March 6, 2008 | Op-ed

Why AFRICOM is Critical for Our Security Interests


Sudan. Africa’s largest country by land mass continues to also be its greatest source of conflict. Although last month’s attempt by rebels backed by the Arab-dominated, Islamist National Congress Party (NCP) regime of Sudanese president Umar Hassan al-Bashir to overthrow the government of Chadian president Idriss Déby Itno (see my February 14th analysis of the crisis) failed in the face of resistance by loyalist forces supported by France, Chad’s former colonial ruler, Khartoum has nonetheless taken advantage of the withdrawal of resistance forces in Darfur who had received aid from Déby to defend him in order. Janjaweed militia, with support from regular armed forces, including aerial bombardment by the Shenyang fighter-bombers purchased from Sudan’s Chinese partners, have attacked villages in West Darfur sending thousands of additional refugees fleeing across the border into Chad to join the nearly 250,000 already there, according to a statement issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).


Meanwhile, as I had foreseen in December, the African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) – which is supposed to include 19,555 military personnel, 3,772 civilian police, and 2,660 formed security units – is having great difficulty coming up to full-strength. According to the latest figures published by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in early February, UNAMID consists of a mere 9,080 uniformed personnel, including 7,156 troops, 1,704 police, and 220 military observers. In a speech at Beijing University last Friday, British Foreign Secretary David Milliband blamed the delay not only on the lack of volunteers, but also the NCP regime’s continuing resistance to the deployment of the peacekeepers: “The Government of Sudan has to facilitate their entry in sufficient numbers and ensure that they can do their job properly. This means cooperating with the UN on the full deployment of the UNAMID force and an end to the bombings in west Darfur.”


Writing in this column space in January, I noted that “one can hardly exaggerate the stakes which hinge on the ultimate fate of Abyei,” an oil-rich Sudanese border district where a lingering dispute “threatens not only the North-South peace deal, but also bodes ill for the resolution of Sudan’s other conflicts,” and warned of a repetition of a past practice whereby “the Khartoum regime armed the Misseriya, organizing them into Murahalin (literally, ‘people on the move’) militia units and turning them loose to clear the Ngok Dinka from their traditional homelands – a tactic which the NCP authorities have copied in Darfur, deploying ‘Arab’ Janjaweed irregulars against ‘black’ Darfuri tribesmen.” Since then fighting has broken out between Misseriya units and forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the former rebel force which, under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), governs semi-autonomous South Sudan in the lead-up to a 2011 referendum that will determine the ultimate fate of the region. Misseriya chieftains interviewed by the BBC admit to attacking camps of the SPLM’s armed force, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) along the border areas just west of Abyei.


Somalia. The as-yet unrecognized Republic of Somaliland aside, the security situation in the former Somalia continues to deteriorate, notwithstanding splits among the Islamist elements of the insurgency against the ineffectual “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) which my colleague at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, reported last week. In fact, divisions among the insurgents are not the only ones becoming evident: rifts are also appearing between the TFG and the Ethiopians keeping it propped up. Reports are that the commander of the Ethiopian National Defense Force contingent in Somali territory, General Gabre Heard, was so frustrated with TFG “president” Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed during a meeting late last month that he slapped the latter twice on the face before storming out. Meanwhile, as intense fighting takes daily in the putative capital of Mogadishu, where a dozen and half were killed last Saturday alone, the TFG continues to be distracted by its quarrels with civilian critics. This past weekend, TFG security forces stormed into the offices of the independent Shabelle Media Network, ransacking the facility and arresting its director, Mukhtar Mohamed Hiraabe.


The lack of governance capacity in the former Somalia – the TFG is the fourteenth attempt by the international community to install an interim authority since 1991 – has rendered the territory a suitable terrorist haven especially since many of the extremists in the Islamist wing of insurgency have longstanding ties to international terrorism as well as, in some cases, direct involvement in it. The “high value terrorists” currently thought to be operating in Somali territory include Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys, former shura council head for the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) who was pm the original list of 189 terrorist individuals and organizations specially designated by the U.S. government under Executive Order 13224 in the wake of 9/11; his kinsman, Adan Hashi ‘Ayro, the al Qaeda-trained militant who originally led al-Shabaab (“the Youth”), an extremist group within the ICU that is now spearheading the insurgency; Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, a long-time member of al Qaeda in East Africa who figures on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list with a $5 million bounty on his head for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya; Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan al Qaeda operative wanted for his involvement in the embassy attacks as well as the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, that killed 15 people and a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner; Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki, a veteran of the ICU’s pan-Somali precursor group, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, as well as the ICU council who is reputed to head al Qaeda’s East Africa cell; Muhktar Robow, a.k.a., Abu Mansur, the former deputy defense minister of the ICU who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan; Issa Osman Issa, another al Qaeda member wanted for his role in the East Africa embassy bombings; Ahmad Abdi Godane, an al-Shabaab leader trained by al Qaeda in Afghanistan wanted for his role in the murders of Western aid workers in the Republic of Somaliland; and Ibrahim Haji Jama, a.k.a. “al-Afghani,” another al-Shabaab leader who trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and is a veteran of terrorist campaigns there as well as in Kashmir and in Somaliland.


