by Daniel Volman and William Minter, Foreign Policy in Focus

At the end of President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony, civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery invoked the hope of a day “when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors.” No one expects such a utopian vision to materialize any time soon. But both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have spoken eloquently of the need to emphasize diplomacy over a narrow military agenda. In her confirmation hearing, Clinton stressed the need for “smart power,” perhaps inadvertently echoing Obama’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq as a “dumb war.” Even top US military officials, such as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, have warned against overly militarizing US foreign policy.

In practice, such a shift in emphasis is certain to be inconsistent. At a global level, the most immediate challenge to the credibility of change in foreign policy is Afghanistan, where promised troop increases are given little chance of bringing stability and the country risks becoming Obama’s “Vietnam.” Africa policy is for the most part under the radar of public debate. But it also poses a clear choice for the new administration. Will de facto US security policy toward the continent focus on anti-terrorism and access to natural resources and prioritize bilateral military relations with African countries? Or will the United States give priority to enhancing multilateral capacity to respond to Africa’s own urgent security needs?

If the first option is taken, it will undermine rather than advance both US and African security. Taking the second option won’t be easy. There are no quick fixes. But US security in fact requires that policymakers take a broader view of Africa’s security needs and a multilateral approach to addressing them.

The need for immediate action to promote peace in Africa is clear. While much of the continent is at peace, there are large areas of great violence and insecurity, most prominently centered on Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia. These crises require not only a continuing emphasis on diplomacy but also resources for peacemaking and peacekeeping. And yet the Bush administration has bequeathed the new president a new military command for Africa—the US Africa Command, known as AFRICOM. Meanwhile, Washington has starved the United Nations and other multilateral institutions of resources, even while entrusting them with enormous peacekeeping responsibilities.

The government has presented AFRICOM as a cost-effective institutional restructuring and a benign program for supporting African governments in humanitarian as well as necessary security operations. In fact, it represents the institutionalization and increased funding for a model of bilateral military ties—a replay of the mistakes of the Cold War. This risks drawing the United States more deeply into conflicts, reinforcing links with repressive regimes, excusing human rights abuses, and frustrating rather than fostering sustainable multilateral peacemaking and peacekeeping. It will divert scarce budget resources, build resentment, and undercut the long-term interests of the United States.

AFRICOM in Theory and Practice
Judging by their frequent press releases, AFRICOM and related programs such as the Navy’s Africa Partnership Station are primarily focused on a constant round of community relations and capacity building projects, such as rescue and firefighting training for African sailors, construction of clinics and schools, and similar endeavors. “AFRICOM is about helping Africans build greater capacity to assure their own security,” asserted Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Theresa Whelan in a typical official statement. AFRICOM defenders further cite the importance of integrating development and humanitarian programs into the program’s operations.

Pentagon spokespeople describe AFRICOM as a logical bureaucratic restructuring that will ensure that Africa gets the attention it deserves. They insist AFRICOM won’t set the priorities for US policy toward Africa or increase Pentagon influence at the expense of civilian agencies. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in August 2007, Whelan denied that AFRICOM was being established “solely to fight terrorism, or to secure oil resources, or to discourage China,” countering: “This is not true.”

But other statements by Whelan herself, by Gen. William “Kip” Ward, the four-star African-American general who commands AFRICOM, and Vice-Admiral Robert Moeller, his military deputy, lay out AFRICOM’s priorities in more conventional terms. In a briefing for European Command officers in March 2004, Whelan said that the Pentagon’s priorities in Africa were to “prevent establishment of/disrupt/destroy terrorist groups; stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction; perform evacuations of US citizens in danger; assure access to strategic resources, lines of communication, and refueling/forward sites” in Africa.

On Feb. 19, 2008, Moeller told an AFRICOM conference that protecting “the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market” was one of AFRICOM’s “guiding principles,” citing “oil disruption,” “terrorism,” and the “growing influence” of China as major “challenges” to US interests in Africa. Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee on March 13, 2008, General Ward echoed the same views and identified combating terrorism as “AFRICOM’s number one theater-wide goal.” Ward barely mentioned development, humanitarian aid, or conflict resolution. US official discourse on AFRICOM doesn’t engage with the parallel discussions in the United Nations and the African Union about building multilateral peacekeeping capacity. Strikingly, there was no official consultation about the new command with either the United Nations or the African Union before it was first announced in 2006.

