Little Orphan AFRICOM

According to Sunday's Washington Post, the Pentagon's new Africa Command (AFRICOM) will begin operations on Oct. 1 with its headquarters thousands of miles from Africa and without a single forward headquarters on the continent. The key problem, it seems, is that the Africans don't really want an American combatant command:

"Very little was really known by the majority of people or countries in Africa who were supposed to know before such a move was made," said retired Kenyan army Lt. Gen. Daniel Opande. Worry swept the continent that the United States planned major new military installations in Africa.

"If you know the politics of Africa," said Opande, who has headed U.N. peacekeeping forces in Sierra Leone and Liberia, "you know there are certain very powerful countries who said, no, we are not interested in having a headquarters here." South Africa and Nigeria were among them, and their resistance helped persuade others.

Underlying this animosity was a belief that the new command was not really going to be a benevolent deployment of American military power. Notwithstanding recent American humanitarian missions to locales as diverse as Pakistan and Indonesia, the Africans saw this as a neo-colonialist venture by the world's sole superpower. (Maybe not so neo-colonialist, even, given the role played by American oil companies in Nigeria and by other U.S. multi-nationals in Africa.) So instead of seeing AFRICOM as the vanguard of a new American partnership with Africa, they saw something far more sinister.

Early missteps didn't help this perception any. One AFRICOM officer told The Post there had been a "retooling" of the mission from development to tasks such as "peacekeeper training, military education, [and] a counterterrorism element." Much as it had done in other parts of the world, the military squeezed out efforts by USAID and other development organizations with relatively limited resources. The face of American policy became a soldier, not a diplomat. Unfortunately, the military isn't always the best tool for the job, and it's likely to provoke a strong local reaction, especially areas with a history of colonial repression by foreign militaries.

So does AFRICOM have a future? Not as currently conceived. It does make sense to establish an American military command for the African continent, even if it's true (as one officer tells The Post) that "there are very few scenarios which would create a U.S. military intervention [in Africa]" and "arguably, there are no scenarios." But it does not make sense to give AFRICOM primacy of effort, nor to invest millions (or billions) in this military effort while starving USAID, State, and other agencies more capable of making a difference in Africa.

Vital American interests require us to pay attention to Africa. However, those same interests demand that we find the right way to do so. So far, AFRICOM ain't it.

By Phillip Carter |  June 2, 2008; 10:00 AM ET  | Category:  Emerging Conflicts
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It's not surprising, we may love our military and want to use it for everything from set piece battles to retrieving lost puppies, for others it's proximity is viewed as a threat to their sovereignty.
It's telling that this administration didn't try the same policy using the State department instead of the DOD, since that might have actually worked. For the man with the biggest hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Posted by: dijetlo | June 2, 2008 11:28 AM

But... but CHINA's in Africa, and we need to confront China, and a show of military interest is the only way to conduct diplomacy, right?

Really, there is nothing here that a read from Dana Priest's "The Mission" wouldn't answer. This is (unfortunately) the typical US govt solution to foreign affairs these days - let the military lead the way, despite the inappropriateness of the situation, despite the uncalled for drain on scarce resources.

Posted by: Jason | June 2, 2008 12:01 PM

We haven't learned to stop leading with our glass jaw.

Diplomacy aligned with political and commercial interests is much more effective.

We were better at marketing ourselves when we thought first with our principles.

We have not yet established effective government among ourselves and among our fellow citizens with African heritage. Let us start at home.

Posted by: Bill Keller | June 2, 2008 12:12 PM

"with its headquarters thousands of miles from Africa"

PACOM = Hawaii
CENTCOM = Florida
SOUTHCOM = Florida
AFRICOM = Germany

I would argue that AFRICOM is closer to Africa than CENTCOM is to the Middle East. That AFRICOM is as close to most African nations than SOUTHCOM is to a good chunk of South America, and certainly closer than PACOM is to much of its Pacific Ocean AOR.

Maybe CENTCOM could do a better job with OIF and OEF if it just relocated.

Posted by: Mr Obvious | June 2, 2008 1:51 PM

It's not surprising Africans have not flocked to capture the site of the AFRICOM headquarters. A quick read of "King Leopold's Ghost" reminds us that, for good reason, we don't have a particularly great image in that part of the world. Africa has yet to have a positive experience when white men move in.

Posted by: Davemaz | June 2, 2008 2:29 PM

Given that in conservative circles serious scholarship (outside of the hothouse products of think tanks, unable to survive in a natural environment) is derided, the military is the remaining organism that can conduct studies that will influence Republican defence policy.

This would be an appropriate mission for Africom: studying the complex security environment of Africa, anticipating threats, triaging the danger they pose to vital interests.

And perhaps they can think of interventions that will forestall situations rising to a level that military intervention is necessary?

The current mission statement is too reminiscent of the School of the Americas that fostered the spread of terrorism in Central America by empowering military units to block democratic change and social movements. This is the last thing Africa needs.

