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Analysts Concerned New US Military Command To Hamper African Development

There’s anxiety in the international aid community that the United States’ new military command for Africa, AFRICOM, will hurt development on the continent. AFRICOM is to be based in Germany for the next year, after which it’s expected to be headquartered in various African locations. US officials say through the new initiative, the US military will train larger numbers of African peacekeepers. But they also say AFRICOM intends to cooperate with civilian aid agencies to fight poverty and enhance “good governance” in Africa. Analysts question why the American military needs to become involved in developmental and political initiatives. VOA’s Darren Taylor reports, in the fourth of a five-part series on AFRICOM.

“Africans are suspicious, because US officials are constantly stressing that the command will help to improve governance in Africa and to get involved in the aid sector. This makes Africans think the US is sugarcoating what is in fact a bitter pill and that there is something bad behind the creation of AFRICOM. Because why should a US military command become involved in aid?”

The views of Wafula Okumu, an analyst at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, reflect the deep mistrust on the continent over the United States’ latest military initiative in Africa.

Concerns about US military involvement in the international aid sphere have increased ever since President Bush announced the formation of AFRICOM in February.

At a recent congressional hearing, Donald Payne, a member of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the chairman of its subcommittee on Africa, said he found the AFRICOM proposal “disconcerting.”

He expressed concern over what he termed the increased involvement of the US Department of Defense in foreign aid and assistance. Payne warned of the “militarization” of US aid to Africa, with extremely detrimental consequences for the United States’ image and standing on the continent.

Payne’s skepticism is mirrored by that in Africa itself.

Under AFRICOM, officials of key civilian US government agencies, such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID), will for the first time be integrated into a military command. Yet analysts such as Okumu point out that cooperation between the US military and civilian departments has in the past been “very bad.”

Michael Hess, a retired US army colonel with more than 30 years of military experience, is considered in some quarters to be the embodiment of international fears that the American humanitarian aid sector is undergoing “militarization.”

Hess came out of retirement in June 2005, when President Bush appointed him to a senior position at USAID. In justifying his presence as a career soldier, albeit retired, at what is the word’s leading civilian aid agency, Hess pointed out at a congressional hearing that USAID had for decades cooperated with the US military in providing humanitarian assistance to African countries wracked by disasters, conflicts and poverty and “engaging in democratic reforms.”

He stressed that USAID missions in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya had cooperated on educational projects with the US army. The military built the schools, Hess recalled, and USAID officials provided schoolbooks and teacher training.

Thus, maintains Hess, US civilian-military cooperation is “nothing new,” and AFRICOM’s proposed objective of providing humanitarian assistance to Africa as one of its primary missions should not be regarded as a “cover” for a more “sinister” aim.

Hess emphasizes that AFRICOM will be “more civilian in nature,” rather than the US aid sector becoming “more military,” as some African leaders and analysts fear. Certain top leadership positions in AFRICOM, he says, have been reserved for civilian aid experts.

Theresa Whelan, the US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Africa and one of the planners of AFRICOM, has also tried to assuage concerns about its entrance into developmental affairs.

She dismisses fears that “AFRICOM represents a militarization of US foreign policy in Africa” and that it will “somehow become the lead US government interlocutor with Africa” as “unfounded.”

“AFRICOM will support, not shape, US foreign policy on the continent,” Whelan insists. “The secretary of state will remain the chief foreign policy advisor to the president, and the secretary of defense will remain his chief advisor on defense matters.”

She denies that AFRICOM will supersede USAID or the State Department in areas where those agencies have “clear lines of authority as well as comparative advantages” to lead initiatives. Military commanders aren’t aid experts, she acknowledges.

But Stewart Patrick, an expert on weak states at the Center for Global Development in Washington, says AFRICOM’s aspiration to “influence development” in Africa continues to raise “hackles, particularly within the US foreign policy and development communities. Even within the State Department there is, under the surface, quite a bit of rumbling about the potential danger that AFRICOM will end up undermining the authority of the chiefs of mission – that is, the US ambassadors in the field, who actually coordinate US policy there.”

