has become a major player in the continent in the last few years, driven by the broader U.S. policy of tackling extremist insurgents and terrorist organizations on a global scale — meaning that not only has U.S. engagement in Africa expanded, but its role there has taken on an increasingly military character.

One can measure some of this expansion in dollar terms. While economic and social assistance has been strong, Cappel and I calculate that between 2005 and 2012, the United States also spent nearly $15 billion on security sector programs in Africa. The bulk ($11.8 billion) of that has been U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations in Africa, principally in Sudan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But there has also been a rising fiscal tide of State Department-funded spending to train African militaries and security forces for peacekeeping duties, law enforcement, counternarcotics operations, counterterror operations, and to underwrite the expenses of African regional peacekeepers in Somalia, among other places.

Beyond these measurable security dollars on the State Department side, however, there has also been considerable expansion of direct U.S. military engagement in Africa, funded in the defense budget. This expansion includes the creation of the Africa Command in 2008, the Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa engagement of the Special Operations Forces, a somewhat secret U.S. military presence in Somalia, the Trans-Sahara program noted above, the special training of elite anti-terror forces in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Libya, the deployment of U.S. surveillance drones in Niger, and advising the Nigerian military as they tangle (or don’t tangle) with Boko Haram. In fact, as of 2014, the United States had "boots on the ground" in 13 African countries, and advisors and/or private contractors doing training in even more. The cost of these military programs has not been disclosed, but in the interests of transparency and congressional oversight, both the programs and their budgets need more sunshine.

The gradual transition of responsibility for the U.S. investment and direct engagement in African security from State to the Pentagon and the Special Operations forces in particular is reinforced by President Obama’s announcement in June that he wants to create a $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, most of which will be implemented by the military services. As I wrote recently, this program was announced before it had content, and most of the work of defining and implementing that content will fall to the Pentagon. This not only leaves the State Department, which has traditionally had budget and policy responsibility for security assistance programs, in the dust, but puts more of a military stamp on U.S. engagement. (As I argue in my forthcoming co-authored book, the imbalance of the Defense Department and State in our global security engagement, and the growing role of the U.S. military are going to be a bad investment.) The "securitization" of U.S. engagement in Africa, by drawing in the military, is fraught with risks and the promise of an investment gone bad.

There is precious little evidence that the U.S. military is competent to train another military in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations, especially when it comes to such "hearts and minds" activities as economic and social engagement in another country. But the process of engaging deeply with the security forces of another country contains an even deeper risk than that of mere failure.

The money, equipment, training, counseling, intelligence, and operating support the United States provides in Africa will only be reinforcing the militaries as institutions in their countries. These militaries already have, at best, a mixed history of corruption, political domination, and seizure of power. And U.S. military investments provide these militaries with additional arms and operational training, making it even more difficult for civilian governments to restrain the military’s assertion of political power.

This deeper issue is a central one in Africa, and the one payoff of all the U.S. investment that we should put above all others — above development, above social services, above stronger security forces — is the issue of "governance." Governance is what this summit should be about, above all else. Supporting governance in Africa might be discussed this week, but it is a goal only weakly reflected in U.S. assistance programs in Africa.

It is clear that governance is a central issue in Africa. According to Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace’s most recent index of "fragile states," of the 25 most fragile states in the world in 2013, 17 are in Africa, and the five most fragile (on "very high alert," according to the index) are all in Africa: South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan.

The World Bank has already discovered that governance is the key to economic development. And it is absolutely critical to real, long-term security. Without capable governance, the pursuit of security disappears into corruption, coups, and insurgencies, as has happened all too often in various African countries. Strengthening the military, internal security forces, or the police without strengthening the civilian state is on its face an investment that will fail.

For all of its supposedly rich experience in nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, the political results in those two countries make it clear that the U.S. military has no core competence in the field. Sadly, it is equally clear that neither the State Department nor USAID have greater expertise, nor that they have put support of governance at the heart of U.S. engagement in Africa. The words are there, but the civilian policies, programs, institutions, funds, and trained personnel are not there yet.

USAID devotes most of its programs and funding to development and health, not to governance. The State Department does not train foreign service officers in the art of governance or in how to help another country work through governance issues. As I wrote recently, the State Department needs to use its current Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) to step up to the challenge of reforming the foreign service, its approach to security assistance, and its budgeting to become more effective in this domain.

And yet governance is central to development, to adequate social services, and to security. Chris Holshek with the Alliance for Peacebuilding, who has worked on the military side of security sector assistance, argues — rightly, in my view — that the goal of security is "human security," a much broader agenda than well-trained militaries or cops. But bringing reality to that vision of security depends on having a capable government in place that can actually raise resources and target them on social needs.

What does this mean? It means U.S. foreign assistance that is targeted at helping strengthen governments that are efficient (don’t spend needlessly), effective (actually deliver "the goods" to the people), accountable (the public is able to change the government and effectively alter unacceptable policies), responsive (the government responds to the public and its representatives), and free of corruption. This is not something that yet exists in the vast majority of African countries but is something that is essential if they are to grow economically, bring well-being to their citizens, and achieve real security.

Creating such a capacity where government is weak and corruption is rampant — true of many African countries — is damnably difficult to achieve. It is clearly "mission impossible" for an outside entity like the U.S. military, as Iraq and Afghanistan amply reveal. In fact, $25 billion for the Iraqi military and nearly $50 billion for the Afghan military have, if anything, only amplified corruption in both states.

The summit this week offers an opportunity to change direction. Rather than beefing up our military engagement in the continent, we should be beefing up our investment in governance and in cooperation with a lot of other countries and international institutions. The White House may miss this opportunity. Its focus for the summit is on "how to encourage progress in key areas that Africans define as critical for the future of the continent: expanding trade and investment ties, engaging young African leaders, promoting inclusive sustainable development, expanding cooperation on peace and security, and gaining a better future for Africa’s next generation."

All of these depend on strengthening governance, and the administration needs to start building U.S. capacity to undertake this mission and embed its foreign and military assistance programs in an overall strategy to strengthen governance.

I have one small suggestion for a step that might help. President George W. Bush created the Millennium Challenge Corporation to link the provision of U.S. economic development dollars to a recipient country’s willingness to deliver on human services, the reduction of corruption, and other measures of good governance.

What if, in the same way, we took some of the billions of military assistance dollars we spend today and created a fund for security assistance, where decisions were not driven by a fight with terrorists or support for a favorite strongman in Africa? Instead, what if we linked providing help on the security front to a recipient country’s measuring up to yardsticks of good governance, both broadly and with respect to civilian control over its security forces.

It would be only a start, but I think a good start, toward embedding U.S. economic, humanitarian, and military assistance funding and policies in a broader strategy that could provide real, long-term security to African countries. It would put that strategy in the hands of U.S. civilians, who ought to be running our engagement processes, anyway. And it would be a real legacy for the administration to leave behind, not three days of conference rhetoric and a goodbye.

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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