One of these individuals (if not several of them) was presumably the “known terrorist target” of the precision missiles fired by the U.S. military in a strike last weekend near the southern town of Dhoobley, close to the Kenyan border. While Turki’s forces are known to be in the vicinity of the strike and early news reports named him as the likely target of the attack, sources indicate that the direct objective of the strike was the 29-year-old Nabhan, who has been a fugitive for nearly a decade and had apparently being sheltered by Turki who, according to a report broadcast by the al-Jazeera network last fall, runs a terrorist training camp in the swampy border region. In any event, the utter inability of the TFG to control the territory it claims to govern facilitates the establishment of networks by al-Qaeda and other extremists groups and underscores the need for a robust military presence nearby to contain the threat.


Kenya. In contrast, the situation has improved in Kenya where mediation efforts led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who received high-profile support from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other international figures dropping in on the talks in Nairobi, have led to an agreement between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga (coincidentally, a cousin of American Democrat presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama; Barack Hussein Obama Sr., a one-time government minister, being his maternal uncle, according to the Kenyan politician) to share power after a disputed December election led to communitarian violence in which at least 1,500 people lost their lives. Under the deal, Kibaki will remain head of state while Odinga assumes the newly-created position of prime minister. The cabinet will be composed of an equal number of members from both the former’s Kikuyu-based Party of National Unity (PNU) and the latter’s largely-Luo Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). However, what remains to be resolved is whether the two sides have the political will to tackle the constitutional reform which the country sorely needs. As I noted here shortly after returning from the subregion in January:


The lesson of Kenya’s post-election impasse is that democracy is more than merely counting head periodically…Instead the democratic ideal that ought to be proposed to Kenya and other African countries should include not only by representation, whereby those governing are chosen by the people in periodic free, fair, and transparent elections, but also constitutionalism, which provides for a government based on the rule of law whose power is circumscribed to prevent the abuse of the fundamental rights and liberties of individuals by the majority or plurality of their fellow citizens. Only when the cost of being out of power is lowered below that of political violence to achieve it will African countries know the security and stability without which the prospects for their future…will be quite bleak.


On a brighter note, the Kenyan military and security services were generally acknowledged to have behaved rather commendably during the recent turmoil in their country – which is quite a bit more than could be said for the civilian political class. Whereas in an earlier era one might have expected the armed forces to have intervened, other than a few forays to distribute relief and maintain order, the men in uniformed remained largely in their barracks. In recent years, the Kenyan forces have benefited from considerable U.S. assistance aimed at reinforcing its capacity against a nascent Islamist extremism spreading across the subregion (see my report on “The Growth of Militant Islamism in East Africa”). The Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) Program administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security to provide training, equipment, and technology to other countries supporting the Global War on Terrorism has its largest African program in Kenya, where ATA helped create the Kenyan Antiterrorism Police Unit (KAPU) to carry out anti-terrorism operations, the Joint Terrorism Task Force to coordinate anti-terrorism activities, and is now helping set up an interagency coast guard-type unit for the country. The East Africa Counter-Terrorism Initiative (EACTI) has contributed to the training of nearly five hundred Kenyan police, security, and military officers. Since its inception in 2002, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) has not only carried out well-appreciated humanitarian assistance and civil-military operations in Kenya, but also partnered with the Kenya military to provide training and other capacity-enhancing programs for the latter’s officers and enlisted personnel. Last year, the Pentagon provided an estimated $2.5 million worth of armaments to Kenya through its Foreign Military Sales Program, while the State Department provided another $800,000 worth of assistance through its Direct Commercial Sales Program. The intense engagements made possible an increased professionalism in the Kenyan military which, however indirectly, contributed to the political crisis not escalating to the level of a military takeover – or worse.