In practice, AFRICOM, which became a fully independent combatant command on Oct. 1, 2008, with its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, is built on the paradigm of US military commands which span the globe. Although AFRICOM features less “kinetic” (combat) operations than the active wars falling under CENTCOM in Iraq and Afghanistan, its goals and programs are more conventional than the public relations image would imply. The Pentagon now has six geographically focused commands, each headed by either a four-star general or admiral—Africa (AFRICOM); the Middle East and Central Asia (Central Command or CENTCOM); Europe and most of the former Soviet Union (European Command or EUCOM); the Pacific Ocean, East and South Asia (Pacific Command or PACOM); Mexico, Canada, and the United States (Northern Command or NORTHCOM); and Central and South America (Southern Command or SOUTHCOM), as well as others with functional responsibilities, such as for Special Forces and Nuclear Weapons.

Before AFRICOM was established, US military operations in Africa fell under three different commands. EUCOM handled most of Africa; but Egypt and the Horn of Africa fell under the authority of CENTCOM (Egypt remains under CENTCOM rather than AFRICOM); Madagascar and the island states of the Indian Ocean were the responsibility of PACOM. All three were primarily concerned with other regions of the world that took priority over Africa, and had only a few middle-rank staff members dedicated to Africa. This reflected the fact that Africa was chiefly viewed as a regional theater in the global Cold War, as an adjunct to US-European relations, or—in the immediate post-Cold War period—as a region of little concern to the United States. But Africa’s status in US national security policy and military affairs rose dramatically during the Bush administration, in response both to global terrorism and the growing significance of African oil resources.

The new strategic framework for Africa emphasizes, above all, the threat of global terrorism and the risk posed by weak states, “empty spaces,” and countries with large Muslim populations as vulnerable territories where terrorists may find safe haven and political support. This framework is fundamentally flawed. No one denies that al-Qaeda has found adherents and allied groups in Africa, as evidenced most dramatically by the bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. But Islamist ideology has had only limited impact among most African Muslims, and even in countries with extremist Islamist governments or insurgent groups (such as Algeria, Sudan, and Somalia), the focus has been on local issues rather than global conflict. Counterinsurgency analysts such as Robert Berschinski and David Kilcullen have warned that “aggregating” disparate local insurgencies into an all-encompassing vision of global terrorism in fact facilitates al-Qaeda’s efforts to woo such groups. Heavy-handed military action such as air strikes that kill civilians and collaboration with counter-insurgency efforts by incumbent regimes, far from diminishing the threat of terrorism, helps it grow.

Examining the Record: Somalia
The most prominent example of active US military involvement in Africa has been the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). Speaking not for attribution at a conference in early 2008, a senior AFRICOM official cited this task force, which has taken the lead in US engagement with Somalia, as a model for AFRICOM’s operations elsewhere on the continent. In October 2002, CENTCOM played the leading role in the creation of this joint task force, designed to conduct naval and aerial patrols in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the eastern Indian Ocean, in order to counter the activities of terrorist groups in the region. The command authority for CJTF-HOA was transferred to AFRICOM as of October 1, 2008.

Based since 2002 at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, the CJTF-HOA is comprised of approximately 1,400 US military personnel—primarily sailors, Marines, and Special Forces troops. Under a new five-year agreement signed in 2007, the base has expanded to some 500 acres. In addition, the CJTF-HOA has established three permanent contingency operating locations that have been used to mount attacks on Somalia, one at the Kenyan naval base at Manda Bay and two others at Hurso and Bilate in Ethiopia. A US Navy Special Warfare Task Unit was recently deployed to Manda Bay, where it is providing training to Kenyan troops in anti-terrorism operations and coastal patrol missions.

The CJTF-HOA provided intelligence to Ethiopia in support of its invasion of Somalia in December 2006. It also used military facilities in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya to launch air raids and missile strikes in January and June of 2007 and May of 2008 against alleged al-Qaeda members involved in the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia. At least dozens of Somali civilians were killed in this series of air attacks alone, and hundreds wounded. These were only a fraction of the toll of the fighting during the invasion, in which hundreds of civilians were killed and over 300,000 people displaced by mid-2007. By the end of 2008, over 3.2 million people (43% of Somalia’s population), including 1.3 million internally displaced by conflict, were estimated to be in need of food assistance. The US air strikes made US backing for the invasion highly visible.