Posted by: LowHangingMissles | June 2, 2008 3:49 PM

I will surely get blasted for this post, but I am in a "let's call a spade, a spade" mood. The military should not be the answer to every foreign relations problem, but, right now, they are the sharpest tool in the bag ready for immediate use (immediate in government terms defined as within 1 year). They are NOT the 100% solution, probably not even the 80% solution, but right now it seems like they are the only solution in today's government. This must be resolved, but until it is, as much as we don't like it, the military will continue to "get the ball."

"even if it's true (as one officer tells The Post) that "there are very few scenarios which would create a U.S. military intervention [in Africa]" and "arguably, there are no scenarios."

Really? Last time I checked, much of today's version of radical Islam owes its roots to African countries. Countries such as Egypt, Morroco, Algeria, Sudan, Somalia, all of which contribute significant safe haven and fresh fighters.

I am willing to bet there is a fair amount of Counter terrorism mission for at least the Horn of Africa and North Africa to warrant some dedicated attention. We may not be looking to send a couple of divisions to conduct cordon and searches of Sudan, but we should consider this simple axiom: Go where the enemy is.

That "insider's" statements are also a little disturbing because by stating there are "arguably no scenarios for military intervention", he is implying that the military's sole purpose is to kill people and break stuff. While that is what they do best, there are other missions out there that could help out. We could argue all day that there are other agencies who should be able to do non-military operations better, but, let's be honest. There is no such thing as an "Expeditionary State Department." DoS consists primarily of intellectual elite who don't have the proper training nor management skills to do the job. Let's just be honest and call a spade a spade. They don't have the people, the funding, nor most importantly, the organizational culture.

Is AFRICOM the right solution? That is a fair question. We all agree, military is not always the right solution, and neither is adding another layer of bureaucracy. Strategically, in my mind, it does make sense. But from a tactical/operational stand point, I am split on the pragmatic function of AFRICOM.

On one side, I am sure that the much overworked CENTCOM will not mind passing the Horn of Africa over to another command. CENTCOM is busy enough with Iraq, Afghanistan, not to mention dealing with Iran, Syria and constant negotiations with our "partners" such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc.

On the other side, are we adding another layer of bureaucracy? It makes sense that the Horn of Africa, with it's ties to AQ in the CENTCOM region, to fall under one Combatant Command (CENTCOM).

Posted by: bg | June 2, 2008 6:12 PM

It's interesting that it took those "backward and benighted" Africans to tell American leaders that their grand ideas aren't welcome on the continent. It's also a measure of how far we've fallen in the estimation of people who aren't caught up in American jingoism and the "we're number one" mentality so prevalent in the U.S. With our "shoot first and ask questions later" approach, it seems we've pretty much alienated even those people in parts of the world that might, in a different universe, be thankful for our attention.

I'm not going to blast Bg for his post. On the contrary, I'm going to praise it as being insightful and otherwise meritorious. The only fault I might find with Bg is that although he's right in what he says about radical Islam being alive and well in Africa, a factor that certainly supports U.S. concern, he fails to provide a path forward. Bg, please tell us how we overcome the pernicious effect of the past few years of American military action WRT Islam and how we can regain the trust of the rest of the world.

AFRICOM seems to be a bad joke, just another excuse to build yet another headquarters full of bright young people churning out meaningless plans that, if they come to the attention of the wrong people, could translate into disaster.

Posted by: Publius | June 2, 2008 7:08 PM

We are already fighting an undeclared war
in Somalia, lobbing in cruise missiles as
it suits us.

Why shouldn't the suits have AFRICOM?

Posted by: beebs | June 2, 2008 9:17 PM

PACCOM is right where it always was, out in the middle of the PAC. It once was the Hawaii Division, then became the 24th Infantry (Taro Root) and the 25th infantry (tropic lightning. Then it ke[pt getting bigger. It always stayed in Hawaii because that was the nexus of command, logistics, replacement control. It got Viet Nam by default because there was no "East Asia Command". Now it has the remnant of the Hawaii Division, Tropic Lightening, and some support elements.

SOUTHCOM lost its real home, Fort Clayton, Panama Canal Zone, when we stopped owning the zone and protecting it. Now it sits in Florida, looks south, and remembers when.

CENTCOM was always a mail and freight forwarding organization, since our real commitments to CENTO were more in the form of Morale programs than troops. Its patch was mostly based on the illusory possibility that SHAEF would get a big partner in the Near East to distract Nazi and Axis troops to defend the Dardanelles. Mostly it still does the same work with many more people as its consumers. For all of Republican control it has been a tool for civilian mismanagement of misdirected troops.

AFRICOM is the pipe dream of Donald Rumsfield. and will remain so until a Democrat decides to make it a meaningful command, or scrap it as a waste of money.

