For the first time in its history, Africa is poised to get its very own US military command.
The advent of "AFRICOM," which will be heralded next week when US President George W. Bush submits his 2008 budget request to Congress, marks an official acknowledgement that a variety of ostensible threats in Africa require more sustained high-level attention by the Pentagon than it has been able to give until now.
Of particular concern are Africa’s role in the "global war on terror," or, in Pentagon parlance, "the long war," the growing importance of the region’s natural resources, especially oil and gas, to the world economy, and increased competition with China, among other countries, for those resources.
West Africa currently provides nearly 20 percent of the US supply of hydrocarbons, up from 15 percent just five years ago and well on the way to a 25-percent share forecast for 2015.
Africa has been parceled out between three US regional commands. The European Command (EUCOM), which covers all of Russia, the Caucasus, and Turkey, as well as the rest of Europe, also includes North Africa west of Egypt and all of West, central, and continental southern Africa.
The Central Command (CENTCOM), which covers Central Asia and the Middle East, also includes Egypt, Sudan and the Horn of Africa. Finally, the Pacific Command (PACOM) covers the African islands of the Indian Ocean, including Madagascar, as well as all of Asia and the Pacific.
Creation of AFRICOM, which will be based, initially at least, at EUCOM headquarters in Germany, has strong support from both parties in Congress.
"An Africa Command would help the US military focus on a continent that is essential to our national security," according to Democrat Russell Feingold, one of the most liberal members of the Senate who also chairs its subcommittee on Africa.
"Our national security strategy needs to evolve, and so does our capability to meet new and emerging threats," he said. "An Africa Command is vital to strengthening our relations with African nations and preventing them from becoming staging grounds for attacks against the US or our allies."
It is not as if the Pentagon has ignored Africa, although, since the 1993 "Blackhawk Down" incident, in which 18 US servicemen were killed in Somalia, Washington has generally resisted African and international pressure to put "boots on the ground" in Africa, particularly in peacekeeping missions for which until now it has provided only logistical and financial support.
Nonetheless, Washington’s military presence in the region especially in the Horn, in the Sahelian region, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in oil- and gas-rich West Africa has grown steadily since the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon which launched the Bush administration "global war on terror."
Since 2002, the greatest concentration of US military power on the continent has been based at Camp Lemonier in the former French colony of Djibouti, where between 1,500 and 1,900 CENTCOM troops have been poised for swift intervention against alleged terrorist targets elsewhere in the Horn and East Africa (where al-Qaeda blew up the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998) or across the Red Sea in Yemen.
Some of those troops, as well as US naval units patrolling Somalia’s coast, were reportedly involved in tracking and twice attacking alleged leaders of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) after their retreat from Mogadishu in the face of last month’s Ethiopian-led offensive that ousted the group from power.
Next to Egypt, which will remain under CENTCOM’s jurisdiction after the creation of the new Command, Ethiopia has been by far the largest recipient of US military aid and training in Africa, and its US-backed intervention in Somalia has been hailed by hawks here as a model for future counter-terror strategy.
Meanwhile, EUCOM has dispatched dozens of training units, as well as millions of dollars in weapons and other equipment, to friendly governments in the Sahelian region as part of its Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCI).
The program, for which Congress has budgeted some 500 million dollars over the next six years, has focused on Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, and Morocco all countries whose national governments have charged, with varying degrees of credibility, that al Qaeda or associated groups or individuals have been active.
Meanwhile, CENTCOM has become more active in West Africa, whose importance to future US energy supplies is growing by leaps and bounds, and where poverty, corruption, and ethnic tensions, in Washington’s eyes, foster the kind of instability that could result in failed states, not unlike Afghanistan or Somalia.
Africa specialists here generally support the idea of placing all of these activities, as well as others, such as US support for UN, African Union (AU), and other peacekeeping missions in the region, under one command, if for no other reason than the continent will get more sustained attention.
"I think there will be much more direct engagement, particularly with African organizations such as the AU, with a separate command, than when you have people rolling through from Europe from time to time," according to Jennifer Cooke, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "For one thing, they can get a much more nuanced understanding of the problems Africa faces."
At the same time, she cautioned, "you don’t want a lopsided, security-heavy engagement in Africa, and you don’t want the Defense Department setting policy. Our military engagement needs to be integrated into a much broader engagement of diplomacy, development assistance, governance, and human rights."
That concern is widely shared among Africa specialists who note that the Pentagon not only has considerably more money and other resources available to it in Africa than the State Department, but that it is also increasingly engaged in civic-action and humanitarian work that has traditionally been overseen by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and non-governmental organizations.
That worry is reportedly anticipated, at least to some extent, by the AFRICOM proposal, which reportedly calls for a senior State Department official to be permanently attached to the new command to help coordinate policy.
In addition, according to Victoria Holt, a peacekeeping expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a think tank here, officers who have helped plan the new command, such as Gen. William "Kip" Ward who has been tipped as its likely first commander are aware of the military’s limitations.
"There are some sophisticated military thinkers who know that it’s not just guns," she told IPS. "They’ve spent enough time in Africa to understand some of the fundamental challenges, such as peacekeeping and governance. They could be advocates for a stronger civilian role, and their voice is one that brings with it a great deal of clout and capacity."
"If we don’t have a countervailing civilian presence, we risk sending the signal that our engagement with Africa is primarily military, and that’s not a signal we want to send."
Moreover, she added, "if we wrap our arms around a particular leader who’s cooperative on the security front, but has a very poor record on governance and human rights, then we’re likely to create problems over the long term, as we often did during the Cold War."
(Inter Press Service)