Published 09 Aug 07
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
In my testimony last week before the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the United States House of Representatives, I noted that the creation of the new regional unified combatant command for Africa (AFRICOM) – a step I advocated for in this very column space last year – "offers the potential for sustained engagement of a region where America has very real strategic interests." In contrast, I observed, that in the past:
More often than not, American perspectives on Africa were framed almost exclusively in terms of preoccupation over the humanitarian consequences of poverty, war, and natural disaster. Alas, as noble as these moral impulses have been, they lacked the "staying power" needed to sustain a long-term commitment. Rightfully, many of our African friends viewed us as well-meaning, but unreliable.
Hence, as I told the Congressional panel, it is providential that three factors have come together to create this historic opportunity:
First, in the wake of 9/11, analysts and policymakers have shifted to a more strategic view of Africa in terms of U.S. national interests. Second, independent of our interests and actions, Africans themselves have increasingly expressed the desire and, more importantly, demonstrated the political will, to tackle the continent's myriad challenges of disease, poverty, ethnic tension, religious extremism, bad governance, lack of security, etc., although they still need outside assistance. Third, we have come to recognize a commonality between our strategic interests and the interests of Africans in enhanced security, stability, and development.
Yet, despite the fact that the stand-up of AFRICOM – first as a subordinate command of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) later this year and subsequently as an independent unified combatant command by September 30, 2008 – would be advantageous not only to the strategic interests of the United States, but to meeting the needs of Africa as African leaders themselves have articulated them, the initiative still meets a considerable amount of resistance motivated by the concern implicit in the title of last week's hearing: "Africa Command: Opportunity for Enhanced Engagement or the Militarization of U.S.-Africa Relations."
So how do we get beyond the impasse that I warned about earlier this year, a question of perception, not only in Africa, but beyond? How are we to understand cases like South African Defense Minister Mosioua Lekota, who refused to respond to a request from the U.S. Embassy to meet with Army General William E. "Kip" Ward, the deputy commander of EUCOM who was nominated last month to be the first head of AFRICOM, when the latter was in Johannesburg recently to attend a seminar hosted by the Brenthurst Foundation, an African nongovernmental organization that works on policy and economic development?
In these cases, the reasons for the welcome (or lack thereof) have to be subject to the same scrutiny whereby any question of international relations can be examined and the explanation can generally be found in the impact that the entrance of an outside power into the theatre has the relative position of the country in question: correctly or incorrectly, smaller countries will tend to view the new command as a potential hedge against the aspirations of their larger neighbors to regional hegemony, while larger nations may conversely come to view AFRICOM as a potential obstacle to those ambitions. That certainly appears to be case with South Africa. While other countries and subregional organizations have been eager to partner with AFRICOM, South Africa and the South African-led Southern African Development Community (SADC) have been undiplomatically cool. As Dr. Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, put it succinctly, South Africa's actions are explicable "not so much because we don't like the U.S., but because we want to be the big boys."
While some of the institutional realities of relations between sovereign states pursuing what their leaders perceive as their self-interests as well as some of the ideological currents present in Africa (witness the rather incoherent and self-contradicting list of objections to AFRICOM proffered to the Congressional subcommittee via videoconference link by Dr. Wafula Okumu) will mean that America can never hope to garner unanimous consent to the establishment of AFRICOM, a more thoughtful effort at strategic communications cannot but help influence public opinion favorably.
First, be up front about our self-interests – and emphasize that those interests are complementary to those of Africans. The 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America very correctly emphasized that helping weak states achieve security and development – their own goals – indirectly served our interests because they "can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders." That document's specific pledge to Africans needs to be emphasized:
Promise and opportunity sit side by side with disease, war, and desperate poverty. This threatens both a core value of the United States – preserving human dignity – and our strategic priority – combating terror. American interests and American principles, therefore, lead in the same direction: we will work with others for an African continent that lives in liberty, peace, and growing prosperity.
The most recent iteration of the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, published last year, identified the international counterterrorism effort as the country's top national security priority. However, it also affirmed that "Africa holds growing geo-strategic importance and is a high priority of this Administration" and went out of its way to state that "our security depends on partnering with Africans." Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Africa Affairs Theresa Whelan emphasized in her Congressional testimony last week that "AFRICOM represents an opportunity to strengthen and expand U.S. and African relationships in such a way that our combined efforts can help generate a more indigenous and, therefore, more sustainable peace and security on the continent."
Second, AFRICOM needs to have a modest footprint. As I testified last week, "No other factor which may have as much influence on how AFRICOM is initially received as the decision concerning its basing." Even if significant deployment of U.S. personnel, military or civilian, to Africa is highly unlikely given the pressing demands of our commitments elsewhere, given Africans' long memories of colonialism and its still-deleterious consequences – including those informing many perceptions – as well as the practical questions of available infrastructure and security challenges, it would be best to locate AFRICOM's command headquarters outside the continent, perhaps in the United States itself. Not only would this option would afford maximum operational flexibility, while avoiding the negative consequences of opening America to unfounded accusations of neo-colonialism and militarization, but it would leave open the possibility that sub-components could be based on the continent in support of African initiatives (e.g., a training mission working in partnership with the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Centre in Accra might well indeed be based in Ghana) – thus reinforcing the first message about common interests.
Third, the voices of far-sighted African leaders like Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has even offered national territory to host AFRICOM, should be privileged, even if we do not ultimately take her up on the basing. In June, for example, President Johnson-Sirleaf published an op-ed making the case for the new combatant command against its critics:
U.S. and foreign skeptics of AFRICOM have pointed to concerns that previous military engagements on the continent have often led to the disproportionate development of the military over instruments of civilian rule, or they see AFRICOM as a naked American attempt to gain greater access to and control of regional resources. But we all must acknowledge that security and development are inextricably linked. There is no greater engine for development than a secure nation, and no better way build a secure nation than through building professional militaries and security forces that are responsible to civilian authorities who safeguard the rule of law and human rights ... AFRICOM should be seen as the end-product of a significant strategic realignment a long time in the making – one where engagement with African nations is more than just a humanitarian cause ... AFRICOM is undeniably about the projection of American interests – but this does not mean that it is to the exclusion of African ones.
Fourth, as I have repeatedly emphasized, the mission of AFRICOM will necessarily require a major break with conventional doctrinal mentalities both within the armed services themselves and between government agencies. The challenges that the new command will confront will be quite different from those faced by other regional commands. AFRICOM would benefit immensely from finding the appropriate mechanisms to tap into the extraordinary wealth of knowledge that exists among academic and other experts who have invested lifetimes in understanding Africa and the vast pool of experience of those who have given years of service in religious, humanitarian, and other nongovernmental organizations in Africa as well as the cultural and personal knowledge of African diaspora communities in the United States. While many of these individuals may be reluctant to become involved with military and other official institutions, it does not necessarily follow that constructive partnerships cannot be constructed with academia and other civil society institutions; it just means that adequate will – and resources – must be committed to the effort.
Vital geopolitical interests are at stake in Africa, where one can detect the presence of every potential flashpoint from religious radicals and terrorism to the extremes of poverty and resource wealth to ethnic conflict and state failure. The establishment of AFRICOM is a historic opportunity for the United States to build long-term partnerships with Africans which favor security and peace, creating an environment that will empower Africans themselves to strengthen their political institutions, promote human rights, and achieve economic prosperity – strategic effects which happen to also enhance both global stability and American interests. We just need to work harder to convince Africans that in this great venture, we're all on the same side.
– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2007 J. Peter Pham
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