U.S. officials are planning intensively ahead of the official launch of Washington’s new military command for Africa, AFRICOM, in October. But in the face of ongoing criticism of an increased American military presence on the continent, the Command’s planners have decided to keep it at its present base in Germany. Skeptics say AFRICOM is a “selfish” attempt by the United States to gain favorable access to African resources and to create a “new front” in Washington’s “war on terror.” But Command officers say AFRICOM will make Africa safer by training African militaries. The Command’s opponents, though, see the U.S. decision not to base it on the continent in October as evidence that it’s not welcome in Africa. VOA’s Darren Taylor reports in the second part of a five-part series on AFRICOM.
“For the foreseeable future, we’re here at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart. We anticipate being here for several years,” AFRICOM Deputy Commander, Vice Admiral Robert Moeller, told VOA.
Ezekiel Pajibo, the former head of Liberia’s Center for Democratic Empowerment and an observer of AFRICOM, says the decision by U.S. officials to keep the Command in Stuttgart follows “undiplomatic requests” from Africa for Washington to “back off for the time being.”
He refers to a statement by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that “it is better if the United States were involved with Africa from a distance rather than be present on the continent.”
But U.S. Defense Department officials insist that eight African countries – including Liberia, the only country to have publicly offered to host the Command – are “very interested” in hosting regional AFRICOM offices, although formal talks on finalizing that arrangement are yet to begin.
According to U.S. officials, it’s simply more practical at this stage to keep AFRICOM and most of its 1,300 staff members at the established base in Germany.
“We need to do more homework (before moving to Africa),” says AFRICOM planner and the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for African Affairs, Theresa Whelan.
However, various U.S. embassies in Africa have for years hosted U.S. military personnel as part of their diplomatic missions, and AFRICOM officers say some of these personnel will transfer to Africa Command later this year.
Professor Gerrie Swart, of Consultancy Africa Intelligence, a South African security analysis firm, says the U.S. authorities’ decision to base AFRICOM in Europe for “several years” represents a “significant modification” to Washington’s stated strategy of increased military engagement with Africa.
“It could be interpreted as Washington adopting a wait-and-see approach” as Africa’s reaction to an increased American military presence on the continent “matures,” he says.
But Swart adds: “I think this’ll be one of AFRICOM’s critical weaknesses – the fact that there will be no actual (additional) physical military presence or military base on the continent…. It might be that (U.S. officials) backtracked based on the condemnation that has emerged with regards to AFRICOM.”
Moeller, however, says there’s been no “backtracking” from the United States but that AFRICOM will continue to modify its approach in order to fulfill its mission of creating a safer and more secure Africa.
Swart insists: “Strategically it will be a very bad decision to base it off the continent and it will be interpreted as a sign of weakness…. Basing it off the continent at this stage will not serve AFRICOM’s purpose and it will denude it of any potential valuable role it could play on the continent….”
Moeller responds that the fledgling Command will be more effective in its early stages if it coordinates U.S. military cooperation with Africa from a well-resourced and established base in Europe. He says, “From Germany it’s relatively easy to get back and forth to the continent if we need to physically engage with our African partners.”
In this regard, AFRICOM officials point out that U.S. European Command is the only regional command currently hosted on foreign soil - Southern Command and Central Command are based in Florida, while Pacific Command is in Hawaii, and that this hasn’t “denuded” them of their “valuable roles.”
Pajibo’s convinced, though, that AFRICOM’s present location in Stuttgart is “only temporary” and that negotiations with Africa will eventually result in the Command moving to various regional headquarters on the continent.
AFRICOM “damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t”
Vice-Admiral Moeller says only “minor internal adjustments” have been made to AFRICOM’s structure as the Command prepares for its official launch in October.
Swart says in some respects, AFRICOM is “damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.”
