AFRICOM & SOUTHCOM: Reliquaria from an Earlier Era – PDF by David Passage in the February 2009 issue of Foreign Service Journal contains advice that is right on target as budget policy and as foreign policy. He says it is time to rethink the US military command structure, which is bloated and out of date. When big budget cuts are necessary, the only practical way to make them is by cutting whole programs, not by making percentage across the board cuts that reduce functionality and efficiency everywhere. The US should delete AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM, eliminating those two programs from the federal budget.

President Obama faces a large number of very hard choices for the country. The US is involved in two expensive wars, the one in Iraq should never have been started. And these are not necessarily the most difficult or expensive problems he faces. Regarding the military:

And no pruning he might do can even begin to provide the resources needed to re-equip our armed forces with the hundreds of billions of dollars of materiel and munitions that have been expended in those current wars. Vehicles of all types are worn out; we are flying the wings off our aircraft and the rotors off our helicopters; and we are using much of our military equipment to within inches of its programmed life. And we have yet to calculate the ultimate costs of restoring the necessary capacity for other contingencies.

With respect to the Department of Defense, one of our biggest-ticket items, Pres. Obama could easily achieve significant savings by taking a hard look at restructuring our present geographic military command structure, with the explicit purpose of eliminating two major components: the U.S. Southern Command (responsible for Latin America and the Caribbean) and the newly established Africa Command.

The point of departure should not be a review of whether these two commands can be justified —for that simply invites proponents to make the best case for keeping them. Rather, the question should be how to handle residual functions the U.S. might wish to retain (and there shouldn’t be many) within a realigned geographic command structure that would consist of the European Command, Pacific Command, Central Command and a new Western Hemisphere Command. … WESTCOM.  …  EUCOM, PACOM and CENTCOM have clear, well-defined and unquestioned warfighting missions, as well as robust force structures to support them. AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM do not and should not.

AFRICOM is a particularly unfortunate creation.

Does Washington really want to project a military face toward a continent that already suffers from a surfeit of them? Do we Americans believe economic development and internal security structures (e.g., civilian and civilian-led police forces) should be built along military lines by armed forces? And is that what we want Africans to think we believe? If so, shame on us! We do not permit our military to train our own police and law enforcement personnel and do economic development work in the U.S. Why do we believe this should be done by our military in Africa?

Passage summarizes the history of SOUTHCOM, which should be a warning for the creators and proponents of AFRICOM.

If one wants to see what AFRICOM could become, one has only to look atwhat SOUTHCOM has been. Mercifully, a lot of lessons have been drawn from that experience, which, one hopes, is therefore unlikely to be repeated.

During the first four decades of its existence, SOUTHCOM supported our national interest in preventing Soviet-sponsored takeovers in the Western Hemisphere, such as occurred in Eastern Europe following the defeat of Hitler’s Germany. To be sure, the threat was real; we received a serious wake-up call in May 1948 when Sovietbacked insurgents briefly seized control in Colombia. The coup was undone within days, but fueled the conviction that Washington needed to strengthen Latin American militaries. “And the rest is history,” as the saying goes.

Over the next three decades, U.S.supported military regimes toppled elected civilian governments in virtually every country in Latin America —Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala —excepting only Mexico and Costa Rica.

And although U.S. policy began changing during the 1970s under President Jimmy Carter, our economic development assistance for Latin America actually declined during the 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. Instead, our military assistance grew, first under the guise of countering growing narcotics trafficking from Andean Ridge countries, and then — particularly after the 9/11 attacks —countering terrorism throughout the hemisphere.

In light of this history, here is the crucial question for President Obama’s national security team: Is a military response the right way (let alone the best or most cost-efficient one) to counter the twin threats of terrorism and narcotrafficking in Latin America? For that is now the primary rationale for having a four-star military command with Latin America as its sole area of responsibility

A military command is not the right or best way to address this, because the core of the problem is civil and political. So a military command is not only not the best way, it will by its nature work against that which it claims to support:

A principal deficiency suffered by virtually all developing countries, but particularly those in Africa and Latin America, is weak civil law enforcement institutions –- both the police and judicial branches. Police forces are, by and large, ill trained, poorly equipped, incompetently led and badly paid. The same can be said for the majority of judges and other law enforcement authorities. This is a prescription for corruption and abuse, so it should come as absolutely no surprise that that has been the result.

Washington’s response, regrettably, has been to look for ways our military, acting through SOUTHCOM and now AFRICOM, can ameliorate or rectify these problems. But is that the right, let alone best, means to help our Latin American neighbors or African friends with these structural problems? To see what AFRICOM could become, look at what SOUTHCOM has been.

And all the military training and military partnering is effort spent advancing in this pernicious direction.

Although our armed forces boast terrific civil affairs personnel, that’s not the face we should be seeking to portray to our neighbors, either in this hemisphere or in Africa. … SOUTHCOM is a relic from an earlier era the U.S. should wish to put behind it, while AFRICOM is the result of a manufactured need and never should have been created at all. There is simply no need for a standalone four-star command in either Latin America or Africa to achieve U.S. national security goals.

AFRICOM is highly unpopular in Africa. Sam Makinda has written an article about how Europe has been doing a much better job than the US with Africa policy, EU shaping policies without antagonism:

How has the EU managed to present itself in a way that is not antagonising to African states?

The simple answer is that European countries, which had colonies in Africa until the 1960s and 1970s, have learnt how to exercise influence without rubbing Africans, including dictators, the wrong way.

As a result, the EU is able to shape some of Africa’s political, economic and security policies without appearing to be doing so. In contrast, the USA utilises approaches that antagonise Africans and thereby invites their resistance.

A good example is the way the EU and the USA have pursued security policies on the continent. Working quietly, the EU helped shape the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) as well as the AU’s Common Defence and Security Policy (CDSP).

However, when the USA came up with the African Command (AFRICOM), it did so without consulting the AU and in violation of some of the principles that underpin the CDSP. The result is that many African states are opposed to AFRICOM, but they regard the CDSP and the PSC as their own products.

I do not think the European influence is necessarily benign. The EU has maintained a rapacious interest in African resources, and has been manipulative and exploitive. It has illegally fished out African waters, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea and off the Somali coast. Royal Dutch Shell has been the primary and longest termed polluter of the Niger Delta. And the EU has dumped toxic and nuclear waste in African waters. Even so, the EU has still managed Africa policy more effectively than the US. As Makinda points out in an earlier article:

Africans know that the militarization of political and economic space by African military leaders has been one of the factors that has held Africa back for decades. While African states are trying to put the culture of military rule behind them, the United States appears determined to demonstrate that most civilian activities in Africa should be undertaken by armed forces. To some African policy makers, this suggests that the U.S. Government lacks sympathy for what Africans so deeply want today, namely democratic systems in which the armed forces remain in the barracks.

David Passage’s suggestions make such good sense, I fear that no one will listen. I hope Obama’s team is capable of this historical understanding, and this kind of practical and strategic thinking. It would be very smart economic, military, and foreign policy to eliminate AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM.