Following is an expanded version of an article I posted on this website earlier. The previous version has been removed. This version appeared in the May, 2008 edition of the Foreign Service Journal.
On Oct. 1, 2007, the United States Africa Command was established as a sub-unified command, still subordinate to the European Command, which covers most of Africa. (The Central Command is responsible for U.S. military relations with the Horn, Egypt, Sudan and Kenya, while the Pacific Command covers activities in the Indian Ocean islands.) Headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, AFRICOM will become fully responsible for U.S. military relations with all 53 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa by the end of the current fiscal year (Sept. 30, 2008). The command is led by General William E. Ward, whose deputies are Ambassador Mary Carlin Yates (a Foreign Service officer) and Admiral Robert T. Moeller. The FY 2008 transition year budget is $75 million. $392 is requested for FY 2009.
The rationale for the new command is that it will improve the U.S. military focus on Africa and enhance American interagency support for the development of African military establishments. AFRICOM’s mission is to build African capacity so that African states can manage their own security issues. It is also intended to stimulate professionalization, enhance civilian control and inculcate respect for human rights.
While many African governments embrace the idea of more attention to their military needs, they are concerned about possible great-power militarization of the continent. And they are apprehensive about the perception (as much as the reality) of undermining continental neutrality enshrined in the charter of the African Union (formerly the Organization of African Unity). Others are generally skeptical of America’s intentions, fearing a hidden agenda of hegemony.
Even though the Bush administration has articulated a credible explanation for the evolution to the new command, many – at home and abroad - remain skeptical. Details are scarce about how AFRICOM’s civil and economic objectives will be pursued. President John Kufor of Ghana, for example, seized the occasion of President Bush’s recent stop to ask point blank about real U.S. intentions. Clearly, doubts regarding U.S. intentions, coupled with concerns arising from our military posture in Iraq and Afghanistan, have tended to excite and feed fodder to critics. They variously decry the initiative as representing the extension of a global war on Islam, a preparation to annex African oil fields, and U.S. military interference in politics, including the threat of regime change for nations that run afoul of Washington’s capricious whims. Of course, those conclusions are balderdash, to be blunt, but they do contain kernels of truth. American policy does combat terrorism and much of the global variety does have Islamic connections. We want the world’s oil supplies to be secure and we do criticize autocratic regimes, especially those like Robert Mugabe’s in Zimbabwe that egregiously abuse the rights of their people.
Reaching out to African Militaries
Shibboleths aside, it is worth examining the premise that African military establishments merit American support at all. Even though national defense is regularly cited as their primary task, African armies rarely need to repel foreign invaders. Most African conflicts – e.g., Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Burundi, Liberia and Sierra Leone -- arise from domestic issues. Only the unresolved Ethiopia-Eritrea border war, the recent Congolese wars and the Ethiopian presence in Somalia fit the mode of external aggression.
So instead of defense, the primary job of African armies is to protect the ruling regime by keeping the life president in power (by informal count some 15 current leaders initially came to power via military means) and to thwart threats to the status quo mounted by the opposition, democratic or otherwise. To this end, militaries or special units thereof become tribal fiefdoms loyal to the president and dedicated to his well-being.
Despite this objective, history shows that this sort of Praetorian Guard has had mixed results in protecting the incumbent. In fact many, if not most, coups were organized by those closest to the president. The list of chiefs of staff who mounted coups is lengthy: Amin, Bokassa, Kolingba, Deby, Buyoya, Bagaza, Habyarimana, Barre, Mobutu, Ironsi, Obasanjo, Babangida, Eyadema, Kountche, Bashir and more.
Perhaps recognizing this fact of political life, many presidents – including military men -- have been only reluctant supporters of the national army. This hesitancy, reinforced by the impecunity of most states and the fact of underdevelopment, has kept African military establishments in the last rank. Even so, there is great diversity across the continent. Some are a mere hodgepodge of ill-equipped, untrained thugs who are more of a threat to society than an asset (e.g., the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Sudan). Others are a repository of political support for a regime, either because of ethnic affiliation or because of largess handed out to military leaders (Nigeria, Gabon). In some countries, army personnel are politically astute revolutionary fighters who learned their craft prior to becoming part of the ruling apparatus (Rwanda, Eritrea). And a few military establishments are impartial, professional and fairly competent, with limited objectives and responsibilities (South Africa, Botswana, Senegal).
In any case, almost all African institutions suffer from a lack of resources and equipment. Their leadership structure is often internally incoherent and subjected to political interference. Still, compared with other national institutions in most of those countries, the military is well organized and adequately funded. Few nations have the wherewithal to operate tanks or fly jet aircraft, but they regularly cough up salaries for the troops. The challenge is sorting out the regime maintenance function and the brutality that occasionally accompanies that from other defense responsibilities, and judging when and where to draw the line regarding militaries that merit support and those that don’t.
