DJIBOUTI, Djibouti - A U.S. Air Force Guardian Angel team from 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron (ERQS) take a defensive position as a Marine Corps CH-53E helicopter from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 461 takes off during a training exercise near Camp Lemonier May 2, 2009. The routine training afforded the joint tactical recovery team an opportunity to recover simulated isolated personnel in a austere environment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sergeant Joseph L. Swafford Jr.)

DJIBOUTI, Djibouti - A U.S. Air Force Guardian Angel team from 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron (ERQS) take a defensive position as a Marine Corps CH-53E helicopter from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 461 takes off during a training exercise near Camp Lemonier May 2, 2009. The routine training afforded the joint tactical recovery team an opportunity to recover simulated isolated personnel in a austere environment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sergeant Joseph L. Swafford Jr.)

The South African Institute for Security Studies, ISS, has released a paper:
The Establishment and Implications of the United States Africa Command
An African Perspective English (PDF ·16 pages by Berouk Mesfin. © 2009 Institute for Security Studies (ISS). The summary states:

This paper assesses US foreign policy and policymaking in Africa and the features and purposes of the US African Command (AFRICOM). The paper examines whether AFRICOM will pick its way through a minefield of misunderstandings and whether it will ultimately worsen or improve Africa’s environment of peace and security. The author argues that the US needs to forge a State Department-driven and more enlightened strategy for Africa under President Barack Obama. Driven less by security concerns and oil interests, the author concludes, foreign policy in Africa needs to be based on a nuanced understanding of the socio-political and economic challenges the continent faces.

Much of the subject matter in the report has been touched on at one point or another in the course of this blog. Berouk Mesfin describes the relatively low level of interest in Africa that the US has shown until recently. He also describes the origin and creation of the US combatant commands post World War II and during the Cold War. One of the first points his paper makes is:

It is apparent that for the last five decades the successive presidents of the US – Republican and Democrat alike – and their senior advisors almost never had concern for, knowledge of and experience of managing relations with Africa.

… decisions on African issues often ignored the empirical evidence that could have been acquired from consultation with specialists on Africa …

There have always been people available with relevant Africa expertise, but they have rarely been consulted in the policy development process.

No other continent was divided among a panoply of combatant commands in such a disjointed way. In effect, in this Cold War-based combatant command structure, Africa was ‘never a number-one priority for any unified command. Each viewed its strategic imperative as being elsewhere, leaving Africa as a secondary or even tertiary concern’.

As a result, these combatant commands became unmistakably overstretched, and were unable to effectively perform their responsibilities in Africa. The division ‘has reportedly created problems in coordinating activities, and allegedly has increasingly become too great a burden on EUCOM and CENTCOM staff ’. More disturbingly, owing to their lack of concern, the combatant commands never developed a sizeable cadre of experts dedicated to Africa, which was not a ‘priority for the senior officers whose career prospects depended on their services in Europe, the Gulf, and the Pacific’. Nonetheless, after September 2001, the Bush administration recognised Africa ‘as a key area for its counterterrorism operations, specifically against al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in various sub-regions within Africa’. This new-found concern was reflected in the 2006 National Security Strategy, which forcefully notes that Africa ‘is of growing geo-strategic importance and is a high priority’. Hence, the US believed that this challenge and its interests could best be addressed by establishing a single combatant command for all African states.

After operating for a year as a sub-unified command under EUCOM, and regardless of African opinion on the matter, AFRICOM became a fully operational combatant command on 1 October 2008, just 34 days before the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency.

The paper continues to describe the organization of the command. It is supposed to be an innovative command, working with the State Department, and will incorporate humanitarian activities.

According to US officials, the full-time focus of AFRICOM is supposed to be the provision of military aid and training for African states in order for them to viably secure their borders and regulate their internal environments on a sustained basis, and also enhance interregional cooperation.

Mr. Mesfin discusses the positive aspects of AFRICOM for the United States:

AFRICOM may perhaps ‘provide American political leaders with more thoughtful, informed military advice based on an indepth knowledge of the region’. It could thus enable the US ‘to exercise a consistent policy over the region rather than inconsistent or multiple policies arising from two or more commands, with different priorities, responsible for the region’. AFRICOM may also enable the US ‘to improve intelligence and contingency planning, and enhance military-to-military relationship and training’. Under such circumstances, the US could more effectively secure better access to oil, curb China’s growing political, diplomatic and economic influence, oversee counter-terrorism undertakings and anticipate security challenges in Africa.

