Happy Birthday, AFRICOM!

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Brian Palmer Journalist and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY

Last October 1 at a Pentagon ceremony, General William E. "Kip" Ward unfurled a shimmering baby blue flag with a large green Africa-shaped emblem at its center. Smiling dignitaries -- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, and others -- looked on. With that (plus several de rigueur speeches) U.S. Africa Command, aka AFRICOM, was activated.

The Department of Defense divides the world into six (formerly five) areas of geographic responsibility, or "regional combatant commands": European, Northern, Southern, Central, Pacific, and now "Africa." The commander of each of these zones, a four-star general, coordinates all DoD activities in that area. In other words, if a conflict breaks out, the regional combatant commander is responsible for conducting military operations. By law, he -- and thus far it has been all hes -- reports directly to the Secretary of Defense and the President.

As a freestanding combatant command, AFRICOM's "area of responsibility" (AOR) covers the African continent minus Egypt, which falls within Central Command's AOR. Under the old system, Africa was divvied up into territorial chunks and placed under three different commands -- European, Pacific, and Central. AFRICOM, launched in October 2007 as a subordinate element of European Command in a kind of training-wheels period, was created to unify DoD's diffuse Africa efforts.

The new command is unlike the five others in one crucial way: it has no standing forces -- no armies or divisions poised for combat. AFRICOM is responsible for DoD personnel across the continent, both civilian and military, and for Camp Lemonier in the tiny East Africa nation of Djibouti. Lemonier is the U.S.'s only established (and publicly acknowledged) base on the continent -- the Army calls it "infrastructure" to avoid offending African sensibilities -- and has about "2,400 military members and contract civilians assigned." Congress allotted $100 million for improvements to Lemonier between 2007 and 2010. "The camp is becoming an enduring mission," Combined Joint Task Force -- Horn of Africa commander Rear Adm. Anthony Kurta told Star and Stripes.

In a sense, al Qaeda reawakened American interest in Africa, specifically the 1998 coordinated bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. After 9/11, the Bush administration set up CJTF-HOA to hunt al Qaeda in East Africa.

In 2005, the U.S. military estimated that 25 percent of foreign fighters captured in Iraq were African, asserted then-Lieutenant Commander Pat Paterson of the U.S. Navy in a 2006 article published in Proceedings, the journal of the U.S. Naval Institute. Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence, called Algeria's al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb "a significant threat to U.S. and Western interests in the region" in a March 2009 statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee. DNI identifies Somalia-based al Shabab al Islamiya as similarly dangerous.

Unbeknown to most Americans, the Departments of Defense and State maintain a wide web of military programs across Africa -- the African Contingency Operations, Training and Assistance program (part of a global peacekeeper-training initiative), Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara, the Trans-Sahara Counter terrorism Program, plus Joint Combined Exchange Training, Joint Contact Team Program, Joint Planning Advisory Teams, and many other bilateral connections.

Beyond military matters, the U.S. identifies poverty, transnational crime, HIV/AIDS, and internal conflicts in countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, and Nigeria as serious threats to security on the continent, across the region, and globally.

Even before it was launched, there were serious P.R. problems with AFRICOM, principally current events and history. Many people across the continent harbored fears of creeping U.S. militarism (read: Iraq) and America's long record of backing African dictators simply because they toed the anti-communist line during the Cold War. African leaders (and citizens) worried aloud that Africa would simply become the next battlefield in the American "global war on terror" and an economic captive of the U.S. because of the continent's oil supply -- and America's insatiable demand. (The U.S. now imports more oil from Africa than the Middle East).

"AFRICOM will focus on providing better support for the pursuit of renewed U.S. interests in Africa, which can be accurately summarized in three words -- 'oil, China and terrorism,'" Addis Ababa-based security analyst Berouk Mesfin wrote in the April 2009 issue of African Security Review. This nails the opposition argument in a neat little nutshell.

AFRICOM and State Department officials did their best to allay such fears.

"The creation of U.S. Africa Command does not mean the U.S. military will take a leading role in African security matters, nor will it establish large U.S. troop bases," AFRICOM's website says. In another move meant to reassure, but which has worried many, a U.S. State Department official was integrated into AFRICOM's chain of command as "Deputy to the Commander for Civil-Military Affairs." (The title didn't include the words "to the" originally, giving it an imposing martial ring).

The mixing of traditionally civilian and military missions alarms human rights and good governance groups. Militaries are seen as -- and are, in fact -- hierarchical, warfighting forces. People with guns can provide short-term disaster assistance, the argument goes, but they shouldn't be in the business of providing butter and setting up the essential intangibles of civil society.

But such civil-military initiatives are already under way: "Small groups of U.S. Special Forces are already traversing the hinterlands of more than a dozen countries in the Sahel, Sahara and the Horn of Africa, training and equipping local troops to combat Islamists," the editors of the African Terrorism Bulletin wrote in October 2006. "Small civil affairs units are traveling to remote villages to dispense medical care, dig wells and build schools while identifying watering holes and potential terrorist camp sites and establishing links with local peoples. This approach was used by the U.S. during the Cold War, notably in El Salvador. Now referred to as the Salvador Option, it aims to undermine insurgencies long before they can threaten local governments allied to the U.S.," the article continues.