Over the years, former colonial powers like Britain, France and Belgium, as well as the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War, and now China have sought to modernize and professionalize African militaries, seeking to develop them into smaller replicas of their own establishments. In contrast to earlier years when revolutionary ideology (Tanzania, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe) provided the basis for military cooperation, China today is flogging a full range of military assets, weaponry and aircraft to all buyers. At least in part, this broader approach reflects Beijing’s perception that Africa constitutes a growing market, as well as a source of sympathetic partners in the non-Western world.
Washington continues to provide training and some equipment, such as basic troop kits, communications gear and night-vision devices, but little in the way of sophisticated weapons systems. Such limited access to the African military market is unlikely to change, for our offerings are simply too complex, expensive and unsuitable for the main tasks confronting the continent’s armed forces.
So what can we do? On a case-by-case basis, we already evaluate each country’s military forces and offer the sort of help we believe realistic for its situation. This ranges from zero assistance for the egregious, abusive nondemocratic regimes of the continent to various types of individual or unit training, to communications gear, electronic equipment, transportation assets and a full range of support for peacekeeping units for more respectable nations. Such aid is predicated on a political assessment that such assistance to the military supports rather than contradicts broader U.S. policy in support of democracy, development and respect for human rights.
The nexus of two competing objectives is where the hard calls arise. For example, an African nation’s commitment to counterterrorism might entice U.S. policymakers to seek closer ties to further such activism. However, recognition that the forces in question are blatant abusers of the rights of a struggling democratic opposition ought to dampen the prospects for American support. Which side do we want to be on in such cases?
The current crises in Chad and Kenya pose policy questions that might be answered differently in a robust AFRICOM era. We have not meddled in Chad (leave it to the French!), but would we do so if we were focusing greater attention on its army? And in Kenya, except for one brief foray into Naivasha, the army has thus far stayed in the barracks – in part because it, too, is riven by tribal divisions, so any deployment might well result in intra-army violence. While we can applaud this restraint, it raises the question: What use is a national military in such a crisis? And what is the value of our investment in training it?
Both situations certainly fall under the rubric of maintaining continental security, one of AFRICOM’s stated objectives. Yet it is hard to see how any direct U.S. involvement, via our military or theirs, could be productive in resolving these crises. Although U.S. policy eschews direct military involvement in such situations, American attacks against purported terrorist elements in Somalia, for example, do raise the issue of if-you-have-the-assets how will you use them?
Thus, observers are correct in asking questions because DOD and State intend AFRICOM to be different from other combatant commands (e.g., EUCOM, CENTCOM and PACOM). It has still-undefined responsibilities and tasks beyond the purely military sphere. For example, staffing plans call for an FSO as lead deputy (Amb. Yates is already in place) and up to a hundred or more interagency personnel. If nothing else, this demonstrates a clear intent for programs that focus on humanitarian and development issues.
Some American advocates of paying more attention to Africa, particularly in the NGO community, dismiss AFRICOM as a mechanism to do that without really providing more resources. But the assumption is that once the command is in place, more resources will flow to it. Undoubtedly, they will. Pentagon cynics would add that one more four-star billet and all the accompanying support translates into more advancement opportunities within the system.
Do Something Dramatic!
U.S. spokesmen have said that the new command will be oriented toward humanitarian issues and military improvements. It will respond to catastrophes, help build competent national militaries, sustain nascent regional organizations, support economic development and political democracy. What appears to be missing in all the hoopla is an unequivocal response to Africa’s pressing security needs, which include elimination of warlords, reduction of tribal strife, achievement of internal peace and the need to live in a safer regional neighborhood. More tangible support for the continent’s armed forces, including training and some equipment, is indeed desirable, both for its own sake and to facilitate effective participation in African peacekeeping operations – to wit: Sudan, Somalia, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While this is a laudable objective, the U.S. contribution has a long time line. Meanwhile, dangerous situations fester. Why not move faster?
Three opportunities come to mind. Fortunately, the first is already under way: using the U.S. Navy to combat piracy in the Red Sea and off the Horn of Africa. A broader effort to patrol the sea lanes off West Africa in order to halt illegal oil bunkering would be similarly aimed at restoring the rule of law. Clearly, this would entail enlisting the support of littoral states.
The most dramatic initiative would be the provision of U.S. helicopters to UNAMIS, the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Sudan. The United Nations is seeking a squadron of several dozen choppers, most for lift, as well as several gunships. Efforts to find helicopters have so far come up empty, posing the risk that the whole operation will be scuttled.
