U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM)

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM)

The creation of a new U.S. military command for Africa signals the continent’s growing strategic importance and its many development challenges.

May 2, 2007 4:18 pm (EST)

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In February 2007, President Bush announced the creation of a unified military command for Africa. This puts the continent on par, in the Pentagon’s eyes and command structure, with the Pacific Rim (Pacific Command), Europe (European Command), Latin America (Southern Command), the Middle East (Central Command), and North America (Northern Command). The Pentagon and many military analysts argue the continent’s growing strategic importance necessitates a dedicated regional command. But some experts suggest the command’s creation was motivated by more specific concerns: China and oil. With Soviet influence gone and France’s traditional presence much diminished, China has poured money into the continent in recent years as it jockeys for access to natural resources. And the United States is projected to import at least 25 percent of its oil from Africa by 2015, according to the National Intelligence Council.

Africom’s Genesis

Three U.S. regional commands currently share responsibility for American security issues in Africa. The Europe Command is responsible for the largest swath of the continent: North Africa, West Africa (including the Gulf of Guinea), and central and southern Africa. The Central Command covers the Horn of Africa—including Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Djibouti, and Sudan—as well as Egypt. The Pacific Command is responsible for Madagascar, the Seychelles, and the Indian Ocean area off the African coast.

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Because Africa has been subsumed under other regional commands, the continent has never been a priority for the U.S. military. “Africa has been divided up and been the poor stepchild in each of these different commands and not gotten the full attention it deserves,” Susan Rice, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Clinton administration’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told NPR.

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The Pentagon has floated plans for a unified command for over ten years. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld convened a planning team for such a command in mid-2006, and in December, President Bush authorized its creation. The president announced the command in February 2007, stating that it “will enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth in Africa.” Ambassador Robert G. Loftis, senior adviser in the State Department’s Bureau of Political and Military Affairs and a member of the Africa Command transition team, says the command will promote “a greater unity of effort across the government.” He notes that aid to Africa under President Bush has tripled since 2001, but “if we don’t have security in Africa, a lot of that development assistance will not be helpful.”

Mixed Reactions to the Command’s Creation

The Pentagon has been careful to stress that Africom will partner with African countries to promote mutual interests. “This is not about a scramble for the continent,” said Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, in a February press briefing. Yet some Africans greeted news of the command’s creation with skepticism. “Looking at U.S. alliances with authoritarian governments in Africa, one can see that what plays best to the media is not always what works best in the world of realpolitik,” wrote Fred Mbugua in Kenya’s East African Standard. The Defense Department has started a series of trips to African countries to address misperceptions about the command and solicit input on Africom’s mission statement. Thus far, Africans have been “largely positive” about Africom, says Ambassador Loftis, and have stressed their interest in working with existing security structures on the continent such as the African Union and regional economic organizations. The South African reaction to the command’s creation has been “ambivalent,” says Francis Kornegay, senior researcher at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. He says it raises questions about whether U.S. and African priorities are in sync.

Many of the experts who heralded the command’s creation seem to validate African concerns. Writing in World Defense Review, J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs, calls Africom’s creation “long overdue” in light of U.S. dependence on Africa’s oil, its concern over radical Islamist groups targeting the region, and the continent’s identity as “an arena for intense diplomatic competition with other states with global ambitions, like China.” Others note that Africom will help the United States secure vital sea lanes.

The Feasibility of an Interagency Command

The recent upsurge in violence in the Horn of Africa clearly has the Pentagon focused on the threat that Somalia, long a festering realm of warlordism, could become a new base for al-Qaeda. However, the Pentagon stresses that Africom’s primary mission will be preventing “problems from becoming crises, and crises from becoming conflicts.” Rear Admiral Robert T. Moeller, head of the transition team charged with standing up the Africa Command, says Africom will work to enhance security cooperation, extend humanitarian assistance, build partner capacity, and perform limited kinetic military assistance. But he adds that the command’s mission statement is still in draft form, and will not be finalized until a commander is selected (probably later this year). It resembles the mission statement of other regional commands, but “the difference is that building partnerships is first and foremost of the strategies which is not necessarily the case with other commands,” says Ambassador Loftis.