Whelan says AFRICOM doesn’t intend to usurp the authority of American ambassadors in Africa.

But Mark Malan of Refugees International in Washington says aid workers won’t support the command as long as AFRICOM presents itself as a “humanitarian actor and promises to subsume humanitarianism within the ambit of military strategy.”

The experienced South African aid worker maintains that humanitarian action is “more than the act of restoring basic living standards to individuals and communities who have been deprived of them by circumstance. It should be motivated by humanitarianism; a powerful assertion of the universal sanctity and dignity of human life, and a practical manifestation of the need to provide protection to civilians in times of crisis and conflict.”

Malan says a military command like AFRICOM isn’t geared towards fulfilling these objectives, that there are “differences in philosophy” between military personnel and aid workers and that it will be very difficult for them to cooperate effectively with one another, given the diversity of their missions.

“There can at best be good liaison and perhaps coordination between humanitarian, developmental and military actors – but not integration,” he emphasizes.

Patrick also questions “whether or not a military command is the right place to have policy integration occur, as opposed to US embassies in the field, or in Washington itself. There are major questions as to whether the military should really be in the lead in trying to undertake these efforts.”

Malan says USAID and many large NGOs have far more experience than the US military in implementing development and humanitarian programs.

“Where the military is the only agency with the capacity to provide humanitarian and development assistance, the solution should lie in allocating adequate resources to USAID, rather than reinforcing and expanding the military’s role in this sphere,” he says.

Patrick is convinced that the US military wants to see much more investment to combat the drivers of conflict in Africa, such as poverty and poor governance. But he says the US administration hasn’t made sufficient provision for this.

“Given the current imbalance in the federal budget, it’s hard to see how (AFRICOM) could be anything less than military top-heavy,” Patrick says.

“This could conceivably send some dangerous signals to regimes in the region. One could imagine that a country such as Central African Republic, for instance – if it became a very large beneficiary of US military assistance, and yet its governance assistance and development assistance was much less – that it could skew some of the incentives for that regime (to improve democracy) and also its understanding about what Washington is really concerned about.”

But Okumu says: “The thinking that…AFRICOM must somehow play a role in aid and development and foster good governance in Africa is what is disturbing and insulting to many Africans, because the thinking is that Africa is composed of rotten and failing and failed states, and that failed states are breeding grounds for terrorists, and terrorists are a security threat to the West. So what you’re talking about here is securitizing development. And that’s not the reality in Africa right now. I don’t think Africa is composed of failed or failing states.”

Rather, he says, Africa is mostly composed of states that don’t have the capacity to provide for development of their people, and they’re generally not “incubators” for terrorists.

“There are much better ways to provide for Africa’s needs than through a military command. And given the history of militaries in Africa, it’s not a good idea to introduce the military into either African politics or continental development,” Okumu says.

The analyst adds that he’s had discussions with “senior officers in the US military” who are set to train AFRICOM personnel.

“They have said that even the US military is concerned. They are concerned that they are being prepared to do work that they’re not trained for. They think that they should not be engaged in humanitarian or development work.”

US military officials, says Okumu, share his concerns that “specialist” aid groups “must be left to do their jobs, without interference from things like AFRICOM. This new command will just create confusion. Who is in charge of aid? The US military?”

He says the US military should be devoted to assisting, for example, the African Union to “build its capacity in peacekeeping” and should stay away from politics and human development.

In addition, Kurt Shillinger, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, warns that any “overt indications of synergy between military and development initiatives will seriously undermine the credibility and acceptance of the latter, particularly in those states with large Muslim populations.”

Okumu says: “At the end of the day, the central purpose of an army command is to fight, not to help people. And to think that Africans don't realize this is, frankly, another insult to all Africans.”