By Alex Liao
The United States African Command (AFRICOM), the first overseas military command created by the Pentagon since the Cold War ended, recently broadened its strategic relevancy as a result of the Libyan intervention. Its location, ripe within the confines of piracy, Islamic extremism, and strategic oil resources, has forced it to take several divergent strategies. Nonetheless, its efficacy will rely on bilateral and regional relationships with African countries, the African Union, and the European Union.
Aside from Libya, AFRICOM has pursued a more secluded mandate, working with the Africa Partnership station to train African maritime forces, and with the African Union’s five regional Africa Standby Brigades to develop a future peacekeeping apparatus. It has quietly embarked on counterterrorism operations by assuming command over the Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa from Djibouti. While these initiatives are geared towards regional diplomacy rather than military action, they have nonetheless led to substantive developments. In October 2010, a peacekeeping simulation was held in Addis Ababa along with European and African forces, providing a firm framework for future intercontinental cooperation. Furthermore, AFRICOM participated in Exercise Flintlock in 2010, a military exercise geared towards the protection of North and West Africa against extremist and trafficking groups. In the same year, AFRICOM brought together 30 nations in its Africa Endeavour exercise to coordinate regional communications technology. AFRICOM will need to depend on this kind of regional collaboration to safeguard the continent from unexpected crises.
On the other hand, peacekeeping has dominated AFRICOM’s agenda, considering the tumultuous African political landscape. Here, AFRICOM has taken the lead in regional diplomacy. It hosted the first Africa Military Legal Conference in May 2010, assembling legal professionals from nearly 15 countries in Ghana, to buttress the rule of law across the continent. Conversely, the conference was intended to additionally aid military legal advisors in promoting transparency in civil-military relations between AFRICOM and its bilateral counterparts. More pointedly, however, AFRICOM sends mentors and advisors to assist the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance, a program administered by the Department of State that is designed to train African Union peacekeeping forces. This has led to the creation of approximately 20 battalions per year, which AFRICOM will coordinate with alongside its overall security. These programs, which appear more as soft power programs instead of overt military programs, will aid cooperation between AFRICOM and its partners in the region.
Speaking of AFRICOM’s relations with African nations, it would be remiss not to discuss its strategic cooperation with NATO. In 2010, AFRICOM assisted the alliance in Somalia, airlifting 1,700 Ugandan troops into the Somali capital to aid the government there. The NATO Response Force – a 25,000-member contingent called the “world’s first international military strike force” – has also trained in Africa under AFIRCOM’s auspices. Both AFRICOM and NATO combine to assist the African Partnership Stations and African Standby Forces. Hence, AFRICOM’s cooperation with NATO falls within NATO’s New Strategic Concept, specifically by maintaining “mobile and deployable conventional forces” around the globe.
On the whole, AFRICOM’s presence on the continent went largely uncontested in the region since its inception in October of 2008. Operation Odyssey Dawn, which began in March of 2011, has unsurprisingly opened a new set of questions about its future role in relation to African entities. Particularly, the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya has sparked political backlash with countries which allege that AFRICOM has overstepped the UN Security Council’s resolution authorizing military force. Indeed, the operation has deepened divides in its relations in the region. Before the operation, support for the command remained tepid, as only Liberia had publicly offered to host AFRICOM’s command headquarters. Once the airstrikes began, both the Nigerian Foreign Minister and South African President expressed severe concerns over civilian deaths and firmly rejected the “regime-change doctrine” they saw fomenting. The current intervention, then, has increased suspicions that AFRICOM is pursuing solely American foreign policy rather than that of the African people. This will likely hinder future AFRICOM military efforts in the region unless AFRICOM can mend its regional ties.
Given the turmoil surrounding the Libyan situation, there alternatively appears to be an opening for the Obama Administration to widen AFRICOM’s scope of responsibility. For instance, U.S. naval forces assigned to cover Somali piracy are currently assigned to CENTCOM (Central Command) rather than AFRICOM. A widening role on the continent would give the Administration more flexibility in the future, as it faces challenges from Islamic tensions in North Africa and al-Shabab’s growth in Somalia. Nevertheless, American presence is invariably contingent upon trust with African nations. Obama will need to make clear that AFRICOM’s actions in Libya were exceptionally warranted in that particular situation, in order to dampen fears of American hegemony and rebuild the fragile relations. His recent speech on Middle Eastern foreign policy appears to address this issue, when he stated, “in Libya, we saw the prospect of imminent massacre, we had a mandate for action, and heard the Libyan people’s call for help.”
General Carter F. Ham, the current Combatant Commander of AFRICOM since March of 2011, has raised similarly expectations about AFRICOM’s role in the continent since his arrival. He is widely seen as a cooperative man who will spur enthusiasm within the ranks. Indeed, AFRICOM has assumed a new, dynamic role in the Libyan intervention, working with NATO partners to establish the no-fly zone. He has also shown great care for relations on the continent, allowing his ambassador Anthony Holmes to give a speech signaling the command’s desire to limit an overt American military presence in Africa.