The Pentagon calls Africom a “unifed combatant command,” meaning a command that combines military and civil functions. Though Africom will be led by a top-ranking four-star military general, unlike other regional commands, its deputy commander will be a State Department official. The current transition team of about sixty people—which is largely military—will form the core of Africom’s headquarters staff, but Moeller anticipates there will eventually be several hundred personnel when the command becomes operational in September 2008. Africom aims to bring together intelligence, diplomatic, health and aid experts. Staff will be drawn from all branches of the military, as well as USAID and the departments of state, agriculture, treasury, and commerce. These nonmilitary staff may be funded with money from their own departments as well as the DOD.

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The Pentagon has touted the new interagency structure of Africom, but experts question whether the command will be any different than other regional commands in execution. The small size of other government offices in comparison to the military means that it may be difficult to hire enough nonmilitary staff. Even if interagency personnel are brought into the command, it is not clear how instrumental they will be in the command’s decision-making process. Ambassador Loftis says having a State Department official as deputy commander is “uncharted territory” for the Department of Defense. Some defense officials say that Africom could function like the interagency task force within Southern Command; in that structure, interagency members have the authority to make decisions without consulting Washington.

Yet the Pentagon has not even provided details on what percentage of the staff will be interagency, let alone how much authority those staff will have. This lack of information extends to other aspects of the command. Chester A. Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President Reagan, says the Pentagon “rolled it out before they were ready to roll it out.” Rear Admiral Moeller says “It’s like being the plank owner of a new construction ship—all the excitement of being the first crew member and all the work involved of figuring out if we have enough welding rods to do a particular day’s work.”

Headquarter or Headquarters?

By October 2007, Africom will begin operating as part of the European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. The permanent location for Africom’s headquarters, however, has yet to be determined. Several African countries have already offered to house Africom within their borders, and the Department of Defense has started a series of consultations with African countries that will continue into the summer. Moeller emphasizes that though Africom will have its headquarters on the continent, the United States is not planning to put additional military forces in Africa. He did not rule out the possibility that Africom would operate in a hub-and-spoke fashion, with a central headquarters coordinating a group of smaller locations around the continent. “We are still in the very early stages on this,” says Ambassador Loftis.

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Speculation about a possible headquarters location abounds. Defense and Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy argues that Morocco is the only “geographically and politically viable” location for headquartering Africom because it is a neutral Muslim state that has proven willing to work with the United States to combat the growth of radical Islam in Africa. It adds that the command would need to have additional lesser basing in the Gulf of Guinea, East Africa, and southern Africa. Some have suggested that Addis Ababa, Ethiopia might be a viable location for the headquarters because it is the seat of the African Union and the United States has a close relationship with Ethiopia.

Current Military Initiatives in Africa

The United States already has a military presence on the continent, which is expected to continue under Africom. Since 2002, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) has based roughly 1,700 troops at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti. The task force focuses on disrupting terrorist activities in the region, and was reportedly involved in tracking down two alleged leaders of Somalia’s Islamic Courts in December 2006. In January 2007, the military announced that Camp Lemonier will expand from its current ninety-seven acres to more than five hundred acres.

Another program in the region, the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI), also focuses on counterterrorism. The $500 million interagency program seeks to dampen Islamic extremism in the region and locate and eliminate terrorists by providing counterterrorist training programs and weapons to countries in North Africa. It emerged in 2005 from the Pan-Sahel Initiative, a U.S. State Department program to strengthen border controls in several North African countries.

The U.S. military has significantly expanded its naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea in recent years. It now has almost continuous patrols in the region, up from almost no activity in 2004. It led two security conferences in the region in 2006, and has conducted security cooperation activities with several countries, including Angola, Ghana, and the Republic of the Congo.

In addition to these programs, the United States is the largest troop contributor to a peacekeeping force on the Egypt-Israel border. Roughly seven hundred U.S. soldiers participate in the Multinational Forces and Observers (MFO), which supervises the implementation of the 1973 Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace. Central Command will likely retain control over these troops after Africom’s stand-up (Egypt is the only country Africom is not slated to oversee on the continent).


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