Without specifying what they do, AFRICOM spokesman Crawley confirmed that teams from Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa "work with folks in the Seychelles, Kenya, Tanzania. They are not doing any work in Somalia," he said.

AFRICOM does have its champions across the continent.

"We believe that the new Africa Command of the U.S. military -- AFRICOM -- can play an important role on the continent, and in Liberia," that nation's president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, said in a 2008 speech to the Washington, DC-based advocacy group Africare.

"The U.S. Africa command will be important in playing a major role in bringing lasting peace and security across the continent," said Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Of course, neither leader is a disinterested party: both Liberia and Ethiopia receive substantial military support from the U.S.

The link between the U.S. and Liberian forces is so tight that it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins: The U.S., instrumental in founding the nation, began supporting its armed forces in 1912. Over the past 90-plus years, the Liberian military went from a reasonably stable force to a politicized and brutal tool of successive military regimes -- some backed by the U.S. United Nations troops assumed security responsibilities for the country in the wake of the horrific civil war. The Armed Forces of Liberia were demobilized in 2005, and the Liberian government invited the U.S. to lead "Security Sector Reform." The U.S. contracted with private military contractor DynCorp to train the new army. DynCorp, which has racked up a pile of charges and investigations for its actions in Bosnia and Iraq, turned over its training facility to the Liberians this July, but the U.S. military maintains strong ties to the AFL and the Monrovia government. Liberia was one of only seven countries favored with a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her recent visit to Africa.

The Meles government cooperated with CJTF-HOA, the U.S.-led counter terror task force, early on. In 2004, the U.S. military set up Camp United, a "temporary training facility," in Ethiopia, according to the Army News Service. (When asked, AFRICOM spokesman Vince Crawley told me he had never heard of Camp United but that the American military sets up "temporary training camps" when working with host-nation militaries.)

More troublesome to AFRICOM critics, the U.S. aided Ethiopia with arms and advisers during its December 2006 invasion of Somalia to depose the Union of Islamic Courts government. According to a 2007 New York Times story, U.S. AC-130 gunships flew missions out of Ethiopia and American special forces from Task Force 88 accompanied Ethiopian troops into Somalia. To put it mildly, this concerns many analysts and African leaders, even those who partake of U.S. military aid, arms sales, and cooperation, like South Africa.

South Africa's Minister of Defense, Mosiuoa Lekota, urged African nations to rebuff U.S. efforts to base the new command on the continent because it "threatens our sovereignty." There's also a tremendous not-in-my-front-yard sentiment when it comes to headquartering the command. No country other than Liberia has stepped up, and as of now, AFRICOM's home is Stuttgart, Germany.

So what has AFRICOM accomplished in its first year, and have such fears come to pass or been allayed?

"We spent a year really building a lot of strategic coherence in our work in Africa," Crawley, AFRICOM's Chief of Public Information, told me in a phone interview. He cites as concrete accomplishments the January 2009 multination military exercise FLINTLOCK in Mali (which included U.S. Special Forces); a U.S. airlift of African peacekeepers deploying to Rwanda; and, recently, the successful conclusion of an intelligence course for Nigerian military officers.

"There was a lot of discussion of Africa Command early on when people didn't know what we were doing," Crawley said. AFRICOM "was seen as some kind of a NATO-like defense structure" in which countries would trade sovereignty for a closer relationship with the U.S. It is not, he said. Furthermore, he added, "we go only where we're invited."

"The past year has been more of a year of transition," from Presidents Bush to Obama, says A. Sarjoh Bah, Program Coordinator for Africa Security Institutions & Global Peace Operations at NYU's Center on International Cooperation. "In terms of the initial skepticism, I haven't seen any seismic shift in the position that has been taken by African civil society groups," Bah says. South African countries "still don't want anything to do with AFRICOM." Liberia, however, would love to host it, but "we all know Liberia doesn't have the infrastructure to do that," Bah says.

Daniel Volman, Director of the African Security Research Project, is quite a bit more skeptical. "I think it's clear that the Obama administration is continuing along the trajectory set by the Clinton and Bush administrations with regard to U.S. military involvement in Africa, and the missions of the new Africa Command. Like them, it believes that it is necessary to use military instruments to pursue what it sees as the primary U.S. interests in Africa: protecting U.S. access to oil and other resources, making the continent a central battlefield in the Global War on Terrorism, and demonstrating America's commitment to competing with China for political and economic influence." (China has been investing in Africa since the 1970s, but only recently in earnest -- one of China's three state-owned oil companies is trying to woo the Nigerian government to land oil contracts now held by Western multinationals, worth an estimated $30 billion.)

As examples of the less benign -- and worrisome -- side of the U.S. effort, Volman cites the raids on Somalia, the military presence in Djibouti (acknowledged by DoD in 2002 as a launching pad for antiterrorism operations), and the administration's request for more funding for arms sales to Algeria, Angola, Nigeria, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, and Sao Tome.

There is no either/or here: the humanitarian, capacity-building, and multilateral missions AFRICOM says it is committed to and will coexist with the pursuit of U.S. national security as defined by the Obama administration. African leaders must once again manage relationships with the world's greatest power -- and civil society groups must monitor these relationships to ensure that the interests of ordinary people aren't crushed in all the political, economic, and military wheeling and dealing.

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