Since September 11th, the Bush administration has increasingly relied on the military to direct its engagements with international players. Overstretched and underfunded civilian agencies are ceding more and more ground to the Pentagon, which outspends all these agencies combined by a factor of 17 to one. Until recently, U.S. military engagement with Africa has been minimal; as recently as 1995 the Department of Defense reported "see[ing] very little traditional strategic interest in Africa." But the Pentagon is in the process of assembling a centralized Africa Command (AFRICOM) to consolidate its military operations on the continent. The command is expected to cost billions of dollars over the next few years.
According to AFRICOM commanders, the operation's mission is to train and build up African security forces to allow Africans to handle their own conflicts. While this goal is commendable, it is fair to ask whose interests the command best serves- African nations, or the U.S.? The Department of Defense denies that AFRICOM was prompted by the war on terror, oil interests, and fears of growing Chinese influence in the region. But these three factors undoubtedly played a role in the timing and scope of AFRICOM. According to a Refugees International report, "the view remains widespread that AFRICOM is a tool to secure better access to Africa's natural resources, erode China's growing influence on the continent, and establish forward bases to hunt and destroy networks linked to al-Qaeda." The voices of African leaders, who listed their own security concerns in a roundtable meeting as "poverty, food shortages, inadequate educational opportunities, displaced persons, and HIV/AIDS," are conspicuously absent.
The U.S. State Department has also expressed apprehension that AFRICOM "could blur traditional boundaries among diplomacy, development, and defense, thereby militarizing U.S. foreign policy." The world already views the U.S. military with some suspicion, and any move to plant military bases around the continent smacks of imperialism.
Senior AFRICOM officials explain their mission is to link security to development, creating an environment in which peace can flourish. But are U.S. soldiers better equipped to promote peace and development than foreign service officers, humanitarian workers, and international development specialists? The U.S. military mission to Sierra Leone to help that country recover from a devastating civil war is plagued by erratic funding, misguided priorities, contractors working at cross purposes, and the lack of experienced civil services. Development and peacekeeping is a complex and nuanced process, and should be left to those who specialize in nationbuilding.
The U.S. military can play a constructive role in Africa when it
works in tandem with United Nations and African Union peacekeeping
missions, providing training and expertise in an international
setting. Darfur is perhaps the best example of such a scenario. To
expedite the deployment of the UN-AU hybrid peacekeeping known as
UNAMID, activists have pressured the U.S. to lend bilateral training
and logistical support to African and other troop contributing
countries who have pledged to send peacekeepers to Darfur under this UN-led mission. This effort should be
continued and these supportive relationships deepened until UNAMID is
fully deployed. In contrast to such a multilateral approach, a unilateral and controversial military command will only
provoke more distrust and hostility towards the U.S., and distance
operational priorities from those of the African people.
For more on AFRICOM and oil, see this excellent Foreign Policy in Focus article. Is Congress beginning to step up and provide stronger oversight of this new initiative? Africa Faith and Justice Network's Beth Tuckey is optimistic - check out her analysis of the recent Congressional hearings on AFRICOM. A final link is to Africa Action's compilation of African Voices on AFRICOM.