The Next Frontier

The creation of AFRICOM, the U.S. military's new Africa Command, offers the hope of steady, low-key progress in the war on terror.

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.

The so-called long war—and particularly the work of AFRICOM—will be relentless and low-key. Small-scale elite ground units composed largely of junior and noncommissioned officers, working with local armies, assisted by air and sea platforms, will hunt down select individuals. And unlike U.S. operations in Iraq, AFRICOM will deny any point of concentration for the media. Strikes earlier this year on suspected al-Qaeda targets in Somalia are a case in point.  When an AC-130 gunship takes off from a base in Djibouti, or attack helicopters and surveillance planes take off from warships in the Indian Ocean, there is nothing to film, no way of embedding, and no way of knowing the result until the military tells you.

Such operations by AFRICOM will not  need an exit strategy, since the military will not be present in high numbers in the first place. Southern Command in the drug war in Colombia, and Pacific Command in the war against Islamic insurgents in the southern Philippines, work like this. The creation of AFRICOM signifies the adoption of that paradigm on a grander scale.

AFRICOM will also help the United States to keep pace with the Chinese, who are offering Africans across the continent an attractive development model: massive loans and infrastructure modernization—in the form of factories, roads, and railways—that spare recipients the subtle humiliation of that comes with accepting help from the formerly colonial West. Because many Africans rank stability as more important than democracy, China’s lack of concern for the moral improvement of regimes may, in some cases, carry an additional benefit.

Still, human rights count, especially in such oppressive places as Sudan and Zimbabwe. So the United States will try to compete with China by coupling aid with tools to build a liberal democratic future. This program cannot succeed without bilateral military relationships, since stable democracies require well-trained, reform-minded militaries that behave themselves by staying clear of politics.

The only long-term solution to crises like Darfur are pan-African intervention forces with airlift capabilities, which is what the American military has started to build with its train-and-equip missions. The U.S. military is not the solution to Africa’s development problems, but without it there is simply no credible Western model to compete with China’s.

China will be a tough competitor. It is already sending over teams of area experts with capitalist instincts. AFRICOM should not think of the Chinese in Africa as in any way similar to the Soviets in Africa during the Cold War. The Chinese are more sophisticated, with a formidable ability to learn from experience.

AFRICOM should be a catalyst for greater military cooperation with civilian relief agencies and other nongovernmental organizations. Like it or not, because humanitarian operations are about logistics, quick access, and the establishment of security perimeters, they encompass a strong military element. The boards of directors of some NGOs understand this; it is their young and idealistic volunteers who must get over their inherent distrust of the American military. Indeed, through a combination of small-scale military strikes that do not generate bad publicity and constant involvement on the soft, humanitarian side of military operations, AFRICOM could rebuild the post-Iraq image of the American soldier in the global commons.