In September, while visiting the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US-President Barack Obama announced an expanded response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Referencing the 2,461 people who had since succumbed to the Ebola virus, Obama reaffirmed that Ebolas was “not just a threat to regional security — it’s a potential threat to global security if these countries break down, if their economies break down, if people panic”. In response, the US-president announced the creation of a military command center in Liberia to coordinate response, harnessing the US military’s capacity for command and control, logistics and engineering, Obama said. “Our armed services are better at that than any organization on earth.”
Obama’s promise was an important pledge of international support for a beleagured region, but it came with additional consequence: By calling upon the Department of Defense’s newest regional command, AFRICOM, Obama publicly invoked an arm of American military power largely unmentioned in public discussion. For some, the fact that a military command was now tasked with addressing a health crisis established a worrying tone for future interventions: No matter what the challenge — ranging from the environment and health crises, to development and security issues — the military would be the first stop. But as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea continue to wage battle against a scourge projected to infect as many as 1.4 million by early 2015, observers prepared for their first look at AFRICOM.
Founded in 2007, the Department of Defense’s African Command (AFRICOM) was created after re-shuffling the wider command structure to address regional interests. As conceived, the command “builds defense capabilities, responds to crisis, and deters and defeats transnational threats in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.” While Africa ranked low on American foreign policy priorities in the 1990s, the continent’s post-9/11 security landscape — coloured with the rise of non-state threats (terrorists or criminals) — combined with the region’s growing economic importance began to alter the strategic calculus in Washington.
US military responsibility in Africa was previously shared between EUCOM, based in Stuttgart, which tackled programming for 42 African states, and CENTCOM, responsible for another eight. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sought to centralize this regional responsibility in an act scholars defined as “reducing the [bureaucratic and strategic] maze.”
As a harbinger of 2014’s fight against Ebola, AFRICOM’s framers were eager to stress key principles that would position AFRICOM generally: the interdependence of security and development, prioritizing conflict prevention to “warfighting”, and invoked a broader concept of “human security”, according to David E. Brown, a senior diplomatic advisor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. The new command would also be organized around “nodes” spread throughout the continent, and would employ civilian officers, empowered directly below the military commanders, as “diplomatic, developmental and economic” envoys. Within the DoD, AFRICOM also carried the telling designation of Command Plus, which confered “broader soft power mandate” as well as comparatively larger personnel numbers compared to other US government agencies.
AFRICOM was intended to “tackle the security challenges related to humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, disease, poverty, deforestation, building partnership capacities, civic action,” wrote then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Africa, Theresa Whelan, in 2007. Tellingly, the list of responsibilities ranged across both humanitarian and military domains.
But AFRICOM’s founding prompted scrutiny and criticism from both African leaders and international observers. Practically, proponents and critics were concerned about the budget. With such a broad suite of responsibilities, the command would require considerable funds, an echo of previous commitments consistently unmet. Back in 2004, the Bush administration crafted the African Contingency Training Assistance (ACOTA) program to support offensive military training and the provision of weapons to select African partners. According to research conducted by Eric Berman, however, ACOTA, much like its predecessor suffered from limited funding, affecting its depth and sustainability.
Beyond budgetary concerns, however, critics noted the haste with which AFRICOM was constructed. The truncated schedule left little opportunity for partner country collaboration or consultation. According to James Forest and Rebecca Crisp, a source on AFRICOM’s transition team told them: “I’ve never seen anything built so fast except in combat.”
Many worried about the militarization of US foreign assistance. Between 1998 and 2005, the percentage of official development assistance controlled by the Pentagon rose from 3.5 percent to 22 percent, a move that prompted former Defense Secretary Robert Gates to note: “It has become clear that America’s civilian institutions of diplomacy and development have been chronically undermanned and underfunded for far too long – relative to what we spend on the military, and more important, relative to the responsibilities and challenges our nation has around the world.”
Seven years later, AFRICOM’s responsibilities continue to expand. Obama’s Ebola response comes with a 750 million dollar expense account — necessary to address the health crisis, surely, but also clear investment opportunity for the US military to entrench. In late October, AFRICOM’s chief information officer discussed plans to lease a high-speed circuit to strengthen internet capacity for the military in Liberia — the announcement coming just weeks after plans for a connection between AFRICOM’s Stuttgart base and Dakar, Senegal were made public. Steadily, the racheting up of responsibilities, and AFRICOM’s role in a suite of special operations missions across the continent, has led to consistently higher yearly appropriations. Yet AFRICOM’s growth has received scant attention from local and international media, or the broader academic world.
In June 2014, in The New York Times Magazine, journalist Eliza Griswold profiled AFRICOM’s steadily growing operation in West Africa, accompanying Brigadier General James B. Linder to Niger where 12 Army Green Berets were training African troops to fight Al Qaeda and its affiliates. An hour further south by plane, the article notes, US Special Forces were deployed along the northern Nigerian border, where the Islamist extremist group, Boko Haram, was terrorizing civilians in the region.
“My job is to look at Africa and see where the threat to the United States is,” Linder told The New York Times, translating, more or less, AFRICOM’s motto on the continent. But Linder, who described his role as being “myopically focused” on threats, had a vast number of targets to chase. “I see Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Libyan problem set, Al Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, Benghazi and Darna.”
