By Dave Clemente

Throughout the past year Africa has experienced a range of highs and lows; from crowds thronging newly-built football stadiums in support of the World Cup to expanding militant activity, terrorist incidents and governmental corruption.

On top of all this, piracy thrives off the Horn of Africa, fragile states grow brittle and crack and Al-Qaeda franchises thrive in the north and east. Will no one rid the continent of these troublesome issues?

Step forward the United States military, a one-stop shop for dealing with African ills. In the aftermath of the 2009 Christmas Day airplane bomb scare, and in response to predictable knee-jerk reactions calling for prompt military action, US President Barack Obama declared that he had 'no intention of sending US boots on the ground in these regions', meaning Somalia and Yemen. Yet domestic tensions remain high, and were further exacerbated in August 2010 when fourteen US citizens and residents were charged with providing support to al-Shabab militants in Somalia. The fact remains that American military activity in Africa is on the rise, coordinated by the fledgling African Command (Africom).

Africom became fully operational in October 2008 and consolidated US military operations on the continent under a single command instead of three. Its formation was evidence of growing US awareness of Africa's strategic value to both established and rising global powers.

Africom has been called a combatant command plus, meaning that in addition to its traditional war-fighting tasks, it will have a broader 'soft-power' role including 'stability' operations that seek to prevent conflict. To accomplish this, it has integrated civilians from US government agencies into its command.

Hard or Soft?

Serious concerns remain, however, that Africom's soft-power aspirations may be overwhelmed by America's post- September 11 bias towards hard power in pursuit of security objectives, leading to a militarisation of US foreign policy on the continent.

The worry is that the lines between diplomacy, development and defence may become blurred, and tasks done by Africom civilians may supplant work that would otherwise be carried out by the State Department or the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

These civilian agencies cannot compete with the might of the Pentagon, and members of Congress have more to gain politically by funding soldiers and costly weaponry instead of diplomats and aid workers. As a result, the mix of incentives in US Africa policy is unbalanced: military influence will assert itself as civilian agencies struggle to regain relevance, and Africa may suffer as a result.

Contingency planning is already taking place for potential armed US intervention. In 2008, US war games included Africa for the first time, with one scenario examining Africom's potential response to a crisis caused by escalating insurgency and piracy. Although there may be no plans to station American troops in Somalia, the political will exists to use them for incursions, as seen in September 2009 when Special Operations Forces carried out a raid targeting a suspected Al-Qaeda operative. More recently the US has become increasingly concerned about extremist links between Somalia and Yemen, and has also provided intelligence and logistical support to the beleaguered Somali government in its fight against opposition forces.

In addition, plans have been considered to assign a quick response Marine task force to Africom, and US Special Operations Forces have started training Congolese troops in military tactics and 'internal security operations'. The 2010 budget requests from the Obama administration show significantly increased amounts for military training programmes and arms sales to African countries. Overall, it is increasingly clear that US armed forces are Washington's most visible and well-funded representatives on the continent.

Shape the Message

At its launch, Africom faced criticism that the command was ignoring important African security issues in its quest to prosecute the so-called 'war' on terror. There were fears it might be used as the US spearhead of a new 'scramble for Africa' in competition with China and other rising powers.

These fears are not without foundation: in 2008 Africom Commander General William Ward noted that combating terrorism is the command's 'number one theatre-wide goal', and in 2002 US President George Bush's administration had declared that US access to Africa's oil supplies was considered to be a 'strategic national interest'.

The level of criticism nevertheless surprised Africom officials, and in response they launched a concerted public relations effort to 'shape the message' and rebrand the command as a strictly military mission - bolstered by soft power - in support of larger US foreign policy goals.

Lily Pads

Gaining African support for more US troops on the ground is difficult enough, but the possibility that Africom headquarters would be located on the continent proved highly contentious.

When the command was launched the Pentagon was vague about its headquarters, creating a vacuum that was quickly filled with suspicion, anger and conspiracy theories. In November 2008, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates attempted to defuse the tension by announcing that the base would initially be a continent away in Stuttgart, Germany, with a decision on the permanent location delayed until early 2012.

Africom's most visible presence comes through two inherited initiatives: Operation Enduring Freedom Trans Sahara and the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa. Both are focussed on counter-terror operations, though under Africom this has been rhetorically softened to 'security cooperation' and 'cooperative conflict prevention'.

The command has avoided establishing large bases, which are expensive to maintain and often generate local discontent. Instead it is pursuing a 'light footprint' strategy that relies on Cooperative Security Locations.

These so-called 'lily pads' are bare-bones facilities maintained at air bases and ports in at least a dozen countries. The US has negotiated access to the sites, which can be rapidly expanded for urgent operations, and because they are owned by the host country they are not technically a US 'base'.

