AFRICOM's Dilemma: The "Global War on Terrorism" "Capacity Building," Humanitarianism, and the Future of U.S. Security Policy in Africa
Authored by Robert G. Berschinski. | November 2007
The February 2007 decision to launch a new Department of Defense Unified Combatant Command for Africa (AFRICOM) has already been met with significant controversy both in the United States and abroad. AFRICOM?s proponents claim that the new command accurately reflects Africa?s growing strategic importance and an enlightened U.S. foreign policy focused on supporting ?African solutions to African problems.? Its critics allege that the command demonstrates a self-serving American policy focused on fighting terrorism, securing the Africa?s burgeoning energy stocks, and countering Chinese influence.
To overcome such misgivings, AFRICOM must demonstrate a commitment to programs mutually beneficial to both African and American national interests. Yet a shrewd strategic communication campaign will not be enough to convince a skeptical African public that AFRICOM?s priorities mirror their own. Indeed, much African distrust is justified. Since September 11, 2001 (9/11), the Department of Defense?s (DoD) most significant endeavors in Africa have been undertaken in pursuit of narrowly conceived goals related to the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Operations in North and East Africa, though couched in a larger framework of development, long-term counterinsurgency, and a campaign to win ?hearts and minds,? have nonetheless relied on offensive military operations focused on short-term objectives.
Though often tactically successful, these efforts? against Algerian insurgents in North Africa and an assortment of Islamists in Somalia?have neither benefited American security interests nor stabilized events in their respective regions. This failure is ascribable in part to the flawed assumptions on which the GWOT in Africa has rested. American counterterrorism initiatives in Africa since 9/11 have been based on a policy of ?aggregation,? in which localized and disparate insurgencies have been amalgamated into a frightening, but artificially monolithic whole. Misdirected analyses regarding Africa?s sizable Muslim population, its overwhelming poverty, and its numerous ungoverned spaces and failed states further contribute to a distorted picture of the terrorist threat emanating from the continent. The result has been a series of high-profile, marginally valuable kinetic strikes on suspected terrorists; affiliation with proxy forces inimical to stated U.S. policy goals; and the corrosion of African support for many truly valuable and well-intentioned U.S. endeavors.
Because of its pioneering incorporation of security, development, and humanitarian functions into one organization, AFRICOM may be particularly susceptible to criticism if its sporadic ?hard? operations overshadow its ?softer? initiatives. This concern is not merely academic: If AFRICOM is seen as camouflaging militarism in the guise of humanitarianism, even nonDoD American efforts in Africa are likely to suffer a loss of legitimacy and effectiveness. It follows that, in order to be successful, AFRICOM must divorce itself from the model of U.S. military engagement in Africa since 9/11. As AFRICOM becomes fully operational by the end of 2008, its planners should recognize that saying the command is focused on African priorities will not be enough. Rather, AFRICOM must demonstrate its commitment to a long-term security relationship on African terms. In this regard, the attention and resources garnered by an American flag officer and full-time staff can certainly benefit a continent heretofore largely ignored.
On February 6, 2007, President George W. Bush formally announced his decision to create a Unified Combatant Command for Africa?U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM. The nascent command?s spokesmen tout AFRICOM as an important leap in interagency coordination, bridging the divide between the Department of Defense (DoD) and other U.S. Government agencies. DoD also praises AFRICOM as a groundbreaking attempt at conflict prevention, achieved through security cooperation, civil-military initiatives, and humanitarian projects. AFRICOM, it is hoped, will pioneer a new model of U.S. military engagement abroad?mindful of the complicated, interconnected relationships among security, governance, and development.1
AFRICOM will not be fashioned entirely from scratch, however. The newest Combatant Command (COCOM) will inherit a series of missions initiated by its predecessors. Two of the most significant?Operation ENDURING FREEDOM?Trans Sahara (OEF-TS) and the Combined Joint Task Force?Horn of Africa (CJTFHOA) ? carry a mandate directly linked to the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Since their inception, these initiatives have placed U.S. counterterrorism efforts in a larger framework of development, long-term counterinsurgency, and a campaign to win ?hearts and minds.? They have also conducted kinetic military operations focused on short-term objectives in their respective areas of responsibility (AORs).2
Though often tactically successful, these efforts? against Algerian insurgents in North Africa and an assortment of Islamists in Somalia?have neither benefited larger American security interests nor stabilized events in their respective regions. This failure is ascribable in part to the flawed assumptions on which the GWOT in Africa has rested. American counterterrorism initiatives in Africa since September 11, 2001 (9/11), have been based on a policy of ?aggregation,? in which localized and disparate insurgencies have been amalgamated into a frightening, but artificially monolithic whole. Misdirected analyses regarding Africa?s sizable Muslim population, its overwhelming poverty, and its numerous ungoverned spaces and failed states further contribute to a distorted picture of the terrorist threat emanating from the continent. The result has been a series of high-profile, marginally valuable kinetic strikes on suspected terrorists; affiliation with proxy forces inimical to stated U.S. policy goals; and the corrosion of African support for many truly valuable and well-intentioned U.S. endeavors.
