Throughout the past year
On top of all this, piracy thrives off the
Africom became fully operational in
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-
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
These civilian agencies cannot compete with the might of the Pentagon, and members of
Contingency planning is already taking place for potential armed US intervention. In 2008, US war games included
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
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
These fears are not without foundation: in 2008 Africom Commander General
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.
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
Africom's most visible presence comes through two inherited initiatives: Operation Enduring Freedom Trans Sahara and the
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.
Obama amended his predecessor's position slightly when he visited
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
Given the US track record in
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
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
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
High-profile acts of piracy and terrorism in
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
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
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