New Command, Now Twice as Soft

Africom's objectives may look 'hard', and indeed they are, but the ways and means often appear different. Winning hearts and minds is about much more than bullets and bombs, and current conflicts have taught the US military the value of soft power.

In February 2007, Bush announced the new command would promote 'development, health, education, democracy and economic growth'. This led to concerns in Africa and among development and aid organisations over what stabilisation, development or humanitarian assistance might look like when delivered by military forces.

Obama amended his predecessor's position slightly when he visited Ghana in July 2009, framing Africom's purpose less in terms of democracy promotion and more in terms of confronting common security issues. It should be remembered, however, that Africom's mandate allows for 'stability' operations, permiting a broad spectrum of actions, both hard and soft.

Concerns over militarisation were meant to be alleviated by Africom's interagency structure. Instead of a single deputy commander it has two, one military, the other civilian, and approximately half of the 1,300 headquarters staff are drawn from civilian US government agencies.

It was hoped this would provide a wide range of perspectives, and better equip the command to address the pervasive and persistent challenges of fragile and failing states, many of which were judged capable of threatening US national security.

The need for this civil-military command structure largely stems from the fact that the capabilities of US civilian agencies such as the State Department and USAID remain feeble in comparison with the military, leaving the Pentagon to pick up the slack.

Given the US track record in Iraq and Afghanistan, African worries regarding militarisation of aid and development appear justifiable. Although civilians integrated into Africom may provide alternative insights, they are still part of a military structure that quite naturally tends to take a military perspective in everything it does.

Building Capacity, Making Friends?

There is no denying that Africom can draw on technical and financial resources far superior to those of any African nation. The constant American emphasis on 'partnership' and 'capacity-building' belies an unspoken truth: there is nothing equal about this relationship. When the US Navy greets the rusty gunboats of small African coastal countries, it does so in sophisticated futuristic-looking vessels that could be from the set of a science fiction movie.

In addition, the nebulous concept of strengthening 'capacity' has become a catch-all to justify almost any intervention. The question is: 'building capacity for what?'. In many cases what is being strengthened are the balance sheets of private military companies carrying out work for the US military, and the armed forces of regimes whose interests are not shared by their citizens and who have no qualms about employing tools of repression. General Ward insists the armed forces Africom engages with should remain apolitical, but is this realistic or just wishful thinking?

Becoming a partner with undemocratic governments and bolstering their capacity also increases the militarisation of US foreign policy. Authoritarian regimes have little interest in what the State Department or USAID can offer; they are much more receptive to the Pentagon's financial largesse and advanced military hardware.

There is a distinct possibility that some African leaders view US military and security assistance as a golden opportunity to strengthen their grip on power, while simultaneously satisfying America's desire for political 'stability'. In addition, US civilian agencies are less able than their military counterparts to operate freely in repressive environments. These agencies have been systematically under-resourced by Washington, placing the US military more firmly in charge.

High-profile acts of piracy and terrorism in Africa only encourage talk of military action as a one-size-fits-all solution. While this may have the short-term effect of frightening the US Congress into increasing funding - to both the US and African militaries - African public opinion is unlikely to feel that the US is truly focusing on the issues that afflict the continent most severely, such as poverty, inter- and intra-state conflict and corruption.

The 2010 US Intelligence Community's Annual Threat Assessment confirmed this gloomy outlook by forecasting that the short-term future of a number of African countries will be filled with 'political instability, economic distress, and humanitarian crises'.

In spite of the criticism, some aspects of Africom's formation are logical from both a US and an African perspective. The command gives African leaders one central point of contact with the US military, as opposed to three, and eliminates the possibility of gaps between areas of responsibility. The consolidation of military functions also increases efficiency and coherence over a wide range of activities including security sector reform, military mentoring, maritime security and counter-narcotics training.

The US military offers a wide range of skills that can contribute to the professionalisation of African armed forces. But all this must be done with cultural and historical sensitivity, and a realisation that cooperation with repressive regimes does not exemplify American ideals, and has frequently led to unintended consequences.

American troops are gradually leaving Iraq, and the conflict in Afghanistan is likely to ebb in the next decade. As this happens, more US resources and attention are likely to be directed towards Africa and its vast, loosely-governed spaces, viewed by Washington as a breeding ground for a host of undesirable activities. This dynamic will only increase suspicions surrounding Africom and American military-led strategic objectives; suspicions which remain difficult to dispel.

Obama's tone is less strident and more inclusive than his predecessor's, leading some critics to lower their guard, and General Ward (soon to be replaced) has worked tirelessly to rehabilitate the command's image on the continent, but it is too early to judge whether Africom's presence will be a net gain for Africa.

(Dave Clemente is a Research Assistant in the International Security Programme at Chatham House.)


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