As AFRICOM’s role in Libya has been mostly handed over to NATO’s European allies, Holmes noted that AFRICOM will seek “sustained engagement and stability in Africa.” With only $389 million in funding this year, or less than 5% of U.S. total aid to Africa, its presence will likely be limited in the coming years as a result of the looming deficit crisis in Washington. With half of its 2,273 personnel being civilians, AFRICOM will likely depend on partnerships with the African Union, the European Union, and NATO in the near future. As no new US military troops were deployed with AFRICOM at its founding, and as it maintains no new military bases on the continent, it must constructively engage with regional and bilateral partners in the future.
Indeed, AFRICOM’s structure is intrinsically suited for aid and stability rather than an explicit militarization of relations. Its structure creates greater coordination with other American agencies, such as USAID and the State Department. The position of Directorate of Civil-Military Affairs, in particular, will allow AFRICOM to continue to liaison with the African Union and its African Standby Forces in the future if and when tensions rise. Hence, General Ham has positioned AFRICOM to be more dynamic and receptive of regional interests while aligning them with American foreign policy.
With increasing Chinese commercial advances in the energy industry, AFRICOM must also confront a changing African landscape. Fortunately, Chinese companies generally do not interfere with African politics and do not posit regime change. With its bevy of civilian operations, AFRICOM thus presents a greater soft power image that can offset China’s rapidly growing interest in Africa and inversely, African businessmen’s interest in partnering with Chinese companies. China’s rise, inimical to U.S. business and strategic interests, presents a unique challenge. While China aims to prop up the status quo, it remains in the United States’ national interest to strengthen and develop weak states which form the hotbed of insurgencies, humanitarian crises, and criminal organizations. Its relationships with the African Union will help foster increased stability to counter China’s support. In turn, AFRICOM will deny terrorist and criminal organizations the lax governance which allows them to grow roots in an area. With al-Qaeda also expressing interest in attacking the African energy infrastructure, AFRICOM’s protection will clearly aid U.S. business interests in the future.
Looking forward, AFRICOM will additionally continue to ensure the stability of African oil exports, which are expected to account for more than 25% of all US oil imports by 2015. This falls in line with its “capacity-building” agenda, in which it sends military specialists to advise and support various peacekeeping, lawmaking, and security-related enterprises of different African nations. In this way, AFRICOM can protect both regional stability and American foreign policy interests.
Thus, transitioning from the Libyan intervention places AFRICOM in a position of strength. Not only can it rely upon its newfound military clout, but its new leadership under General Ham will also enable it to take on a more assertive role on the continent. Of course, AFRICOM cannot exist based on unilateral actions, and must strengthen bilateral and regional relationships with individual countries, the African Union, the European Union, and NATO. It is in this way that AFRICOM can confront the diverse challenges it faces, from terrorism and extremism to piracy and energy security.
1 Jonathan Stevenson, “AFRICOM’s Libyan Expedition: How War Will Change the Command’s Role on the Continent,” Foreign Affairs, May 9th, 2011, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67844/jonathan-stevenson/africoms-libyan-expedition.
2 Robert Moeller, “The Truth About Africom,” Foreign Policy, July 21, 2010, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/07/21/the_truth_about_africom?page=0,3.
3 Nicole Dalrymple, “AFRICOM Hosts First Africa Military Legal Conference, Nearly 15 African Nations Participating, U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs, May 19, 2010, http://www.ikd-m.africom.mil/getArticleFresh.asp?art=4438&lang=0.
4 U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs, “FACT SHEET: Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA),” U.S. AFRICOM, June 15, 2008, efforts. http://www.africom.mil/getArticle.asp?art=1886.
5 Rick Rozoff, “Battleground for NATO’s 21st Century Strategic Concept,” The Ghanaian Journal, May 24, 2011, http://www.theghanaianjournal.com/2011/05/24/battleground-for-natos-21st-century-strategic-concept/.
6 John CK Daly, “Libya: AFRICOM’s Combat Christening,” ISN Insights (ETH Zurich), March 28, 2011, http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/ISN-Insights/Detail?lng=en&id=127973&contextid734=127973&contextid735=127972&tabid=127972.
7 Barack Obama, “President Obama’s Middle East speech (full text),” CBS News, May 19, 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20064356-503544.html.
8 Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Africa Command Seen Taking Key Role,” The New York Times, March 21, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/world/africa/22command.html.
9 Kevin Howe, “U.S. shows interest in Africa: Office got off to rocky start, ambassador says,” The Herald, June 15, 2011, http://www.montereyherald.com/local/ci_18276695?nclick_check=1.
10 Gerrie Swart, “The Role of AFRICOM: Observer, Enforcer, or Facilitator of Peace?” Conflict Trends: Peacekeeping in Africa, Issue 4, pp. 10-11, 2007.
11 Emile Schepers, “AFRICOM and the Libya War: Countering Chinese Influence in Africa,” Centre for 12 Research on Globalization, June 20, 2011, http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=24018.
13 Carmel Davis, “AFRICOM’s Relationship to Oil, Terrorism, and China,” Orbis, Vol. 53, No. 1, January 2009 pp. 122-136.
16 Kenneth Mpyisi, “US Involvement in African Peacekeeping,” Conflict Trends: Peacekeeping in Africa, Issue 4, pp. 35-36, 2007.