And he discusses the positive potential for Africa:

The establishment of AFRICOM could be taken as a credible symbol of US commitment, notionally indicating the newly emerging strategic importance attached to Africa by the US. … AFRICOM was not designed to address ongoing conflicts and even prevent nascent crises from intensifying in Africa. But it could provide the context and guidance for solving Africa’s political and military crises early enough for them to be meaningful, or at least for damping down unwelcome developments and reversing external disruptions in Africa.

It could help in particular with training deployable African peacekeeping battalions and building relatively more professional African militaries that are able to fend off external threats, foil planned terrorist attacks, and protect sensitive areas such as oil installations. It could also provide a channel of communications, and even seek reciprocal restraints and develop mutual trust between warring sides. Finally, it could enhance maritime security along Africa’s coastlines in order to reduce criminality through the provision of eff ective training, intelligence and technical support, as well as conducting occasional joint exercises

As to the positives for Africa in this last paragraph, this is the language that is being used to justify AFRICOM. However the practical meaning of the words may be different from the promises implied when they are spoken. The military training can come at the expense of investment in civilian institutional development, leaving some countries with a well trained military, and not much else. That is currently a worry in Liberia. The well trained militaries can also be used as proxy warriors. Many, including myself, think this is one of the main reasons for the training. As far as protecting oil installations goes, so far the all efforts have had the effect of shoring up repression in the Niger Delta, where this is currently a big issue, as well as shoring up repression in Equatorial Guinea. No serious assistance or incentive has been given to Nigeria to encourage a political solution for the problems of the Delta. Although almost every analysis says there will be no solution to the problems of the Delta without a political solution.

Mesfin also discusses the negatives of AFRICOM for the United States:

The Department of Defense has a comparative advantage in the US government structure in terms of superior organisational, financial and logistical resources …

An AFRICOM that is answerable to the Department of Defense, given wide discretion and granted operational autonomy, as well as possessing a relatively better understanding of Africa’s strategic realities, may ultimately become the major, at times even dominant, influence on the substance of US foreign policy towards Africa.

It could also lead to a blind endorsement by the US, as occurred during the Cold War, of institutionally ineffective, economically corrupt and politically repressive regimes which are led by astute and ruthless leaders. These regimes would enthusiastically cooperate with AFRICOM, a deceitful alibi for them to commit heinous human rights abuses using Cold War tactics with some modifications. Despite its rhetoric about spreading democracy, the US could thereby be held responsible for the erosion of gains towards multiparty democracy and the derailment of internal motors for political change in Africa.

And the negatives for Africa:

With, on balance, a mixed record of US relations with Africa, most Africans have always been deeply suspicious of US involvement in the continent’s aff airs. Furthermore, the prevailing image of the US military is grimly conveyed to them by images of the Iraqi war, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens. Africans are also particularly concerned that AFRICOM will somehow become the lead US government interlocutor with Africa, representing the definite militarisation of US foreign policy towards the continent, despite the ‘brave attempt to put a civilian mask on the face of [the] combatant command’. They are also afraid that an increase in such involvement and militarisation would ‘only fuel the terrorism which it was meant to stop and increase anti-American sentiment in Africa’. Many Africans think that military power is absolutely no panacea for terrorist threats, and that, in most cases, it will backfire and attract them after building animosity and allowing conditions to deteriorate, as in Somalia, where events speak for themselves.

It is also highly doubtful, from the viewpoint of Africans, that an undermanned AFRICOM would better understand and effectively respond on any scale and in a more direct manner to the security priorities of African states and peoples. It could, on the contrary, produce many unintentional and adverse costs, which will linger on for the coming decades, including the risk of triggering a reciprocal militarisation of China’s Africa policy. China could conceivably in the coming decades, and regardless of the associated hassle, vigorously expand its military cooperation with African states through pacts, joint exercises, intelligence exchange and training; pay its oil bills with increased sales of weapons; deploy its military forces; establish military facilities in Africa; and even set up its own Africa Command. Thus, African interests could, once again, be trampled by a revised version of the Cold War between the US and China. In sum, it could unwittingly send the message that Africa is still viewed by the US as a strategic prize in a Cold War style geopolitical struggle, causing damage to US-Africa relations which will take time to mend.

