February 14, 2007 | World Defense Review

Getting AFRICOM Right

Last week President George W. Bush created a new military command for Africa:

I am pleased to announce my decision to create a Department of Defense Unified Combatant Command for Africa. I have directed the Secretary of Defense to stand up U.S. Africa Command by the end of fiscal year 2008. This new command will strengthen our security cooperation with Africa and create new opportunities to bolster the capabilities of our partners in Africa. Africa Command will enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth in Africa.

This development is welcome news, being long overdue, as I have repeatedly argued (including in this column last year), given the continent's strategic importance to key U.S. interests. While Sub-Saharan Africa currently supplies the U.S. with nearly 20 percent of its petroleum needs – a figure that the National Intelligence Council expects to jump to more than 25 percent within the decade – that resource is also particularly vulnerable to both transnational terrorist threats like al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist group which have set their sights on the region and local groups whose fights, with outside support, can and have impacted production, as I have documented extensively in this space. Beyond the security and resource concerns, Africa is also an arena for intense diplomatic competition with other states with global ambitions, like China, as I noted just last week.

Also to consider, as General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the same day the president made his announcement, is the fact that “political and humanitarian challenges in Africa are myriad.” The specific challenges the Marine officer singled out included growing instability, genocide, and civil war, and de facto safe havens for criminal elements.

Given all of this, it made no sense to parcel out responsibility for Africa to three different regional commands – the European Command (EUCOM), the Central Command (CENTCOM), and the Pacific Command (PACOM) – each of which is already overtaxed with its own strategic command priorities, thus oftentimes leaving African concerns insufficiently address if not entirely ignored until long-summering challenges turn into full-blown crises.

However, reorganizations, like other transformations in the military, are not ends onto themselves; their sole value lies in the strategic effect they advance. In the case of the new AFRICOM, the strategic effect was announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates as he explained the administration's proposed Pentagon budget for 2008 on Capitol Hill: “This command will enable us to have a more effective and integrated approach…to oversee security cooperation, building partnership capability, defense support to non-military missions, and, if directed, military operations on the African continent.”

In rising to the challenge of this mission objective, AFRICOM must first overcome four hurdles:

First, there is the question of perception, especially but not exclusively in Africa. New Jersey Representative Donald Payne, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa is put it succinctly when he told a Voice of America interviewer: “I think there'll be a lot of skepticism, because there has been so little attention given to Africa…All of a sudden to have a special military command, I think the typical person would wonder why now and really what is the end game?”

The answer to the congressman (and others) is found in the much-maligned 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America which declared that “weak states…can pose a great danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.” In Africa, the document went on to assert: “Promise and opportunity sit side by side with disease, war, and desperate poverty. This threatens both a core value of the United States – preserving human dignity – and our strategic priority – combating terror. American interests and American principles, therefore, lead in the same direction: we will work with others for an African continent that lives in liberty, peace, and growing prosperity.”

Furthermore, while the heyday of the type of pan-Africanism dreamed by African independence leaders like Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah has come and gone, a continental perspective nonetheless does resonate with African states which do tend to see themselves, at least in interactions with non-African powers, as African. Consequently, it behooves U.S. foreign policy to engage those same countries on the basis of that collective identity. The case needs to be consistently made by both the political leaders and military personnel that a unified command focused on the entire continent will be better positioned to coherently address uniquely African challenges and support local efforts to bolster the operational capacities of African states, including those of the African Union and subregional organizations like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Second, if the Africa Command get down to doing its job of advancing U.S. interests abroad it must get the support to do so from home. It is one thing to create a skeletal structure – a 60-member transition planning team is already being assembled at Kelley Barracks, a EUCOM installation outside Stuttgart, Germany – and quite another to give it flesh between now and the full stand-up of the command, mandated to occur before September 30, 2008.

