For years, a debate has raged within the U.S. military about the need to reorganize its "Unified Combatant Command" system, the uniquely American prism through which the Defense Department views—and subdivides—the planet. This week, the Pentagon announced it would correct an oversight dating back to when U.S. forces pulled out of North Africa after World War II and split military jurisdiction of the African continent between U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and the Mideast-centric U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).
President Bush said the move to create a unified command "will strengthen our security cooperation with Africa and create new opportunities to bolster the capabilities of our partners in Africa." It quickly won praise from military analysts and Africa hands, who long complained that EUCOM and CENTCOM had other priorities, leaving African issues to fester. "Long overdue" writes Brett D. Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation.
With the exception of Egypt and some islands off the African coastline, AFRICOM, scheduled to be operational in 2008, will be responsible for any U.S. military activities on the continent. Though some 1,700 U.S. counterterrorism troops already are based on a former French foreign legion base in Djibouti, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Ryan Henry says there are no plans for any permanent bases on the continent, a point noted with a hint of relief in South Africa's Mail & Guardian.
While many African nations may welcome the new attention, others have expressed concern about recent U.S. military activities in Somalia, including a strike at a village last month described as an al-Qaeda haven by the military, and a sense Ethiopia's intervention received Washington's tacit approval. A Washington Post editorial describes Somalia as a "hot new front" in the war on terror. Jendayi Frazer, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, recently told a U.S. Senate subcommittee on Africa the government will "take strong measures to deny terrorists safe haven in Somalia, as well as the ability to plan and operate from Somalia." Such talk may worry as many Africans as it reassures.
Incidentally, the U.S. plan to surge in Africa dovetails with a decision by the continent's traditional gendarme, France, to scale back its ambitions and military presence, a process explored by this new Backgrounder. Last summer, French Interior Minister Nikolas Sarkozy, a frontrunner to succeed President Jacques Chirac in April's elections, told African heads of state that Paris would be revising its policies to "rid the relationship between Africa and France of the fantasies and the myths (BBC) that pollute it."
For the U.S., however, AFRICOM will be more than a military exercise. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says it will feature a unique interagency mix (NPR), combining intelligence, diplomatic, health and aid experts. That suggests to many a more robust effort to fight AIDS and other diseases in Africa, to encourage democratic and market economic reforms, as well as to prevent states from collapsing and providing fertile ground for terrorists. Finally, Africa stands to play an increasingly important role as a supplier of oil to America (National Interest Online) over the next few decades, with some projecting that West Africa's exports to the United States will outstrip the Middle East's by 2015.
Add oil to terrorism, and the only wonder is that AFRICOM was not born sooner.