In conclusion Mesfin writes:

AFRICOM will focus practically on providing better support for the pursuit of renewed US interests in Africa, which can be accurately summarised in three words – ‘oil, China and terrorism’.

Deeper analysis suggests, however, that the conception of AFRICOM was – partially owing to a thinness of ‘American understanding of diverse and complex African societies’ – very poorly thought through and badly implemented, for instance leaving out Egypt, which is a major player in the international relations of Africa and key to its stability. Moreover, the name of the combatant command carries a strong colonial overtone. Basing it in Germany was a rather ominous choice, reminiscent of the 1885 Berlin Conference, after which the infamous scramble for Africa by European colonial powers got under way.

It is also increasingly becoming apparent that even a determined, well-staffed and better-prepared AFRICOM will reflect the longstanding contradiction of US policy towards Africa, which perpetually suffers from institutional rivalry and hypothetically requires strengthening democracy. Yet this last concern, traditionally regarded as the centrepiece of US foreign policy, seems to have been thwarted by more immediate and narrower security requirements designed by the Department of Defense. It is in this context that the pragmatist Obama was elected president of the US.

As he grapples with the numerous practical and immediate political and military necessities related to these problems, the range of options open to him will be limited, and he may, from day one, find it impossible to dispense with military power. Thus, even though he seems to understand the need for ‘less emphasis on military power and more on using diplomacy and foreign aid to bend other nations toward US interests’, Obama will be obliged to somewhat ‘follow the path marked out by the Bush administration’

It would, nonetheless, be wise of the Obama administration to attain a clear definition and ordering of US interests in Africa. It should also ‘adopt an intelligent approach by realising that dealing with Africa’s crises requires more than just brute military force, but in fact demands a measured and calculated response to deal with any potential threats on the African continent, albeit directly or indirectly related to security’. In the first place, Obama should use the good will which he so skilfully generated during the campaign to dispel the chasm of mistrust among Africans.111 Th is chasm of mistrust was directly caused by the unilateralism and equivocation so characteristic of the eight years of the Bush administration …

The Obama administration should then make sure that AFRICOM is subordinated to a relatively more enlightened policy formulated by the Department of State, which ought to strengthen its organisational capacity, including enlisting more expertise on Africa. It will also have to ensure that AFRICOM’s presence on the continent remains as low-key as possible …
Two arguments can be used against stationing troops on African soil. First, stationing troops in Africa will be regionally disruptive, and will politically undermine the host state, exposing it to intensified criticism that it is just a puppet, while depicting the US as being unnecessarily aggressive. Second, the creation of such capabilities would create incentives for their use by the US military for other purposes, including counter-productive interventions. Thus, the Obama administration should focus more on how to incrementally shore up US interests and influence in Africa, based on the political performance of African states, including their observance of internationally accepted principles of democracy, without further destabilising them and jeopardising their long-term cooperation.

Berouk Mesfin has included extensive footnotes, including some good discussion of these issues in the footnotes. As he points out, Egypt is hydrologically connected to Africa. Egypt is politically linked to Africa because its hydro-political security is dependent on Africa. So it does not make sense to split it off from Africa. The US, in the course of its China paranoia, has ignored the fact that China has provided some states with “real opportunities ofr sustainable economic development”.

Mesfin writes a very thoughtful and balanced analysis of African attitudes towards AFRICOM, AFRICOM’s potential for both Africa and the US, and as he says:

foreign policy in Africa needs to be based on a nuanced understanding of the socio-political and economic challenges the continent faces.

I included the picture of Djibouti based training at the beginning of this post because Djibouti is shaping up to be AFRICOM’s first permanent base in Africa. It is inextricably linked to the disasterous policies and interventions in Somalia where the US has contributed so much to the deterioration there. The US role in Somalia to date is a textbook example of what Mr. Mesfin calls, in restrained language, counter-productive intervention.