In a period when the many within the Congressional majority are not exactly defense hawks, the Bush administration needs to concertedly reach out to the rather eclectic group of Africa advocates on the Hill, some of whom – to put it mildly – are usually not counted as members of the president's fan club. For example, in an interview with an African news service last week, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, a fierce critic of the war in Iraq, declared his support for AFRICOM, characterizing it as “vital to strengthening our relationships with African nations.” Thus ironically in the same week when the U.S. Senate was introducing conflicting resolutions on the president's troop surge in Iraq, AFRICOM presents a unique opportunity for executive-legislative cooperation in the great American tradition of partisan divisions stopping at the water's edge.

Third, securing Congressional appropriations is not the only domestic hurdle that AFRICOM will need to clear. Rear Admiral Robert Moeller, executive director of the new command's implementation planning team, and his colleagues will have to do battle within the Pentagon for scarce resources, personnel as well as material. Aside from the 60 planners who will report to Admiral Moeller, the only other manpower that the command has are the approximately 1,700 troops in the Djibouti-based Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), which since late 2002, has been carrying out training, humanitarian assistance, and counterterrorism missions in that region, most recently launching air strikes aimed at the three al-Qaeda leaders in Somalia who were responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as well as coordinated 2002 attacks on Israeli tourists in Kenya. Even if cooperative endeavors with partners in its 52-nation area of responsibility (AOR) – for sound geopolitical and strategic reasons, Egypt will continue to fall within CENTCOM's AOR – are done in a rotational basis, AFRICOM will certainly need a larger standing force as well as headquarters staff. The question, of course, is where that manpower will come from, considering that it is now admitted by all that the U.S. military is indeed short of its ideal personnel strength.

In addition, the new command requires considerable start-up physical resources, beginning with bases and other capital infrastructure. While it was announced last month that CJTF-HOA's 97-acre base, Camp Lemonier, will be expanded to some 500 acres, the relatively isolated, sweltering abandoned French Foreign Legion outpost is hardly ideal as the headquarters for an Africa-wide command. Moroccan officials have been quick to step forward to offer AFRICOM a possible home, but it is likely that one or more sites will have to be acquired and constructed in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Fourth, the mission of the Africa Command will necessarily require a major break with conventional doctrinal mentalities both within the armed services themselves and between government agencies. The challenges that the new command will confront will be quite different from those its homologues face in other theatres. Briefing reporters, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Ryan Henry correctly emphasized the comprehensive nature of the mandate which circumstances in Africa will require AFRICOM to assume: “This command, then, will focus on some efforts to reduce conflict, to improve the security environment, to defeat or preclude the development of terrorist networks, and then support in crisis response, whether they be humanitarian or disaster response. We want to help develop a stable environment in which civil society can be built and that the quality of life for the citizenry can be improved.”

Fulfilling such a broad mandate would, however, necessitate that the command's theatre-wide engagement be a spectrum array which embraces, in addition to “hard power” options, diplomatic, developmental assistance, humanitarian relief, and other proactive “soft power” missions which some in the military have been hesitate to engage in and which others in the policy community – I can think of certain high officials and career officers at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as well as a the anti-military “usual suspects” – will be none too eager to see the uniformed services undertake. Likewise, closer in-theatre coordination will be needed between the members of intelligence community whose work is more directly coordinated by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), their counterparts in the Defense Department's intelligence bodies, and AFRICOM's commanders – and effect that last week's Senate confirmation of a career military intelligence officer, retired Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, as DNI will hopefully facilitate.

In any event, the reality is that in today's geostrategic environment, perhaps no one else can leverage the focus and resources that the Pentagon can, as long as it recognizes the limits of its own capabilities. To this end, building on the precedent of some military commands having political advisors as well as the wide behind-the-scenes consultations they have already held, the architects of AFRICOM would do well to incorporate qualified non-military Africa experts into the eventual command, many of whom – especially those not in career bureaucratic positions with other federal agencies – have the “outside-the-box” perspectives that the new mission will require.

The announcement of AFRICOM is an important step towards achieving more active U.S. engagement in an important strategic space that can neither continue to be relegated to tertiary status in the strategic calculations of our national security, political, and economic interests nor be parceled out to several combatant commands in a dysfunctional arrangement which Dr. Gates himself characterized as “outdated.” However, we have to do more than just create the new command; we now have a narrow window – barely eighteen months – to get its stand-up right.

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.