United States relations with Africa entered a new era recently, when Washington’s military command for the continent, known as AFRICOM, became operational, and General William “Kip” Ward – one of the most experienced African-American soldiers in the US army – was confirmed as its first commander. For the next year, AFRICOM will be based at the US military headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. The US administration says AFRICOM will train African peacekeepers. In addition, it says the command will assist in enhancing good governance in Africa and will help resolve conflict and respond to natural disasters. But critics say there are sinister reasons behind the United States’ decision to create a separate military installation for Africa. In the first of a five-part series, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on the reasoning behind the creation of AFRICOM and the possible locations of its headquarters.
In February, President Bush announced the proposed establishment of what he termed a “unified United States military command for Africa.” The news came as a surprise to many, including African leaders.
Up until now, US military responsibility for Africa has been shared by the country’s three commands in Europe and the Pacific – a situation described by security analysts as a “bureaucratic nightmare” and labeled a “relic of the Cold War” by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
US Navy Rear Admiral Robert Moeller, the executive director of the US Africa Command implementation planning team, said the motivation behind AFRICOM was the increasing importance of Africa “strategically, diplomatically and economically.”
AFRICOM is currently operating under US European Command in Stuttgart, but US officials expect it to become “fully operational” – and for “sub-regional headquarters” to be based in various parts of Africa – by October 2008.
But the AFRICOM plans are meeting with great resistance, both internationally and in Africa, as various organizations unite under the slogan “STOP AFRICOM!”
“These civil society groups don’t want American troops in Africa, arguing that this will make the continent a more dangerous place in that the increased US presence will attract terrorists bent on the destruction of anything American,” says Wafula Okumu, an analyst at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies.
“There are fears that AFRICOM will make Africa the new battleground for America’s war on terror,” he adds.
The anti-AFRICOM lobbyists are also highly suspicious of repeated pronouncements by US officials that the new command intends to involve itself with “development” work – the traditional domain of groups such as USAID and NGOs – and promoting “good governance.” They’re arguing against any “interference” by the US military in African politics and aid to the continent.
No “massive” US troop presence in Africa
Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Africa, has helped to plan AFRICOM and says one of the biggest challenges facing it is “myth versus reality.” Contrary to popular belief, she emphasizes, AFRICOM won’t mean a flood of thousands of US troops into Africa or the building of massive bases. Instead, Whelan says, it will be a “distributed command” of a few “sub-regional hubs” that will augment the existing US military base in Djibouti.
“We will have no new bases and we will not be deploying forces or basing US forces on the African continent. We have been in the process over the last seven to eight years of actually pulling US forces back to the United States from places where they have been based overseas.”
AFRICOM will, however, have a permanent presence in Africa, says Whelan, in the form of staff officers, defense attaches and “security assistance officers.”
“We hope to increase the presence of those on the continent,” she acknowledges. “We also intend that the command have a presence at locations that will allow those staff to facilitate our working relationships with each different region and our support of the African standby (peacekeeper) brigade concept.”
Whelan maintains that AFRICOM is very different from other US military commands, in that its main objective is something other than fighting and winning wars.
“The primary mission of this command is to focus on building security capacity in Africa so that Africans can manage their own security challenges and not essentially be importers of security from the international community. What we hope is that African nations will be able to manage security in their own territorial waters, in their own land territories, in their own regions and also across the continent,” she explains.
Whelan says AFRICOM will train African militaries so that they’re more efficient and will expand on existing African anti-terrorism initiatives.
She adds that AFRICOM will provide a “unique” blueprint for better cooperation between the US Department of Defense, the military and the State Department on “security assistance” to Africa.
“This includes peacekeeping training programs, border and coastal security capacity development programs, logistics and airlift support to peacekeeping operations and joint training exercises with African militaries.”
Whelan mentions that in addition to AFRICOM enabling African militaries to be more “technically proficient,” it will also strive to increase their “professionalism.”
“We will do our best to convey through this training respect for human rights, rule of law and the proper role of a civilian-controlled military in a democracy,” she says.
In his reaction, Dr. Francois Grignon, the director of the International Crisis Group’s Africa Program, has told VOA: “We think that if AFRICOM is going to help the US government to become more efficient, better organized, better prepared to support conflict prevention and conflict management in Africa, to support the African Union security architecture, it’s definitely a good thing.”
If the command also gives Africans “additional capacity and knowledge to prevent wars,” Grignon says, that’ll be even better.
AFRICOM to “shape” Africa
Stewart Patrick, who heads the Washington-based Center for Global Development’s project on weak states, expects AFRICOM to concentrate on “shaping efforts” in Africa.
“This means trying to focus less on the use of military force in a reactive sense, than trying to shape the environment on the continent so that the root causes of instability (such as poverty and lack of democracy) are more effectively dealt with by the United States, so that there’s attention to some of the long-term drivers of conflict.”
To that end, General Ward will have as one of his deputies a senior diplomat, and civilians aid experts are also being recruited to serve AFRICOM.
Patrick describes this military-civilian convergence in the US government as “revolutionary.” But he doubts whether a military command is the “most appropriate place to integrate US policy with respect to Africa.” Helping to create this controversy, he says, is the “tremendous asymmetry” in resources allocated to the civilian and military branches of the US government.
