The places and names may change, but the headlines from Africa always seem to tell the same sad story. Here’s a sampling from the past week or so:
- “Bloodshed in Somalia Blamed on Both Government and Insurgents”
- “UN to Send Peacekeepers to Darfur”
- “International Court Works to Bring Darfur Rapists to Trial”
- “Africans Urge More UN Peace Support in Somalia”
- “Ex-Zambia President Returns to Graft Trial”
- “Civilian Toll Cited in Somali Conflict”
But recently, the headlines coming out of Africa have been sprinkled with news of Washington’s long-overdue decision to formalize and focus its patchwork of operations on the forgotten continent. Ending what Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls an “outdated arrangement left over from the Cold War,” the Pentagon is in the process of establishing a dedicated command for Africa.
“AFRICOM,” as it is known, is now being assigned command staff, personnel and initial mission capability, and will be fully operational by the fall of 2008.
Which brings us to another recent Africa-related news item: “Suspicions over AFRICOM Voiced at Hearing” reads one headline. Recapping a House hearing earlier this month, the story details the skepticism shown by some witnesses and outright concern that AFRICOM will militarize US policy in the region by others.
Rep. Donald Payne, chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, offered mixed reviews of the Pentagon’s AFRICOM plans. Although he seemed pleased that “the US is taking greater interest in the African continent,” he criticized the Pentagon and the administration for a lack of consultation with Congress. “I was shocked and dismayed when I learned from a newspaper of the administration’s plans to establish AFRICOM,” he intoned.
The administration’s poor communication skills notwithstanding, what is really shocking and dismaying is the fact that it took until 2007 for the US to stand up a military command devoted expressly to Africa, a continent of 798 million people and some 30 million square kilometers. For all its imperfections, the Bush administration deserves credit for doing more in Africa than simply spouting empty words.
As various witnesses observed during the hearings, for most of the postwar era, Washington’s Africa policy has been characterized by “benign neglect” or “strategic neglect.” That is changing, finally, as evidenced by AFRICOM and a number of other efforts launched in the past six years, including the Millennium Challenge Corporation and PEPFAR.
Indeed, rather than militarizing US policy, AFRICOM may help rationalize and harmonize it.
Between now and October 2008, the Pentagon will transition tasks and responsibilities in Africa that currently are shared among three other geographic commands:
- US Central Command (CENTCOM), which, in addition to a wide swath of Southwest Asia, oversees the African states of Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya;
- US Pacific Command (PACOM), which oversees Madagascar and other islands off Africa’s east coast, along with its responsibilities in Asia and the Pacific and Indian Oceans; and
- US European Command (EUCOM), which shoulders responsibility for the rest of the African continent plus Europe, the Mediterranean and the former Soviet Union.
AFRICOM will eventually have responsibility for the entire continent of Africa, except Egypt, which will remain under CENTCOM’s purview. The Pentagon is still mulling where to locate AFRICOM’s headquarters. The Washington Post reported in June that the US is having trouble finding a host for AFRICOM; however, that same month, The Economist reported that “there is keen competition among African countries to host AFRICOM's new headquarters.” (The American media’s half-empty worldview is a subject for another essay.) According to National Defense Magazine, Navy officials are proposing to base the new command at sea aboard a high-tech “joint command and control ship.” Although it would be the first time a unified geographic command would be based at sea, it wouldn’t be the first command to be based outside its area of responsibility: Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and CENTCOM are based in the US.
According to the AFRICOM Transition Team, the new command will help Washington “prevent and respond to humanitarian crises,” combat terrorism, coordinate various interagency efforts (with the US Agency for International Development and the State Department), and thereby stabilize the continent.
The first commander of AFRICOM, Army Gen. William Ward, seems well-suited for the ambidextrous task ahead of him. He has a background in stabilization and peacekeeping operations, having led missions in the Balkans; commanded units of the rapid-reaction 82nd Airborne Division and other deployed divisions; knows the language of diplomacy, having worked with NATO allies at EUCOM; headed up the US military cooperation office with Egypt; and led units in the Somalia intervention in the early 1990s.
According to Gates, AFRICOM will oversee security cooperation, build partnership capability with friends and would-be allies, contribute military support to non-military missions and, if necessary, “conduct military operations on the African continent.”
And it certainly has been necessary in recent years, although necessity hasn’t always ensured US intervention. Rwanda’s machete massacre and the Arab-on-African genocide in Darfur come to mind. One wonders if things might be different today if there had been an AFRICOM in 1994 or 2002. Maybe 800,000 Tutsis would still be alive. Maybe Darfur would never have witnessed genocide. Maybe al Qaeda and its kindred movements would not have a toehold in Africa. Maybe they wouldn’t have been able to hit America’s embassies in 1998. Maybe China would not be laying claim to African oil fields, handing out infrastructure projects and pouring weapons into Africa. Or maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference at all.
One thing is beyond debate: Today we are glimpsing the consequences of decades of disinterest.
Geopolitics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and China has been filling the vacuum created by an America focused elsewhere.
China is investing billions all across Africa, especially areas rich in oil. Craving stability and resources, Somalia recently granted China oil-exploration rights. As the Heritage Foundation’s Peter Brookes has noted, China has invested $2 billion in Angola’s oil fields, $3 billion in oil-exporter Nigeria and $10 billion in the Sudanese energy sector. (Nigeria, by the way, ranks fifth on the list of countries that export oil into America. Angola is sixth.)
According to Brookes, Chinese investment has enabled the Sudanese government to double its defense budget, “spending 60 to 80 percent of its estimated $500 million in annual oil revenue—half from China—on weapons.” And some of these weapons have been used in the killing fields of Darfur.
Esther Pan at the Council on Foreign Relations reports that, in addition to Sudan, Beijing has provided military equipment and/or training to Equatorial Guinea, “whose oil reserves per capita approach and may exceed those of Saudi Arabia;” Ethiopia and Eritrea; Burundi; Tanzania, recipient of “at least thirteen covert shipments of weapons labeled as agricultural equipment” from China; and Zimbabwe, recipient of fighter jets, military vehicles and small arms. Robert Kagan has noted China’s “unfettered aid to dictatorships in Africa.”
But China is not America’s only concern in Africa. Hoping to prevent the Talibanization of Africa, US forces have been quietly at work on the forgotten continent since late 2001. In places like Djibouti and Mali, they are fighting jihadism with carrots and sticks.
“We are trying to dry up the recruiting pool for al Qaeda,” as Maj. Gen. Timothy Ghormley, who commanded US forces on the Horn of Africa, told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006. “We are doing this one village, one person at a time. We’re waging peace just as hard as we can.”
And they are waging war in Africa with the same blend of ferocity and finesse. Recall last spring’s operations in and around Somalia, which saw US Naval and Special Operations assets assist Somali and Ethiopian forces in their battle against jihadists along the coast of Somalia.
On the western side of Africa, Washington has proven its willingness to go all the way to Timbuktu to wage the war on terror and jihadism. Sometime between 2002 and 2004, US Green Berets arrived in Mali to train and equip friendly forces to fight Islamist terror cells. As part of the multi-million-dollar program, Washington has sent trucks, communications and navigation equipment, uniforms, body armor, and intelligence data to Mali and other west-central African nations.
Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, argued during the hearings earlier this month that AFRICOM’s mission is misunderstood. “Some people believe that we are establishing AFRICOM solely to fight terrorism or to secure oil resources or to discourage China,” she observed. “This is not true.”
But if these aren’t “solely” AFRICOM’s mission, then it is fair to infer that they account for part of AFRICOM’s mission—and that’s a good thing.