Happy Birthday AFRICOM

Today marks the birth of the U.S. Africa Command, “the culmination of a 10-year thought process within the Department of Defense (DoD) acknowledging the emerging strategic importance of Africa, and recognizing that peace and stability on the continent impacts not only Africans, but the interests of the U.S. and international community as well.” 

It has existed for the past year as a sub-unified command of European Command responsible for all U.S. military activities in Africa (minus Egypt). Far from being a new initiative, AFRICOM is simply the consolidation of Africa programs from three other commands–EUCOM, CENTCOM, and PACOM. Its commander, General Kip Ward, sees AFRICOM leading “a cohesive and coherent effort” to facilitate security and stability in Africa.

With this change, European Command will now be focused just on NATO, Europe, and Israel. General John Craddock and his staff should welcome the  reduction of their area of responsibility from 93 countries to 51. This will allow them to focus their efforts on Russia’s resurgence and NATO’s activities in Afghanistan.

Those looking for big, bold initiatives from AFRICOM will likely be disappointed. As Nick Gvosdev noted in an earlier New Atlanticist post, the command won’t be funded at expected levels. As is painfully obvious, the lion’s share of our military resources are being devoted to Iraq and Afghanistan, so there should be no worries about American forces flowing into Africa for good or ill purpose. Instead, AFRICOM will be an economy of force effort.

In spite of this, there is a deep skepticism of the new command coming from Congress, the Department of State, and development NGOs who fear that traditional aid and diplomacy will be marginalized by the military and be directed away from the development community. The latest defense appropriation bill “directs DoD to work with the State Department to ensure that the United States does not pursue a ‘military first’ policy in Africa.” Looking at the foreign assistance data, the argument is largely a non-sequitur as public health, famine relief, and development assistance dwarf military assistance programs in Africa. 

Most African countries greeted the initial announcement of AFRICOM with skepticism, but that appears to be waning. This was somewhat expected given colonial history, high levels of intervention by European countries during the Cold War (France intervened about 30 different times), and the prominence of military regimes in Africa (some fear the United States will pressure them to democratize, while those with civilians in power now fear strengthened militaries will pressure civilian governments).

Fighting an uphill battle on his command’s role in Africa, Ward has had to convince African leaders that U.S. goals for Africa are vastly different than those of  its former colonial masters. This is difficult because of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.  At the time, Nelson Mandela criticized the United States: “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care.” When one of Africa’s heroes calls the United States dangerous, it generates obvious resistance.

Ward has already backed down from the goal to establish his headquarters in Africa, which is a symbolic defeat. The headquarters remains at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany for the foreseeable future. He will still have a large base in the Horn of Africa, which will likely serve as AFRICOM forward. (At the same time Congress cut funding an AFRICOM headquarters, it increased funding for expanding the base in Camp Lemonier in Djibouti.)

Additionally, the command has had to re-emphasize its role in bringing stability to Africa through military training. This is a very different message than the “hearts and minds” message it was initially promoting. In my view, it was a mistake to overplay the development dimension of the command, which provoked ire from the traditional development community who can do these jobs much more cheaply and effectively than the U.S. military can.

There are traditional military missions to be performed in Africa and AFRICOM should not run away from these.  It can train and deploy African Union peacekeepers to combat genocide in Darfur and Congo.  It can train and equip regional coast guards to interdict piracy to prevent regional security fallout from weak states like Somalia.  It can facilitate maritime safety and security in West Africa to help staunch the illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons, and people that are a threat to Europe.

Along these lines, Ward has urged leaders to be patient and judge the command by the legacy programs it will continue and the new missions it will conduct. He is working to field diplomats, builders, and guardians, not warfighters. The command will help partner countries control their borders, deploy peacekeepers to conflict zones, and develop the capacity to make peace with neighboring countries.

This is a bold experiment in US military structure and capabilities, and it is exciting to witness. With the overarching goal of bringing stability to Africa, the command’s success will be judged by how well it strengthens weak militaries and trains peacekeepers. AFRICOM should not overstate the development programs it conducts in Africa; it has become too easy to speak about digging wells or building schools. Instead, AFRICOM should re-emphasize the real military missions it will conduct to facilitate security in Africa.  Ultimately, the command will be evaluated on how well it improves the capabilities of its partners to control their terroritory, contain conflict, and create an environment hospitable for socio-economic development.

Derek S. Reveron is a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College.  His views are his own.

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