These military actions, moreover, represented only part of a broader counterproductive strategy shaped by narrow counterterrorism considerations. In 2005 and 2006, the CIA funneled resources to selected Somali warlords to oppose Islamist militia. The United States collaborated with Ethiopia in its invasion of Somalia in late 2006, overthrowing the Islamic Courts Union that had brought several months of unprecedented stability to the capital Mogadishu and its surroundings. The invasion was a conventional military success. But far from reducing the threat from extremist groups, it isolated moderates, provoked internal displacement that became one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment, and even provoked the targeting of both local and international humanitarian operations.

In short, Somalia provided a textbook case of the negative results of “aggregating” local threats into an undifferentiated concept of global terrorism. It has left the new Obama administration with what Ken Menkhaus, a leading academic expert on Somalia, called “a policy nightmare.”

Examining the Record: The Sahel
Less in the news, but also disturbing because of the wide range of countries involved in both North and West Africa, is the US military involvement in the Sahara and Sahel region, now under AFRICOM. Operation Enduring Freedom Trans Sahara (OEF-TS) provides military support to the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) program, which comprises the United States and eleven African countries: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. Its goals are defined on the AFRICOM web site as “to assist traditionally moderate Muslim governments and populations in the Trans-Sahara region to combat the spread of extremist ideology and terrorism in the region.” It builds on the former Pan Sahel Initiative, which was operational from 2002 to 2004, and draws on resources from the Department of State and USAID as well as the Department of Defense.

Operational support comes from another task force, Joint Task Force Aztec Silence (JTFAS), created in December 2003 under EUCOM. JTFAS was specifically charged with conducting surveillance operations using the assets of the US Sixth Fleet and to share information, along with intelligence collected by US intelligence agencies, with local military forces. Among other assets, it deploys a squadron of US Navy P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft based in Sigonella, Sicily.

In March 2004, P-3 aircraft from this squadron and reportedly operating from the southern Algerian base at Tamanrasset were deployed to monitor and gather intelligence on the movements of Algerian Salafist guerrillas operating in Chad and to pass on this intelligence to Chadian forces engaged in combat against the guerrillas. In September 2007, an American C-130 “Hercules” cargo plane stationed in Bamako, the capital of Mali, as part of the Flintlock 2007 exercises, was deployed to resupply Malian counter-insurgency units engaged in fighting with Tuareg forces and was hit by Tuareg ground fire. No US personnel were injured and the plane returned safely to the capital, but the incident signaled a significant extension of the US role in counter-insurgency warfare in the region.

These operations illustrate how strengthening counterinsurgency capacity proves either counterproductive or irrelevant as a response to African security issues—which may include real links to global terrorist networks but are for the most part focused on specific national and local realities. On an international scale, the impact of violent Islamic extremism in North Africa has direct implications in Europe, but its bases are urban communities and the North African diaspora in Europe, rather than the Sahara-Sahel hinterland. Insurgencies along the Sahara-Sahel divide, in Mali, Niger, and Chad, reflect ethnic and regional realities rather than extensions of global terrorism. The militarily powerful North African regimes, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, have very distinct experiences with Islamic extremism. But none have a record of stability based on democratic accountability to civil society. And associating all threats to security in Nigeria with the threat of extremist Islam is a bizarre stereotype ignoring that country’s real problems.

In his November 2007 paper on AFRICOM, cited above, Berschinski noted that the United States and Algeria exaggerated the threat from the small rebel group GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), officially allied with al-Qaeda. A scary, if geographically inappropriate, headline in Air Force Magazine in November 2004, heralded the threat from a “Swamp of Terror in the Sahara.” The emphasis on counterinsurgency, Berschinski argues, has disrupted traditional trade networks and allowed local governments to neglect the need for finding negotiated solutions to concerns of Tuareg areas and other neglected regions. In the case of Mali, Robert Pringle—a former US ambassador to that country—has noted that the US emphasis on anti-terrorism and radical Islam is out of touch with both the country’s history and Malian perceptions of current threats to their own security. The specifics of each country differ, but the common reality is that the benefits of US collaboration with local militaries in building counterinsurgency capacity haven’t been demonstrated.