“Any changes the U.S. makes to AFRICOM, such as the decision now for it to remain in Stuttgart, will be seen by critics as evidence of weakness, or that the international community, and specifically Africa, is against AFRICOM. But if the U.S. doesn’t make any changes, then it’ll be seen as arrogant and dictatorial, unwilling to listen to criticism or to adapt to take African suggestions on board.”
Moeller insists that AFRICOM remains open to change.
“We continue to look at that, to analyze it, to assess it to make sure that it will be as effective an organization as we can put together. But…we reserve the right to make adjustments as time goes on and we develop a much greater understanding of how we need to be structured to most effectively support our African partners and work with our African partners.”
Moeller anticipates that AFRICOM will indeed change in the future.
“…. We look to over time bring on board representatives of our European allies and probably over a period of time as well representatives from those African countries that would wish to be part of the organization…. A number have expressed that interest and we look to integrate them into the organization.”
Moeller says Africans have made several suggestions they believe will improve AFRICOM, and that the U.S. is heeding their advice.
“Very much so. Our primary focus as part of our mission is to work with our African partners on building their security capacity. So they’ve expressed…thoughts on one element or another of the larger security capacity collective of those things that are of the most interest to them.”
He gives as an example his and his fellow AFRICOM Deputy Commander Ambassador Mary Yates’s meeting in December with representatives of the Economic Community of West African States.
“We talked in some detail about ways that in the future we at U.S. Africa Command could work in support of ECOWAS with some of their (military) training objectives. And we’re looking to, in the months ahead, put a lot of those pieces in place on their behalf and in support of their training objectives.”
AFRICOM’s move away from humanitarian role
Swart says when the Command’s creation became public knowledge in 2007, Washington essentially maintained that AFRICOM would do “little more” than aid work in Africa.
“There seemed to be an aversion by AFRICOM spokespeople to mentioning any kind of military activity on the continent, and to describe it as something that was primarily humanitarian in nature. This made Africans very suspicious and really was to the Command’s detriment.”
But Swart is convinced that AFRICOM planners have realized their “mistake” and are now being “far more open” about the military role the Command intends to play in Africa.
“We have seen recently during (AFRICOM Commander) General (William) Ward’s statement to Congress that the humanitarian aspect was merely a sound-bite in his presentation,” Swart points out.
“The myth that AFRICOM will be a purely preventative humanitarian command is slowly but surely being addressed. I think that it will invariably find itself involved in military missions – with a humanitarian dimension added – but not purely humanitarian as such. That would really defeat the purpose of (establishing) a combatant command of its nature.”
Observers say AFRICOM remains dedicated to doing emergency relief work and mounting public health efforts, like vaccinating people against infectious diseases, but wants to refocus on its core responsibilities of counter terrorism and training African militaries.
Moeller says AFRICOM will support development agencies in Africa, but that improving African militaries “so that they’re able to handle own problems” is AFRICOM’s primary mission.
Modifications geared towards fighting terrorism
Swart says any modifications made to AFRICOM in the future will be “seen through the prism” of the U.S.’s war on terror.
“Almost ten years after the embassy bombings in East Africa, almost seven years after 9/11, it’s clear that the threat of terrorism plays a very important role in our foreign policy,” says Lauren Ploch, an analyst at the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
In Africa, Washington continues to take action to eliminate people it regards as threats to the U.S. It recently ordered the killing, by missile strike, of Adan Ayrow, the military leader of Somalia’s radical al-Shabaab group.
“In recent months we’ve seen al-Qaeda affiliates in North Africa take responsibility for the bombings of a U.N. building in Algiers and the murder of French tourists in Mauritania. I think AFRICOM really does reflect the realization of policymakers…that America is less threatened by conquering states than by failing ones,” says Ploch.
Pajibo says it’s “already become crystal clear” that “one of the U.S.’s major motivations” in creating AFRICOM was its desire to fight terrorism.
Swart adds: “As the terrorists adapt in Africa, so AFRICOM will have to adapt.”