Africa matters. It is no longer a third-rate theater of war. The Pentagon’s decision to stand up a war-fighting command exclusively for Africa by the end of 2008 presages a new direction for the global war on terrorism, with profound implications for the military and its relations with the State Department and other executive-branch institutions. It also provides a way for the United States to deal with a rising China.
The U.S. military, particularly the Marines and Army Special Forces, has been deeply involved across the Sahara Desert for years, in train-and-equip missions for select companies of African armies, from Senegal on the Atlantic to Djibouti by the Red Sea. The Ethiopian military that fought radical Islamists in Somalia was the product of U.S. military training. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, will consolidate under one bureaucracy what European Command has been doing on most of the continent, what Central Command has been doing in the Horn of Africa, and what Pacific Command has been doing on some Indian Ocean islands.
The hub of U.S. military activity has been Dakar, Senegal, the westernmost point on the African continent, where European imperialists first began moving into the interior in the mid-19th century and creating the structure of weak West African states that the U.S. military is now trying to shore up. Without seeking to conquer or govern anything, the American military is pursuing a strategy of security linkages similar to those of the French 150 years ago.
Company-sized American military elements located in Dakar and the Malian capital of Bamako have reached out during annual exercises to smaller American units scattered throughout the region. These, in turn, have been working with specially trained indigenous forces in countries such as Chad, Mauritania, and Niger. Because most of these countries have little or no structured military tradition, it’s easier for American noncommissioned officers to shape and influence their forces.
The U.S. military’s humanitarian activities, such as medical and veterinary civil-action programs, have facilitated this progress. AFRICOM will build on that with an unprecedented level of cooperation with civilian agencies, with the State Department likely providing the deputy head of the new combatant command, and departments like Justice and Agriculture filling other slots. AFRICOM, if it is done right, will be a test case for putting the Pentagon and the State Department under one bureaucratic roof: becoming, in effect, a bureau for nation building.
No permanent bases will be needed, just cooperative security facilities owned by the host country and supported by civilian contractors, used quietly and austerely by the Americans. Civil-military projects will be run jointly from both AFRICOM headquarters and American embassies.
In the weeks after 9/11, many analysts (including myself) advocated for major military involvement in the Middle East rather than the pursuit of a low-hanging-fruit strategy aimed at discreetly killing select groups of Islamic terrorists here and there. Even as the quagmire in Iraq continues, the stepped-up tempo of quiet, successful operations in Africa suggests that the latter strategy may have been the better option. In any case, AFRICOM will be about picking low-hanging terrorist fruit.