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US Officials Acknowledge Obstacles to Success of African Military Command


The United States’ new military command for Africa, AFRICOM, recently became operational. For the next year, it will be based in Germany, but the US administration is seeking to establish headquarters in various African regions by October 2008. Washington says AFRICOM’s main mission will be to train African peacekeepers. It will also expand on anti-terrorism programs on the continent, cooperate with civilian groups to establish good governance and participate in other forms of development. But before all that, AFRICOM will have to overcome a number of significant challenges. In the third part of a series on the new command, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on some obstacles to the latest US military initiative.

General James Jamerson, former deputy commander of the US European Command, argues for a fundamental shift in American attitudes towards Africa. He says up until now, US authorities have not paid enough attention to Africa but he’s pleased that with AFRICOM, the United States appears to be according far more importance to a continent that’s often viewed as hopeless and relatively insignificant in world affairs.

South Africa-based security analyst Wafula Okumu says the major challenge for AFRICOM will be “getting Africans to believe that it intends doing good and not dominating them.”

Observers, though, agree that resources will be a problem for AFRICOM. They point out that the United States is in the process of downsizing its military commands.

Says Paul Wolfowitz, former World Bank president and US deputy defense secretary: “If you worked inside the Pentagon, you’d realize the big concern in the US Defense Department is not how to get involved in Africa but how to stay out of involvement in Africa and how to support others in doing the job.”

Observers of AFRICOM ask how it’s expected to fulfill its mandate of making Africa – and thereby the world – a safer place, if the necessary money isn’t available. Many millions of dollars will be needed if the command is to train more African soldiers in peacekeeping and counterterrorism and for the other initiatives that AFRICOM intends to become involved in.

“We’ve got to make sure we resource this organization to get the job done. If not, we’re going to stumble around and not be nearly as good as we could be,” says Jamerson.

Wolfowitz emphasizes that AFRICOM must be based upon “mutualism” and argues that too often US authorities have met in Washington to discuss Africa – without African interests being adequately represented. Embracing Africa to a far greater degree than has previously been the case, he says, will be integral to AFRICOM’s success.

Analysts say it’s essential for Washington not to be seen as “dictating” to Africa and preparing an “invading army.” They say even semantics will prove a challenge to AFRICOM’s acceptance on the continent, as it was when the United States established an “Africa Crisis Response Force” in the 1990s.

“The term ‘force’ did not sit well with Africans. But we sort of roared in (to Africa), like we are wont to do on the US side on occasion and said kind of: ‘Slam bam, here’s the plan.’ We should be smarter than that (with regard to AFRICOM). I’m not saying that that’s what has happened in this case; there’s been an awful lot of bad information flowing,” Jamerson says.

The negative publicity surrounding the command, he points out, will hinder it immensely.

Even Wolfowitz says his first reaction to AFRICOM was that it was “not a good idea” -and he’s still not convinced. But he’s of the opinion that “it can be made into something that can work and that can be useful.”

Nevertheless, like Jamerson, Wolfowitz is concerned about AFRICOM having to deal with “perceptions” rather than reality.

He says another challenge for AFRICOM will be to “transform” African militaries, many of which are presently constructed to suppress political opposition to the government of the day and not to protect their populations.

Jamerson says AFRICOM’s structure is also extremely complicated – with elements from the military, State Department and USAID, most of whom will be based in places other than Africa, joining the command. It’s going to be very difficult to maintain coordination to ensure AFRICOM’s success, he maintains.

“If you look at all the different moving parts, for things in Africa, it is exceptional. I don’t think we yet have a grip on how to bring it together to the best benefits of everybody. We haven’t figured it out…in Iraq; we haven’t figured it out yet quite in Afghanistan. It has to do with (bureaucracy) in Washington…. You need to bring all of these things together through a lens and get control of what’s going on so we all know what the various interagency outfits – and beyond – are doing.”

Stewart Patrick, of the Weak States Project at Washington’s Center for Global Development, adds: “It strikes me that the administration moved to create this structure and has begun to staff it without a really clear idea about how the different pieces will fit together.”

Wolfowitz voices concern that US officials dedicated to development are expected to cooperate with the American military with regard to AFRICOM.

“It is the case in fact that in development agencies, including the ones that I know best, USAID and the World Bank, there’s a kind of allergy to even talking to military of any stripe, including even the ones with the blue berets (UN peacekeepers) - much less the (soldiers from the) evil United States.”

Yet he emphasizes that these “barriers” will have to be broken down if AFRICOM is going to help develop Africa and create peace and stability on the continent.

Another challenge facing the command, says Jamerson, is for it to constantly cooperate and consult with Washington’s international allies in shaping AFRICOM policy. He says the command’s plans should not conflict with especially European interests in Africa, otherwise the US will boost rather than decrease crises.

“There’s an awful lot of positive financing, management firepower; logistics support – a lot of things can happen if we work internationally, together. We’ll waste a lot of time and energy if we don’t do that,” Jamerson warns.

He foresees that bureaucracy on a large scale will be one of AFRICOM’s biggest trials in its cooperation with the various continental organizations in Africa.

“We have to understand the complexities that (African) regional and sub-regional structures – SADC (Southern African Development Community), ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States); all of these things – (bring). These are complex mechanisms under a complex mechanism of the African Union. It’s going to take a lot of time and energy just to understand it and to understand how to work in there (Africa),” Jamerson explains.

Okumu predicts “intense frustration” for AFRICOM officials in their dealings with African leaders, who prefer “myriad” negotiations before action is taken. Analysts wonder whether the Americans have the patience required to function effectively in Africa.

Theresa Whelan, a senior AFRICOM official, acknowledges also that the command can’t use the same blueprint for security in all regions in Africa – something the US deputy secretary for African affairs says African leaders have frequently told her during her visits to the continent.

“They emphasized to us repeatedly that one size does not fit all on the continent and that East Africa’s problems and challenges are not the same as West Africa’s, and West Africa’s are not the same as Central’s or Southern’s or North’s; etcetera, etcetera. We heard that in each place. We hope that we will avoid the tendency to use a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The former chief of the Ethiopian Defense Force, General Tsadkan Gebretensae, cautions Washington that the main causes of conflict in Africa are “social, economic and political" and that the strife is caused mainly by "ethnic and religious diversities.”

If AFRICOM gets “mixed up” in such internal fighting, which is fueled by age-old prejudices, there’ll be “very dangerous” consequences for the United States and the world, Okumu warns.

He also says as long as an estimated 300 million people out of 600 million are living in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, the region will continue to be “fertile breeding ground” for war. Okumu says unless such dire underdevelopment is addressed, AFRICOM will fail to prevent widespread conflict in the region, no matter how “noble” its mission.

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