Because of its incorporation of security, development, and humanitarian functions into one organization, AFRICOM may be particularly susceptible to strategic failure if it uncritically incorporates the operational concepts that have guided its predecessors. If AFRICOM is seen as camouflaging militarism in the guise of humanitarianism, even non-DoD American efforts in Africa are likely to suffer a loss of legitimacy and effectiveness. It follows that, in order to be successful, AFRICOM must divorce itself from the model of recent U.S. military engagement in Africa. This monograph examines DoD efforts in Africa since 9/11 in the context of case studies from North and East Africa. It addresses several of the assumptions on which such operations have been based. Is Africa?s population predisposed toward transnational Islamist terrorism? How have the continent?s localized insurgencies benefited from their affiliation with global terrorist groups like al-Qaeda? How has this affiliation been supported by an American policy of ?aggregation? in the GWOT? How do Africa?s ungoverned spaces and failed states factor into a successful counterterrorism strategy? How do current U.S. policies encourage distortion and cooption by oppressive African governments? The answers to these questions suggest that long-term U.S. interests will suffer from a militarized U.S. foreign policy in Africa. AFRICOM?s planners have been careful to verbally distance themselves from these charges. Its supporters indicate that African reticence can be overcome through improved ?strategic communication,? public diplomacy, and a commitment to security cooperation.3 While important, no amount of ?messaging? will triumph over the power of American actions on the continent. As long as DoD policies embed kinetic responses to terrorism in a wider language of humanitarianism, many African states will remain wary of U.S. intentions, with detrimental effects for both parties.
This is not to imply that transnational terrorists do not operate in Africa. Much to the contrary, the author will argue that by aggregating localized threats, U.S. counterterrorism policies in Africa have thus far backfired, encouraging the very extremist inroads they sought to deny. Nor does he imply that kinetic means are employed on a frequent basis. Such assertions are beside the point: Because of the mismatch in African and American security priorities, kinetic U.S. military counterterrorism activities, however infrequent, come with overwhelming costs vis-à-vis larger U.S. interests.
The case studies of recent events and DoD efforts in North Africa and the Horn are not identical, but they do share similarities. Both illustrate a U.S. strategy of aggregating regional actors with al-Qaeda?s global insurgency. In the Sahel, U.S. actions under the GWOT have bolstered a GSPC strategy designed to ensure its continued relevance. In Somalia, an initial U.S. Government policy to fracture a diverse and potentially exploitable Islamist movement was ultimately abandoned to concentrate on individual alQaeda operatives. Both efforts relied on the application of kinetic force, often through the use of proxies. This strategy has met with mixed results in the Sahel, and with relative failure in Ethiopia and Somalia. Both have also relied on adherence to the theory that ungoverned spaces and failed states provide ideal terrorist safehavens. Yet empirical evidence suggests that transnational terrorist inroads in the Sahel and Somalia are modest at best. Furthermore, both cases demonstrate that efforts to enforce U.S. standards of governance may result in significant second-order effects. In the final analysis, such externalities may be acceptable in light of the benefits reaped by offensive counterterrorism operations. Yet the cases of Somalia and the Sahel largely do not support such a conclusion.
Most significantly, recent U.S. Government actions in North and East Africa illustrate a policy emphasis contradictory to AFRICOM?s stated design. In part, this contradiction suggests a difference in counterterrorism strategy undertaken by conventional and special operations elements within DoD. More broadly, it highlights a U.S. security establishment still grappling with the application of force in the post-9/11 environment. No matter the reason, inconsistencies in U.S. security policy in Africa are not lost on African leaders and influential opinion-makers. In no small part due to the war in Iraq, African leaders are increasingly fearful of the United States abandoning balanced civil-military initiatives to shorter-term, strictly military solutions. AFRICOM officials have done an impressive job of allaying such fears through public pronouncements and consultations with African leaders. Only through its future actions, however, will AFRICOM demonstrate responsiveness to African perceptions of African security threats. Luckily, the stand-up of the command is an opportune time to establish new operational priorities and fine-tune preexisting policies.