“There’s much more money available to the military, than to other sectors,” Patrick says. “Given that tremendous imbalance, there’s a legitimate fear that any agenda that AFRICOM has will naturally be skewed toward the military and security side of things. And so, instead of having a real balanced approach to the continent, the fear is that the emphasis will be on, for instance, training the African security forces to be very strong and robust – but not necessarily spending enough time trying to promote good governance and responsible and accountable regimes on the continent, or dealing with some of the underlying sources of underdevelopment.”
But Whelan disagrees and says the US government has always been very focused on human development – especially in Africa.
“The United States spends approximately $9 billion a year in Africa, funding programs in areas such as health, trade promotion and good governance. In contrast, security related programs receive only about $250 million a year.”
Another US official involved in setting up AFRICOM, Stephen Mull, acknowledges that the command is also being formed to protect the United States’ “considerable interests” in Africa.
Okumu contends: “The US is increasingly depending on African oil. The countries that are supplying more oil to the US, such as Nigeria, are facing some kind of insurgency. This could easily escalate to the point where (militants) will interfere with the supply of oil to Western markets. So the US is very concerned that this kind of a threat to its supplies of oil has to be dealt with. And one of the means that is being proposed is through AFRICOM.”
In addition, he says the United States is worried about being “frozen out” of Africa: “The US is very concerned about the penetration of the Chinese on the continent. The Chinese are becoming increasingly aggressive in making deals with Africa, and gaining access to natural resources in Africa.”
Patrick says it’s obvious as well that AFRICOM intends to pursue the Pentagon’s war on terror in Africa – especially through more training of African soldiers in counterterrorism skills.
Kurt Shillinger, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, says AFRICOM has been set up on the assumption that “instability” in Africa is threatening American security. But, in a recent Congressional hearing, he said this remained contestable.
“Somalia has not emerged as the next Afghanistan, as was the initial assumption (by the US) after 9/11. It doesn’t function as a nursery for transnational terrorism, but for isolated cases. No civil or interstate war has resulted in direct harm to the US. The collapse of Zimbabwe has resulted in floods of immigrants to South Africa, not Florida. And whereas elements linked to terrorist attacks in London and Madrid have African connections, these have been on a smaller scale than the domestic terror threats emerging from within Britain and in France and Spain.”
But Shillinger acknowledges that “weak intelligence and security structures opened the space” in Kenya and Tanzania for the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of US embassies that killed almost 250 people.
“It’s not a question of whether these problems should be addressed, but how and by whom. Is a military command the most appropriate vehicle? The Iraq war indicates the local and international consequences of preemptive US engagement,” he says.
Possible AFRICOM locations
Whelan says the US government hasn’t spoken “directly” to any African nation about hosting AFRICOM but that a number of countries have expressed interest.
“Most of those indications have been quite private. What’s interesting is that the nations that have said no, have done so quite publicly – obviously they wanted to make some kind of domestic public point, but that’s fine. We certainly don’t want to be any place that doesn’t want us,” she says.
Whelan says in the coming months AFRICOM officials will engage more with African countries “to see whether or not they’re still amenable and interested in hosting. By October 2008, we will know how we are going to manage our presence (in Africa).”
So far, the only country that’s publicly offered to host the command is Liberia, with which Washington has very close ties.
“Generally, there’s been a lot of hostility, and many countries have been reluctant to come out openly and welcome AFRICOM,” says Okumu.
Analysts also mention Botswana - despite its landlocked status - as a possible AFRICOM location. President Festus Mogae’s administration also enjoys a warm relationship with Washington, cooperating with the US in various initiatives. The southern African nation is the base for an American-sponsored international police training facility, so US security infrastructure is already in place in Botswana.
President Mogae has also sided with Washington in refusing to buckle to domestic pressure to sign an international undertaking that would allow for war crimes charges to be filed against American soldiers.
And despite pronouncements by South African Defense Minister Mosiua Lekota that Africa should reject AFRICOM because it would “destabilize” the continent, security analysts are refusing to write off South Africa as a base for AFRICOM. They point out that Africa’s economic powerhouse has engaged in frequent military exercises with the US.
Kenya and Ethiopia have also been mentioned as contenders to host AFRICOM, as both are key allies in the US’s war on terror. But Okumu says Nairobi doesn’t want another strong link with Washington because it’s still smarting from the 1998 US embassy blast, in which most of the fatalities were Kenyans.
“Kenya is very much still under threat from extremists because it hosts a lot of Western interests. The country’s also very much politically charged at the moment because of the forthcoming national elections, and its unlikely that the authorities would want another controversy to erupt before this event,” Okumu says, before adding: “Then you have counterterrorism initiatives that are antagonizing the Muslim population. So if you locate AFRICOM in Kenya, it’s going to create a lot of problems for the government.”
Other African countries that have been cooperating with the United States in terms of terrorism include Algeria, Chad, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia.
General James Jamerson, the former deputy commander of US forces in Europe, advises the authorities not to be hasty in deciding where to situate AFRICOM.
“(This issue) is way overblown; I’m a great believer in not making a decision before its time. We ought to study this for a long time. I worry that we’ll make the wrong decision about where we stick something. There’s no rush to do this.”