GEGGADE DESERT, Djibouti - French and American forces head out to a U.S. Marine CH 53 helicopter for transport to desert survival training in the Geggade Desert, Djibouti March 23, 2009. The training provided by the French Forces in Djibouti integrates U.S. service members deployed to Camp Lemonier, Djibouti and French military personnel while teaching survival skills specific to the Djiboutian deserts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Technical Sergeant Joe Zuccaro)

GEGGADE DESERT, Djibouti - French and American forces head out to a U.S. Marine CH 53 helicopter for transport to desert survival training in the Geggade Desert, Djibouti March 23, 2009. The training provided by the French Forces in Djibouti integrates U.S. service members deployed to Camp Lemonier, Djibouti and French military personnel while teaching survival skills specific to the Djiboutian deserts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Technical Sergeant Joe Zuccaro)

Daniel Volman and William Minter describe the problem succinctly in Making Peace or Fueling War in Africa:

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.

While AFRICOM may be new, there’s already a track record for such policies in programs now incorporated into AFRICOM. That record shows little evidence that these policies contribute to U.S. or African security. To the contrary, there are substantial indications that they are in fact counterproductive, both increasing insecurity in Africa and energizing potential threats to U.S. interests.

When the GAO published its February report on AFRICOM, PDF: Actions Needed to Address Stakeholder Concerns, Improve Interagency Collaboration, and Determine Full Costs Associated with the U.S. Africa Command, the conclusion was:

This report addresses three challenges that could affect the ultimate success of AFRICOM. First, DOD has not yet fully allayed concerns about the command’s role and mission both inside the U.S. government and with potential African partners. Second, AFRICOM has not yet determined how many personnel it needs from other U.S. government agencies or what functions they will perform, and interagency planning processes are still immature. Third, DOD has not yet decided the locations for AFRICOM’s permanent headquarters and presence on the continent, or agreed upon criteria with stakeholders for making such decisions, leaving considerable uncertainty about future costs at a time when defense budgets are projected to become increasingly constrained. DOD and AFRICOM are working to address these challenges but it is unclear when their efforts will be completed. Unless these challenges are addressed, the effectiveness of the command may suffer and costs are likely to escalate.

What the GAO report does not address is any overall justification for the command to exist at all. It assumes the command is a good thing and should go forward. It treats African and US skepticism as “misperception”. To assert this is to take the erroneous approach that all the problems are public relations problems: the truth does not matter, what an organization is doing does not matter, only the image projected in the advertising campaign matters.

AFRICOM hurts brand America, and stands in the way of any genuine multilateral efforts towards peacemaking or peacekeeping. AFRICOM stands in the way of civil society groups who are trying to strengthen democratic institutions in their own countries. It is often a threat to these same groups, treating them as “insurgents” or “terrorists” and assisting repressive governments to crack down on them. Bilateral military ties strengthen the military sector in its efforts to suppress competition and regulation from the civilian sector. This comes when Africans throughout the continent want the military out of government and back in the barracks. When the US supports only the military, the civilian sector can whither. We currently see this US policy at work in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the DRC, Rwanda, the Niger Delta, Mali, Senegal, just to name a few places. This hurts the people in those countries, and by doing so hurts the interests of the United States. It hurts support and goodwill for the United States.

Militarism limits the possibility of developing a climate where entrepreneurs can create business, except those businesses that can be carried out at the point of a gun. And it makes it difficult or impossible to develop the civil infrastructure and institutions necessary for peace and democracy. This strengthens the enemies of the US, by demonstrating the US does not care about the majority of the citizens in Africa or the world, and weakens US influence. Militarism is a lavish gift to the enemies of the US, giving those enemies more credibility, and enhancing their support and ability to attack US citizens and institutions.

Brand America has generally been popular in Africa. Bush policies did it tremendous damage. So far Obama seems to be continuing those same policies. The opportunity for positive change is still open.

At the Summit of the Americas yesterday Obama said:

“It’s a reminder for us in the United States that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence.”

The US War on Drugs has been an unbroken failure, and has now driven the drug trade to West Africa.  AFRICOM has been trying to promote its efforts at drug interdiction in Ghana and throughout West Africa as a way to get its foot in the door. The same goes for “terrorism” interdiction, and “insurgency” interdiction throughout the continent. Both Latin America and Africa would like to leave militarism behind. Let us hope Obama understands and means his own words.

To repeat and expand the wise words of Volman and Minter:

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.

While AFRICOM may be new, there’s already a track record for such policies in programs now incorporated into AFRICOM. That record shows little evidence that these policies contribute to U.S. or African security. To the contrary, there are substantial indications that they are in fact counterproductive, both increasing insecurity in Africa and energizing potential threats to U.S. interests.

There’s no one prescription for those countries now facing violent conflicts, much less for the wide range of issues faced by over 50 African countries. Africa’s serious problems, moreover, will not be solved from outside, either by the United States or by the “international community.”

Nevertheless, it’s important to ensure that U.S. Africa policy does no harm and that the United States makes a significant contribution to diminishing the real security threats on the continent. Once one recognizes that U.S. national security also depends on the human security of Africans, some essential elements of such a framework do become clear. To what extent they can be embodied into practice will depend not only on the internal deliberations of the new administration in Washington, but also on whether Africans working for peace and justice on the continent can themselves chart new directions and make their voices heard.

Africans working for peace and justice on the continent can only be heard if someone is listening. The US needs to listen to these groups, and find ways to include them in the conversation. Working towards democratic processes is needed everywhere. The US needs some work on democracy at home after the past eight years. It cannot be done with guns, or with structural adjustment programs. Without democratic oversight, capitalism is just organized crime.  Democratic oversight requires democratic participation of the people who live in a place.  The people on the ground throughout Africa must be able to participate in the decisions that affect their lives.

Unless the US is willing to engage with other than its military, it is wasting its money, showing its weakness, and making it far more difficult to achieve its goals or increase its influence. As Obama said:

“… if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence.”