Since Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni?s declaration of a ?decade of awakening? in 1997, Africans have shown an increasing commitment to regional economic and military cooperation.184 The growing depth and reach of the African Union (AU) and various African Regional Economic Communities (RECs) demonstrates a renewed commitment to breaking free of the continent?s history of violence and poverty.185 The nascent African Standby Force, with its five REC-affiliated brigades, offers a promising milestone toward achieving ?African solutions to African problems? in the security realm.
The United States, through AFRICOM, can play a productive role in bringing about this vision of a more peaceful, plentiful Africa. The attention and resources garnered by a flag officer and full-time staff will benefit a continent heretofore prioritized by no one. AFRICOM?s goals of building partnership capacity at the state, REC, and AU levels can bring much-needed support to African peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations. AFRICOM, in close coordination with the State Department, should work to expand the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program, which provides ?train-the-trainer? peacekeeping support to the AU. Such an expansion would ideally include increased attendance by African military units, but should also incorporate the training of civilians in aspects of contingency operations related to health, natural disaster response, and humanitarian aid.
Additionally, through various Theater Security Cooperation and Security Assistance initiatives, AFRICOM has the opportunity to reorient many African militaries away from internal regime security and toward external defense. This process should build on preexisting efforts to inculcate military professionalism and Western notions of civil-military relations in partnering African states. Bringing senior African military leaders to American staff and war colleges for professional military education pays large dividends in this regard on relatively low-cost investments. Enlarging the scope of opportunity for uniformed and civilian African leaders to attend International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs and the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) should rate highly on AFRICOM?s priority list.
Finally, AFRICOM should prioritize efforts to train a knowledgeable cadre of uniformed American service members intimately familiar with Africa, its people, customs, languages, cultures, religions, and security aspects. This process will take time. It will also require a commitment from DoD to integrate assigned AFRICOM staff into the local environment, and to support AFRICOM assignments with career advancement incentives.
Achieving all of these goals requires AFRICOM to be responsive to African perceptions of the local security environment. With a few notable exceptions, the GWOT does not rank high on the list of African security priorities. In its desire to find and combat terrorism in Africa, DoD has nonetheless oriented its major regional initiatives in North and East Africa along counterterrorism lines. The ramifications of this incongruity would be minor, were it not for the way in which the GWOT in Africa has thus far been pursued. A majority of operations have been positive, long-term efforts to improve capacity and increase standards of living. Yet a continued overreliance on short-term, kinetic solutions has largely undercut such initiatives. Combined with a strategy of aggregating local insurgencies into the GWOT, the effects of such policies have harmed U.S. strategic interests and destabilized regions of the continent. Elements of the global jihadi insurgency are present in several African regions, and AFRICOM should consider the mitigation of these elements one of its primary goals. Yet this will best be accomplished through partnering with African nations?on African terms?in matters of intelligence sharing, law enforcement, military cooperation, and through countering the conditions that breed disaffection. This worthwhile outcome will be made more difficult if AFRICOM adopts its predecessors? policies of sporadic military strikes embedded in a larger construct of humanitarianism and capacity building.
1. Walter L. Sharp, Briefing with Ryan Henry, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and Army Lieutenant General Walter L. Sharp, Director, Joint Staff, Department of Defense News Transcript, February 7, 2007.
2. The doctrinal definitions of the terms ?kinetic? and ?nonkinetic,? as well as their relationship to the terms ?lethal? and ?nonlethal,? remain a matter of some confusion and debate. For the purposes of this paper, ?kinetic? operations are understood to involve offensive military actions including, but not limited to, the use of lethal force.
3.J. Peter Pham, ?Africa Command: A Historic Opportunity for Enhanced Engagement?If Done Right,? Testimony Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, August 2, 2007.
184A process described in depth by Benedikt Franke. See Benedikt Franke, ?Competing Regionalisms in Africa and the Continent?s Emerging Security Architecture,? African Studies Quarterly, Vol. 9, Issue 3, Spring 2007, available only online at web. africa.ufl.edu/asq/v9/v9i3a2.htm;Benedikt Franke, ?A Pan-African Army: The Evolution of an Idea and its Eventual Realisation in the African Standby Force,? African Security Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, 2006, pp. 2-16.
185The most widely known RECs include the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Other RECs include the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC), and the Arab-Maghreb Union (AMU).