Still, you ought to have your headquarters out where it can see what it is dealing with, rather than stuffed su8ffocatingly where the sun don't shine, like CENTCOM.

Asmara, Eritrea is my nomination, but to do that we would actually have to be nice to the Eritreans, something we haven't done in years.

Still, something must remain of Kagnew, where every one in the Army is always high. (Asmara is at an elevation of above 7000 ft above sea level.)

Posted by: | June 2, 2008 9:37 PM

First: PC, what is WITH you and AFRICOM? I can't get over how much bandwidth you spend on this farrago.

Second (since, okay, I can bloviate about AFRICOM, too): what will this thing be doing? bg aside, I get the sense that most of the political nabobs along the Potomac have little or no idea what would be in the U.S.'s best interests - and would be politically, economically and militarily do-able - in Africa.

I mean, yes, it'd be lovely if all the subSaharan "countries" were stable, prosperous liberal democracies. It'd be nice if I had a big brick house and a pony. I can't get what I want from where I am now and neither can we. Formulating an actual geopolitical plan for Africa would posit that we've done some actual thinking about 1) where these "countries" are and how they got there, 2) what would be the best outcome - and the most likely outcome - if we did X versus Y or Z, and 3) would the benefit of this action be worth the cost (compared to the worst outcome if we did nothing...or the next worst if we only did X or Y).

Any conventional military adventures we get into in Africa will be indivisibly tied to political and economic complications we have absolutely no effing idea how to anticipate, plan for or, God help us, control. The lesson we should have learned in Afghanistan was, as Sun Tzu would have put it: "In failed state; kick butt then grab hat."

All the blood and treasure in North America cannot solve Africa's problems. Only Africans can do that. To help them we already have the expeditionary capacity. Putting a MACOM in Africa will simply whistle up a couple of thousand headquarters drones looking for missions. That we need like a hole in the head.

Posted by: FDChief | June 3, 2008 8:02 AM

We need AFRICOM like we need another hole in the head. A MACOM based on faith and hopes and blind wishful thinking, in search of a purpose, like Amanda Feilding desperately drilling into her own head in hopes of finding something better than her own thoughts.

But in these sadly diminished days of our Republic we can't even do the bloody work ourselves. We seem to be content to hand the Black & Decker to the mad trepanners we have elected and close our eyes, hoping that some classic rock will be playing on the Sirius satellite radio to drown out the scream of the drilling inside our skulls.

Posted by: FDChief | June 3, 2008 8:04 AM


"Bg, please tell us how we overcome the pernicious effect of the past few years of American military action WRT Islam and how we can regain the trust of the rest of the world."

That is the million dollar question, isn't it?

My brief take on it: Overt military presence is counter-productive. We MUST stay engaged all over the world, and must find ways to politically and diplomatically see the world as the extremists see it, without borders. And we must chase them in the shadows, as that is where they operate.

This is an unconventional war, and we need to fight it with unconventional warriors. Our overt presence in the Muslim world will reek of Neo-colonialism and play into the extremists hands no matter what the truth may be about the disposition and purpose of those uniformed forces.

Above all, it will take a single, unified command, a single network whose single purpose is to contain the extremists. This single network must be Joint, Interagency, Combined (multi national) with a heavy, heavy dose of good diplomats and good law enforcement (which implies ethical, legal counsel and justification).

For what it is worth, there you go. I could get into more specifics, but the problem is that there is no cookie cutter solution, every part of the world requires a different formula. But the most important thing is unity of effort, sharing of information, a LOW PROFILE, and willing allies.

Posted by: bg | June 3, 2008 8:41 AM

bg: I remember a time when the UN existed, and international policework was in existence too. The obvious way to do it is to treat terrorism as a crime, and develop international civilian intelligence units to hunt them as approved. A Super-Squad of muslim policemen with big mustaches and beards from all over the umma and backed by the US military would be at least an attempt to regain legitimacy.

Posted by: fnord | June 3, 2008 9:19 AM

fnord, those were the good old days (assuming they ever truly existed and weren't pure fantasy). Wouldn't it be great to have a functioning and credible UN?

You are right, anything that is done must have more than just an "international face", it must have the heart and soul as well.

We can not buy allies. I can not over emphasize this point.

AQ=Paycheck and aid. No AQ (for example, if you defeat AQ in your country), no more paycheck, no more aid. Where is the motivation to be successful if you are the country receiving US aid?

We are in a losing situation in Pakistan because we give them money and military support to defeat the Taliban/AQ. What incentive exists for PK to defeat the TB and AQ? None. If AQ and TB disappear, so does the aid. I am sure seeing this problem in lots of places where we try to use local forces to do our work. If their heart and soul isn't in it, they are just there for a paycheck.

(Of course, this may be a glowing endorsement for big, clumsy overt forces that give a country, i.e., Iraq, an incentive to be successful so we leave)

Posted by: bg | June 3, 2008 5:08 PM

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