A wonderful opportunity

Africa can celebrate: the United States now considers it important enough to assign an entire military command to it. With the operationalization of AFRICOM this month, the continent and its national governments will be able to bask in the sustained attention of senior American generals, and, more importantly, will be able to dip their hands in the loot bag of weapons and money that normally comes along with such attention.

The new command covers territory formerly split up between European Command (EUCOM), Central Command (CENTCOM), and Pacific Command (PACOM); AFRICOM will cover the entire continent except the state of Egypt, which will remain under CENTCOM’s purview. For its first year, the command will operate under EUCOM as responsibilities are transitioned to it, and will reach fully independent status by October 2008. Army Gen. William E. “Kip” Ward, the former deputy commander of EUCOM, has been confirmed by the Senate as AFRICOM’s first commander.

Gen. Ward declared in his confirmation testimony that “I see the establishment of AFRICOM as a wonderful opportunity to efficiently and effectively apply the elements of U.S. national power in ways that help the Africans develop and implement their solutions to African concerns,” which has a nice altruistic ring to it. But what the United States is really concerned with is, first, the “ungoverned spaces” into which some security experts fear terrorists may find refuge; second, the rather large amounts of oil found on the continent, particularly in and around the Gulf of Guinea (said a senior Department of Defense official in 2003, “a key mission for U.S. forces (in Africa) would be to ensure that Nigeria’s oil fields… are secure.”); and third, the growing influence there of potential “peer competitors”, namely China. For more background, here’s a 2004 article I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle on increased U.S. security interest in the continent. 

So while some African countries have been keen to accept American involvement, including Ethiopia (now considered America’s strongest African ally in the War on Terror) and Liberia (which has publicly offered to host the future AFRICOM headquarters), others have been more wary. “No foreign troops are welcomed on African soil,” Nigeria’s minister of foreign affairs bluntly stated on Monday, while the South African Development Community (SADC) has emerged as another opponent — in July the US ambassador to South Africa complained publicly of the unwillingness of the South African defense minister to even meet with General Ward. As a recent Congressional Research Service report observed:

There is considerable apprehension over U.S. motivations for creating AFRICOM, and some Africans worry that the move represents a neo-colonial effort to dominate the region militarily. U.S. military efforts on the continent have been seen as episodic, leading some to question a more sustained focus from DOD now. Reports of U.S. air strikes in Somalia in early 2007 and U.S. support for Ethiopia’s military intervention there have added to those concerns.

The case of Somalia in particular shows where U.S. priorities lie. After Islamist forces in 2006 overthrew the clan-based warlords who had dominated the country for years, achieving a tenuous stability where none had been before, the U.S. backed a massive intervention by Ethiopia, shattering the peace and leading to the flight of at least 400,000 people from the now violence-wracked capital. Having effectively refreshed the country’s “failed state” status, the American military has since then felt free to launch air strikes and gunboat attacks whenever terrorist-linked targets have appeared in the country.

General Ward’s objective to “help the Africans develop and implement their solutions to African concerns” looks a little less altruistic in this light, doesn’t it?

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