Offering up such support would indeed reinforce our intent to help Africa. But howls and arguments against the idea would be loud: we cannot bleed Iraq for Sudan; the U.S. should never participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations; Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir would never accept American forces. Undoubtedly, these are legitimate issues, but if AFRICOM wants to respond to legitimate security needs in Africa, no better task awaits. And the mere willingness to fight the policy battle within the U.S. government, with the U.N. and with Sudan to implement such assistance would show solid commitment to Africa and underscore the legitimacy of the new command.
From the State Department perspective, we need not fear AFRICOM’s advent. Not only does it have positive elements that should advance U.S. interests in various African nations, but seconding FSOs to the command will help ensure that DOD has broader thematic perspectives. However, AFRICOM does pose some issues that, if not sorted out early, might become irksome.
Existing chief-of-mission authority is adequate for AFRICOM, so long as serving and future ambassadors exercise their responsibilities pursuant to the presidential letter of authority and under National Security Decision Directive 38, and the military components follow their own chain of command. In short the ambassador has absolute authority over personnel and operations in his or her country of assignment. We should think about and treat non-resident AFRICOM personnel exactly as we considered previous command elements. To wit:
All visitors, military and civilian, will still require country clearances. All programs, whether involving JCET (exercises), IMET and ACOTA (training), FMS (sales) or TSCTP (counterterrorism), are subject to ambassadorial approval. The only exception is the forces of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, some 1,500 troops stationed at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, who currently fall under the operational control of CENTCOM (but will eventually shift to AFRICOM). In accordance with existing practice, such combat elements enjoy a separate chain of command, but their in-country, non-combat activities – drilling wells in Djibouti, for example – all remain subject to ambassadorial oversight. Because the new Africa Command does not anticipate stationing any additional combat personnel on the continent or setting up other bases, there should be no other exceptions to chief-of-mission authority.
As an aside, let me note that Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance, the program that provides training and equipment to African units scheduled for deployment as multilateral peacekeepers, will not -- at least initially -- become an AFRICOM responsibility. ACOTA (formerly known as the African Crisis Response Initiative) is America’s most successful and useful military program in Africa, one that has helped prepare contingents from Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Ghana and other countries for service in Darfur, Somalia, Liberia and Congo. ACOTA is funded via the peacekeeping account administered by the State Department, and State does not intend to relinquish control.
Where to Set up Shop?
Various soundings around the continent have shown that the time is not ripe for the establishment of a large military headquarters in Africa. The issue is apparently too emotional and too tied up in the uncertainties of what AFRICOM is all about. Logistic issues also constrain a move. When or if a relocation from Germany is approved, facilities for it will have to be built from the ground up. Only Liberia, perhaps understanding the positive economic impact of such an installation, has stepped forward to seek the emplacement of the headquarters on its soil.
Even though the headquarters will remain in Germany, AFRICOM anticipates standing up about three or four sub-headquarters. The intent is to get at least some personnel into the theater of operations. About 30 personnel on standard tours of duty would be assigned to each sub-headquarters unit. Although locales have yet to be determined, logically they would correspond to the geographic regions of Africa. Djibouti takes care of eastern Africa, so sites will be needed in the west (Ghana or Liberia are leading candidates), the south (probably Botswana) and the north (Tunisia or Morocco, although this idea has less traction in the north). While the structure will be important for the countries concerned, what is most crucial from an interagency perspective will be the interaction between the regional headquarters elements and the host embassy.
Note that such regional offices will be a new global element to be invented in Africa. Sub-commands of other combatant commands – Diego Garcia, Okinawa, Korea, etc. -- include operational forces that are exempted from chief-of-mission authority.
On the whole, we should consider such offices similar to USAID’s Regional Economic Development Services Offices: i.e., they and their personnel fall under COM authority. Thus, when they operate in a particular country, the U.S. ambassador there is in charge. And when personnel travel regionally, personnel and projects remain the purview of the ambassador of the nation being visited.
It is worth noting that both USAID and DOD already deal separately with African regional organizations, such as the Southern African Development Community or the Economic Community of West African States. For instance, what if ECOWAS wants to conduct a military exercise in Togo with U.S. input, with the planning, logistical support, etc. coming from its headquarters in Abuja? Which ambassador has authority? The answer is both, but this will require coordination on the U.S. side. Such multi-country coordination will loom even larger and become more complex as AFRICOM expands its cooperation with the African Union and its security programs around the continent.
