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.
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