Cases to the contrary, however, aren’t hard to find. In Mauritania, Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz overthrew the elected government in August 2008, leading to sanctions from the African Union and suspension of all but humanitarian aid from France and the United States. US aid to Mauritania for the 2008 fiscal year that was suspended included $15 million in military-to-military funding, as well as $4 million for peacekeeping training—and only $3 million in development assistance. More generally, the common argument that US military aid promotes values of respect for democracy is decisively contradicted by what resulted in Latin America from decades of US training of the region’s military officers. If democratic institutions are not already strong, strengthening military forces is most likely to increase the chances of military interventions in politics.

Potential Threats
With at least a temporary withdrawal of Ethiopian troops and the election of moderate Islamic leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed as president of the transitional Somali government, there is at least the option of a new beginning in that country. But no one expects any quick solution, with all parties internally divided (including the insurgent militia known as Al-Shabaab) and international peace efforts distracted by multiple agendas. There will be a continuing temptation to continue a narrow anti-terrorist agenda, even if this path is now more widely recognized as self-defeating.

In the region covered by Operation Enduring Freedom Trans Sahara, the conflict in Chad, where the World Bank abandoned efforts to ensure accountability for oil revenues, is still intimately tied with the larger conflict in Darfur to the east, as well as with the legacy of Libyan intervention. Although the United States has deferred to France in active military and political involvement in Chad, it has also supported President Idriss Deby, who has been in power since 1991 and changed the constitution in 2005 to allow himself another term. Despite attacks by rebels on the capital in February 2008, Deby retained control with French military assistance. In northern Niger, uranium resources threaten to provide new incentives for the conflict with the Tuareg minority reignited there and in Mali since 2007. Mali is generally seen as one of West Africa’s most successful democracies, but it’s also threatened by Tuareg discontent which requires a diplomatic rather than military solution.

Of particular strategic importance for the future is Nigeria, where US military concerns of anti-terrorism and energy security converge. As Nigeria specialists Paul Lubeck, Michael Watts, and Ronnie Lipschutz outline in a 2007 policy study, the threat to Nigeria from Islamic extremism is wildly exaggerated in statements by US military officials. In contrast, they note, “nobody doubts the strategic significance of contemporary Nigeria for West Africa, for the African continent as a whole, and for the oil-thirsty American economy.” But the solution to the growing insurgency in the oil-rich Niger Delta isn’t a buildup of US naval forces and support for counter-insurgency actions by the Nigerian military. The priority is rather to resolve the problems of poverty and environmental destruction, and to promote responsible use of the country’s oil wealth, particularly for the people of the oil-producing regions.

Currently, US military ties with Nigeria and other oil-producing states of West and Central Africa include not only bilateral military assistance, but also the naval operations of the Africa Partnership Station and other initiatives to promote maritime safety, particularly for the movement of oil supplies. In recent years, United States military aid to Nigeria has included at least four coastal patrol ships to Nigeria, and approximately $2 million a year in other funds, including for development of a small boat unit in the Niger Delta. According to the State Department’s budget request justification for the 2007 fiscal year, military aid to the country is needed because “Nigeria is the fifth largest source of US oil imports, and disruption of supply from Nigeria would represent a major blow to US oil security strategy.”

In fact, maritime security is a legitimate area for concern for both African nations and importers of West African oil. Piracy for purely monetary motives, as well as the insurgency in the Niger Delta, is a real and growing threat off the West African coast. Yet strengthening the military capacity of Nigeria and other oil-producing states, without dealing with the fundamental issues of democracy and distribution of wealth, won’t lead to security for African people or for US interests, including oil supplies. Likewise, a military solution can’t resolve the issue of piracy in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea.

The threats cited by US officials to justify AFRICOM aren’t imaginary. Global terrorist networks do seek allies and recruits throughout the African continent, with potential impact in the Middle East, Europe, and even North America as well as in Africa. In the Niger Delta, the production of oil has been repeatedly interrupted by attacks by militants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). More broadly, insecurity creates a environment vulnerable to piracy and to the drug trade, as well as to motivating potential recruits to extremist political violence.

It doesn’t follow, however, that such threats can be effectively countered by increased US military engagement, even if the direct involvement of US troops is minimized. The focus on building counter-insurgency capacity for African governments with US assistance diverts attention from more fundamental issues of conflict resolution. It also heightens the risks of increasing conflict and concomitantly increasing hostility to the United States.


Adapted from a longer story that appeared March 13 in Foreign Policy in Focus.


US Africa Command

From our Daily Report:

African leaders, civil society reject Pentagon’s Africa Command
World War 4 Report, Feb. 27, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, May 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution