Doublethink Online | 12.8.08
By Alan W. Dowd

With wars, famines, plagues and even pirates besetting Africa, the continent desperately needs the world’s help. Although it hasn’t gotten much attention—or praise—for its efforts, the U.S. has been providing lots of help in recent years. In fact, for all its flaws, the beleaguered Bush administration deserves credit for elevating Africa to more than a foreign policy footnote.

Although overshadowed by cataclysms and crises—some of its own making, some beyond its control—the administration’s efforts on the long-forgotten continent will have lasting and positive results. For instance, President George W. Bush launched the Millennium Challenge Account program during his first term. A revolution in foreign aid, this market-oriented, civil-society-friendly effort provides grants to countries that fight corruption, govern justly, embrace free markets and invest in health and education. More than half of the countries that have been approved for MCA grants are found in Africa, and “two-thirds of the MCA’s $5.5 billion is being invested in Africa,” according to Bush.

The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act paved the way for unprecedented U.S.-Africa trade. Imports from sub-Saharan Africa have grown to $50 billion—six times their 2001 levels—and U.S. exports have doubled to $14 billion.

The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was launched in 2003, at a time when only 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa were receiving antiretroviral AIDS drugs. The $15-billion PEPFAR program is now treating more than 1.4 million Africans. Thirteen of PEPFAR’s 15 focus countries are in Africa.

And in October of this year, the Pentagon stood up AFRICOM, a new military command devoted exclusively to Africa. AFRICOM is a reminder that the U.S. is not expanding its role in Africa solely for humanitarian or economic reasons. There are important strategic reasons for the U.S. to devote a regional command to this resource-rich, war-torn continent of nearly a billion people.

Bush has called Africa “increasingly vital to our strategic interests.” And AFRICOM will position the U.S. to pursue a range of strategic objectives. These include:

  • Protecting the free flow of energy supplies—The United States imports almost nine percent of its oil from Nigeria. Nigeria is sixth, and Angola seventh, on the list of U.S. crude-oil suppliers.
  • Countering China—Geopolitics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and China has been filling the vacuum in Africa. Esther Pan of the Council on Foreign Relations notes that China has provided military equipment and/or training to Equatorial Guinea; Sudan; Ethiopia; Eritrea; Burundi; Tanzania, recipient of “at least 13 covert shipments of weapons labeled as agricultural equipment;” and Zimbabwe, recipient of fighter jets, military vehicles and small arms.
  • Fighting Islamic radicalism—Hoping to prevent the Talibanization of Africa, U.S. forces have been quietly at work in Africa since late 2001. The U.S. task force in Djibouti now numbers more than a thousand troops, and the U.S. is expanding its Djibouti base from 97 acres to nearly 500 acres. Programs such as the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative provide training, equipment and intelligence to militaries in Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia. AFRICOM should help this effort.
  • Stabilizing the sea lanes off the Horn of Africa—For Americans, pirates are the stuff of Hollywood movies, but for Africans pirates are a very real threat to life. Piracy is so bad off the coast of East Africa that the UN has requested help in protecting deliveries of food aid. In response, NATO has deployed a flotilla of warships to the region to deter and combat piracy. But the pirate plague is targeting more than food shipments, as we were reminded by the recent hijacking of a Kenya-bound, Ukrainian-owned freighter loaded with tanks and, more recently, the seizure of a Saudi supertanker laden with oil. When tanks and oil are involved, piracy can become a threat to America’s security, which explains the U.S. Fifth Fleet’s growing interest in pirate attacks around Africa. These are anything but isolated incidents. In fact, in a recent 12-day stretch there were nine hijackings. The Wall Street Journal reports that some 35 ships have been hijacked and more than 90 attacked around the Horn of Africa this year. (While CENTCOM assets are playing a role here, it pays to recall that the waters around Somalia are lawlessness because Somalia is lawless, which highlights AFRICOM’s importance.)

Yet the Pentagon has sought to downplay the military-security dimensions of AFRICOM. “Some people believe that we are establishing AFRICOM solely to fight terrorism or to secure oil resources or to discourage China,” Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, has observed. “This is not true.”

“There is no hidden agenda,” adds Gen. William Ward, the first commander of AFRICOM. “It is about working with the African nations to help them build their capacity.”

For instance, the U.S. has trained 39,000 African peacekeepers since 2005—“over 80 percent of African peacekeepers who are currently deployed,” according to the White House.

“Helping these militaries provide their own security may mean we are not there reacting to a situation,” Ward explains. But more will need to be done in the years to come to prevent a repeat of the carnage in the Congo or the chaos in and around Somalia.

Whelan calls AFRICOM “a more holistic approach” to security and development. For example, AFRICOM is working closely with the State Department and U.S. AID. In fact, AFRICOM has two deputy commanders: one is a high-ranking Foreign Service officer, the other a Navy vice-admiral. That may help explain why military author Robert Kaplan has called the new command “a potentially path-breaking bureaucratic instrument.”

In short, AFRICOM is different—by design—than other regional commands, focused as they are on military and security matters.

Critics suggest that the command’s headquarters—in Stuttgart, Germany—is evidence of resistance within Africa, but we shouldn’t read too much into this. First, if any continent is open to U.S. partnership, it’s Africa. After all, polling conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals that African nations occupy eight of the top 11 spots in a survey of global views of the United States, with majorities in Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali and Uganda openly embracing “American ideas about democracy” and “American ways of doing business.”

Second, there are several candidates for hosting AFRICOM: Liberia has expressed interest; Morocco and Angola have been mentioned; yet another option is the burgeoning U.S. base in Djibouti, though given its role in the war on terror, that facility may send the wrong message.

Third, it pays to recall that other U.S. regional commands—CENTCOM and SOUTHCOM among them—maintain their headquarters outside the region they serve.

Whether it’s headquartered in Germany or Africa, AFRICOM promises to be a valuable tool for the Obama administration as it pursues American interests in an increasingly important part of the world.