According to Pentagon sources, each AFRICOM regional office should consist of about 30 personnel; some uniformed, some not. These staffers will need a lot of office space that is clearly not available inside any existing embassy. Thus, pending expansion of chancelleries or building annexes, facilities will have to be leased. These personnel and their families will also need substantial administrative support: housing, health care, shipping, transportation, contracting, cashiering, and educational opportunities for dependents. Virtually all these services will place an immense burden on receiving embassies. Although initially many AFRICOM personnel might be assigned on a TDY basis, except perhaps for housing, the required logistical support package is just as intimidating as for those on longer tours.
While all concerned will do their utmost to make this work, it won’t be easy. A key principle at stake is equity, keeping the playing field even so that no one gets more, better or different services at post than anyone else. The new influx of staff -- particularly military personnel who are accustomed to a global standard of support -- will challenge that approach, but adherence to that principle will be key to making AFRICOM offices and personnel part of the country team.
An augmented in-country military presence also raises thorny operational issues like communications. Initially, AFRICOM offices can utilize existing embassy networks, but they will soon want their own separate systems. How can this be accommodated? Similarly, AFRICOM will want its own security force, which will have an impact on the regional security office. Who will do the hiring? How will State and DOD practices be melded? Will there be military police alongside Marine security guard detachments? And then there is the question of weapons, an operational issue related to force protection in the wake of terrorist threats. Who in the country team can bear arms and under what circumstances?
Then we come to responsibilities for reporting, intelligence collection and analysis. Most ambassadors have existing understandings with defense attachés as to which DAO messages need clearance by the political-economic section and the front office. But a larger military element at post will necessarily intrude upon such understandings. It will be incumbent upon the ambassador and the AFRICOM chief to work out these parameters. In order to ensure consistency, written guidelines should be developed.
Striking a Balance
With the Africa Command’s advent, turf issues will intensify -- and not just in the countries hosting those personnel. Already, U.S. military resources and projects are crossing ministerial lines across the continent. While the key local client for AFRICOM remains the host-country ministry of defense, U.S. military resources already go toward projects in various civilian ministries, including water development, women’s affairs, health, interior, aviation and so forth. Undertakings include a full gamut of activities ranging from humanitarian succor and HIV/AIDS prevention to democracy promotion and public diplomacy.
Obviously, military programming risks duplication where USAID, the Centers for Disease Control, Peace Corps Volunteers and others are already engaged. That said, host governments are quick to realize where the money is, so they will increasingly focus requests on U.S. military elements.
The proposed interagency structure of AFRICOM recognizes this issue. Although the number and type of interagency billets has yet to be finalized, it is clear that the command will have a significant civilian element, including experts in economic development and complex humanitarian emergencies. Initially, AFRICOM wants several dozen FSOs for a range of political/military and economic jobs. Although assigning personnel would certainly affirm the interagency character of the new command, in light of service demands for Iraq including the elimination of jobs in Africa, it is unlikely that the Department of State can spare many personnel for such excursion tours.
Also still at stake is what AFRICOM’s non-military tasks will be. The U.S. already does a pretty competent job of economic development and humanitarian relief. What additional benefits – besides money – can AFRICOM bring to those tasks?
Washington policymakers, as well as ambassadors in the field, need to decide how much militarization of non-military assistance is wise and ensure that such undertakings are properly vetted. Such discussions will become increasingly important when (not if) AFRICOM gets more resources to play with.
In conclusion, AFRICOM is initially a reorientation of American bureaucratic responsibilities that will probably work well for us, but remain confusing to African governments. Having nothing else to distract it, the new command will undoubtedly focus on Africa and follow through on programs. This augurs well for a more consistent partnership with the continent, but how it evolves remains to be seen.
I suspect that African governments will adjust to progress and that press-stoked fears of hegemony will diminish. However, the temptation on the American side will be to try to do too much. Even a small AFRICOM looms large compared to host country military establishments. Furthermore, the command’s initial budget of $392 million will dwarf a number of national budgets. We should recognize that Africa’s absorptive capacity is limited and, as noted above, few of its leaders really want competent generals commanding capable forces.
To misquote Teddy Roosevelt, we don’t need a big stick in Africa, but we do need to tread carefully. Although Washington (as usual) will have the ultimate say, it will be up to U.S. ambassadors in the field to guide all these new boots into careful paths.
Retired Ambassador Robert Gribbin spent many years in Africa posted to the Central African Republic, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda. He also served on delegations to the United Nations General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Since retiring from the Foreign Service, he has undertaken When Actually Employed assignments to Liberia, DRC, Djibouti, Ghana, Chad, Burundi, Mauritius and Nigeria. He is the author of In the Aftermath of Genocide: The U.S. Role in Rwanda (2005).