The Sahel. Last fall, I hailed the conclusion of a joint exercise, part of the State Department’s Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership program and the Defense Department’s Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans-Sahara (OES-TS), by military personnel from the Unites States and thirteen African and European countries in the Malian capital of Bamako as “a significant milestone in America’s strategic engagement with Africa in general and its counterterrorism efforts on the continent in particular,” especially in light of my earlier report that the hard core of the Algerian Islamist terrorist organization Salafist Group for Call and Combat (usually known by its French acronym GSPC) “rebranding” itself as al Qaeda’s local franchise by pledging its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and becoming “Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM). Since then, AQIM has been stepping up its activities, including the December 2007 bombing of UN offices in Algiers, an attack which left 17 people dead.


Moreover, as I had previously noted, “the former GSPC has an extensive network among the North African immigrant communities in France, Spain, and other Western European countries which al Qaeda, by lending its ‘brand name’ to the group, can now avail itself of in return.” This concern has subsequently been confirmed by incidents like the late January arrest of members of an Islamist cell in Barcelona whom Spanish authorities charged with planning suicide attacks on the Catalonian city’s mass transit system. According to Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, those arrested had achieved “a significant level of organization which seems to have taken a step beyond ideological radicalization.” The extent of extremist penetration of societies in the Sahel and Maghreb subregions was underscored last week when, in the biggest crackdown since the Casablanca suicide bombings five years ago, Moroccan authorities arrested 35 people from widely differing backgrounds, including politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, and healthcare workers, as well as a police commander and a television journalist. According to Moroccan Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa, those arrested were members of a group which had trained in Afghanistan as well as Algeria, had links to both al Qaeda and the Lebanese Shi’a terrorist group Hezbollah, received support from emigrés in Belgium, and which was actively plotting to assassinate cabinet ministers, military chiefs, and Jewish community leaders to destabilize the moderate Muslim nation.


Nigeria. The decision last week by the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal to dismiss the appeals of former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, the presidential candidate of the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP), and former vice president Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the Action Congress (AC), contesting the validity of the declaration of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as the winner of the April 21, 2007, presidential elections confirms the judgment that I had made at the time that “for now at least, it appears that Nigeria has once again teetered back from the brink.” However, the warning that I contemporaneously issued – “absent the requisite conditions for fostering a deeply-rooted sense of national identity and the consequent legitimization of the political order, it may be just a matter of time before the Nigerian political establishment’s legitimacy deficit metastasizes into a mortal challenge to the very existence of that nation-state itself” – likewise remains in effect.


Tensions, in fact, rose last month when the Nigerian government obtained the deportation from Angola of two leaders of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Henry Okah and Edward Atatah, who are expected to be arraigned this week. Not surprisingly, violence broke out last week in the militants’ strongholds in the oil-rich Niger Delta, including a daring raid by gunmen in speed boats on Bonny Island, an oil and gas export hub, where the attackers blew up a police post and fired upon a local dignitary’s home. While MEND did not, at least yet in this round, target the hydrocarbon infrastructure, the conclusion I drew last year remains the same: “The vulnerability of Nigeria’s oil infrastructure is not only a threat to U.S. interests, but also a potentially mortal danger to the country’s own future.”


The ongoing security challenges across the continent, as well as the occasional success story, highlight the importance of the agenda which Army General William E. “Kip” Ward, commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), outlined during his visit last week to Mali: “Preventing conflict is really what we see as the ultimate purpose of our programs and activities…We will continue existing capacity building efforts and look for opportunities to engage with African militaries to enhance regional security, assuring friends and deterring the enemies of peace.”


Next week, the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. Senate will be holding hearings to review the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2009 as well as programming for future years for the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) as well as AFRICOM, which is currently a subordinate command of EUCOM and expected to achieve full operational capacity as an independent combatant command (COCOM) at the end of the current fiscal year. Last year, shortly after giving testimony at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on AFRICOM, I contended in this column that:


Vital geopolitical interests are at stake in Africa, where one can detect the presence of every potential flashpoint from religious radicals and terrorism to the extremes of poverty and resource wealth to ethnic conflict and state failure. The establishment of AFRICOM is a historic opportunity for the United States to build long-term partnerships with Africans which favor security and peace, creating an environment that will empower Africans themselves to strengthen their political institutions, promote human rights, and achieve economic prosperity—strategic effects which happen to also enhance both global stability and American interests.


That analysis is, if anything, even truer today. Hence, one can only hope that the Congress gives America’s newest COCOM the resources it needs for a mission that is not only conformity with our security strategy, but also represents the best ideals of our national tradition.