Linder arrived at AFRICOM just after the US embassy was stormed in Libya, and much of the article traces a familiar narrative: the fight to map the ripple effects of conflicts across the Sahel. “Instability in Libya is causing a lot of the instability in West Africa,” Linder told The New York Times. Perhaps missed in this conversation, however, were the inflection points created by the US military itself. AFRICOM was a key player in the joint strikes in Somalia and Libya (2013, the ongoing deployment of military advisors confronting the LRA in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the 80 military personnel in Chad in response to April 2014 abduction of more than 200 girls from Chibok, Nigeria. In addition, military leaders in Stuttgart surely had a hand in the drone assassination of Al Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane September 2014. Beyond numbers and the odd press release, little is know about these operations or the local responses to US presence.
If The New York Times story captured the nature and tone of AFRICOM’s operations, however, it illustrated an image of a waning United States military footprint. After wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public has grown weary of convention military operations, opting instead for “small teams of men, in fleece jackets and sneakers, quietly fanning out across the African continent,” as Griswold wrote in June. In an interview soon after her story was published, Griswold compared the 700 special operations forces in Africa to the 100 members used to overthrow the Taliban in 2001. “These guys operate in small numbers and are extremely valuable,” she added.
Given AFRICOM’s relatively low profile, Linder’s comments were of particular interest in terms of scope and framing of AFRICOM’s operations. In conversation, Linder confirmed a sensitivity for an interdisciplinary focus while addressing questions of security and extremism in the regions. Included in this matrix of variables were Africa’s demographic shift, growing economic inequality and crises of climate change. But his discussion also carried a worrying historical echo: while Africa may have been ignored for generations, left to fester in the shadows of great power politics, the continent today represents a modern iteration of the generation old domino theory — a conceptual framework based on power vacuums, tipping points, and a potentially endless cycle of violence and reprisals. Such a system will require constant engagement — just the latest chapter in a war without end. “Africa is the battleground of the future,” Linder told The New York Times Magazine. But clearly this contest has begun.
Missing from many of the AFRICOM conversations, however, is discussion of some ideal stasis, or endpoint. As the DoD’s smallest command, AFRICOM is tasked with tracking a wide range of groups across an extensive and exacting territory. Beyond mapping this terrain, American forces are also expanding assistance programs to aid regional military and security forces. These efforts are further complicated by widespread corruption throughout many West African states. With frequent allegations of human rights violations against local armed forces, the US military is struggling to address insecurity without creating further unrest. In part, this comes through Congressional checks, such as the Leahy Amendment, intended to vet assistance to foreign security forces. But these restrictions have created tensions with some of the most critical partner nations.In an interview with the BBC this month, an AFRICOM spokesperson discussed Nigeria’s unexpected cancellation of its third and final training exercise this year. “We regret premature termination of this training, as it was to be the first in a larger planned project that would have trained additional units with the goal of helping the Nigerian Army build capacity to counter Boko Haram,” said the US Embassy in Abuja. Weeks earlier, the Nigerian Ambassador to the United States, Adebowale Adefuye, had expressed frustration with the “scope, nature and content” of US support, claiming that US assistance failed to provide the “lethal weapons” — such as attack helicopters — what would quell the aggressive Boko Haram. Given the allegations of human rights violations, the provision to weapons — not to mention deadly military materiels — is continuously contentious.
This recent crises sets a worrying tone for AFRICOM’s of tomorrow: in situations where significant security threats present, and a dearth of local partners exist, US forces may be forced to shoulder full responsibility for extensive missions. If these missions result in civilian casualties, AFRICOM will undoubtedly sew the very grievances that already alienate vulnerable populations, fueling a cycle of recruitment now known to feed extremist ranks.
Even if the United States — through AFRICOM — is proficient at training a new generation of African military officers, imparting clear “values, ethics and a military ethos”, the military is only part of this delicate equation. Careful to highlight the potential for AFRICOM to learn from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Griswold’s article leaves a series of complex political conversations undiscussed. In Nigeria, and particularly the hardscrabble borderlands that open into neighboring Niger, Chad, Cameroon and the Central Africa Republic, strengthening military will not stop the transit of guns and gunners, nor has it stopped today’s Boko Haram from using state boundaries to their advantage. To fight an enemy whose territory is fluid, requires a deeper fight against the kind of marginalization borne of political inequities.
As a result, the consequences of covert operations and their impact on political structures are perhaps the most vital to understand. Just last year former AFRICOM commander, General Carter Ham publicly acknowledged errors made in training Malian forces in 2012. An ally and partner country, Mali received extensive military training before those very troops, in 2013, overthrew the government and set in motion violence that required French-led United Nations operation in response. Training more capable soldiers is only helpful if they are fighting for the right side.
As AFRICOM continues to mature, it will have to push back against the perception formed at its very founding: “the United States was already armed with solutions worked out in Washington and the Pentagon, and had not taken into account the needs or strategic concerns of the African people it intended to support.” As history has shown, those needs and concerns are difficult to tease out at gunpoint.