Chris Blattman

What would AFRICOM do?

David Ignatius writes in the Washington Post that he would like to see a clearer role for the US military in Africa before spending billions setting up a continental command center, AFRICOM:

The real puzzle with AFRICOM is understanding its purpose. Some advocates propose pragmatic strategic goals, from containing China‘s influence in Africa to countering terrorism to protecting African oil supplies. But the official rationale is much less specific — in Ward’s formulation, “bringing stability to the continent.” Some Africans worry that these generalities mask a deeper goal of establishing what amounts to American neocolonialism.

What would AFRICOM be doing now in Kenya, say, if it were up and running? Would it intervene to halt the violence between Kikuyus and Luos that exploded last week? Would it work with nongovernmental and relief organizations? Would it operate jointly with the Kenyan military to restore order? Ward says that he does not “envision kinetic operations for United States forces,” but what happens if Kenya spirals toward Rwanda-level genocide?

The U.S. military is so powerful — so blessed with money and logistical skill and leadership — that it’s easy to make it the default answer to problems that are otherwise in the “too hard” category. That’s my worry about AFRICOM. Its nation-building goal sounds noble, but so did European imperialism of 150 years ago to its proponents. Before America sends its soldiers marching off to save Africa, we need more discussion about what this mission is all about.

This is a great point. I’ve been hoping for clarity as well, as well as suggesting that it envisions the US military as source of peacekeeping support and training in military professionalism and not a development agency or exporter of the Patriot Act. Asking what role AFRICOM would play in the current crisis is a superb way to call attention to the opacity of AFRICOM’s purpose.

What I wish, however, is that intelligent commentators like Ignatius stop referring to Kenya’s conflict solely as ‘tribal violence’ (as he does in his opening line). Ethnic division is a obvious and regrettable feature of Kenyan political life, and the violence has fallen along tribal lines. Even so, (as I’ve said before) these ethnic divisions are also reflective of linguistic, regional, and class divisions in the country.

Moreover, the anger being expressed is not born of tribalism (a description which conjures ancient and barbaric hatreds) but rather a genuine grievance, namely frustration with an opaque and probably stolen election. The anger and violence in Kenya is a great many more things than simply tribal, and an otherwise peaceful opposition movement has been spoiled by a handful of hateful ethnic actors. Shame on Kibaki and Raila for not acting more quickly and decisively to quell the violence. But I believe neither harbors ethnic hatred.

Tribal warfare does fit our stereotype of the dark heart of Africa, however, and presumably it sells papers. I’d like the Post to do better.

4 Responses

  1. I agree with you regarding the miss use of the term “tribal violence” or “ethnic conflict”…having been in the Balkans for about two months this summer, I’ve seen first hand how this blanket term was used by the international community to throw up its hands during the 1990s instead of putting in the effort to flesh out a complex but comprehensible situation. Seems the same may be occurring in Kenya.

    On the other hand, I think critics are using the term “neocolonialism” with similar disregard for the complex nature of the future US military role in Africa. That role can probably be defined into two categories. First, similar to the small scale operations dotted across the south pacific, the US Military wants the ability to deploy, or provide air and sea lift support in Africa given a large scale conflict or humanitarian disaster. They need a small number of personal at small bases, either contractors or military officials, who are very familiar with their locale and integrated into the community. Given a conflict or emergency, these nodes will facilitate the movement of soldiers, aid or material. This is exactly what happened after the tsunami in Southeast Asia. Along these same lines, the US would like to establish joint training missions with local militaries so Soldiers and Marines are familiar with local cultures and customs given a deployment.

    Second, the US wants to continue and expand it role in developing military and police forces in African countries. Lack of competent and accountable local and national security apparatus in many African countries are serious constraints to growth. Even peaceful and relatively prosperous countries are often not far from falling into conflict, destroying what progress was made, as might be the current case in Kenya. Further, lawless areas in Africa have become bases of operation for terrorist groups, including “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb” based in southern Algeria. Aside from providing material support, the US Military is interested in continuing and expanding small foot print operations: small groups of US Soldiers and Marines training the senior elements of an African nation’s army or police for so they can, in turn, establish effective training regiments for the rest of their organization. This model is already in place in Algeria. In Colombia, a very small deployment of US Special Forces have played an integral role in the development of the security apparatus. Having just returned from a trip there, its clear that the change in the security situation has contributed to swift growth, freed movement, foreign investment and increased domestic and international tourism.

    That being said, competent and accountable Military and Police forces can only be developed if they are accompanied by solid government, economic and social institutions. This is the main reason AFRICOM is going to include elements from government diplomatic and aid organizations, international organizations and NGOs. The US Military recognizes that development of security forces must be done in conjunction with economic, political and social development for any to be effective in the long term.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Good points. One thing I’ve always wondered about is the west’s enjoyment of Africa’s “heart of darkness” sterotype/image. Why does it as you say “sell papers?” Why is the ‘savage African’ a comforting thought?

    Also, contrary to the author’s proposition, Africom’s task would hardly be the quelling of violence in any African community. Rather, the US would be in a better position to stoke and control these fires.

    A great article and analysis of AFRICOM by Prof. Omara-Otunnu is here:

    In particular Omara-Otunnu highlights the longstanding history of the United States with Uganda prior to AFRICOM… (US – Uganda – Congo routing.)

    He writes about the founding AFRICOM report:

    “…the report points out that it is largely in recognition of Africa’s economic importance that the U. S. plans to establish AFRICOM, a command that “would have all the roles and responsibilities of traditional combatant command, including the ability to facilitate or lead military operations.”

    Third, in order to advance its economic interests through the scheme, the document reveals that the Bush Administration has determined that “U. S. security strategy must focus on building indigenous security and intelligence capabilities through bilateral engagement and coalition of the willing”.

    And fourth, according to the report, the projection of U. S. military might would be complemented and reinforced by a propaganda component. This is how the report puts it: “The United States is placing increasing emphasis on Information Operations (IO) in Africa, which use information to improve the security environment and counter extremist ideology through military information support teams deployed to U. S. embassies.”

    The fictional “fight on terror” hardly needs to be taken to Africa, neither by proxy nor presence.

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