AFRICOM: The U.S. Military Consolidates its Efforts in Africa

The Bush Administration recently announced its decision to create a new unified command, Africa Command or AFRICOM, to promote U.S. national security objectives in Africa. The proposal for a new command is guided by the continent's increasing strategic importance to the United States and reflects concerns regarding the current Department of Defense (DOD) division of responsibility for Africa. U.S. military efforts on the continent are currently divided among three commands: European Command (EUCOM), Central Command (CENTCOM), and Pacific Command (PACOM). EUCOM, based in Germany, has 42 African countries in its Area of Responsibility (AOR), while CENTCOM, based in Florida, covers eight East African countries; and PACOM, based in Hawaii, is responsible for the Indian Ocean Islands of Comoros, Madagascar, and Mauritius. Under the Administration's proposal, AFRICOM's AOR would include all African countries except Egypt, which would remain under CENTCOM.

Proponents of the command argue that EUCOM and CENTCOM are overstretched, both because of existing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and because of increasing U.S. military concerns in Africa. Historically, the Pentagon has not considered Africa to be a strategic priority, and U.S. military engagement there has been episodic. The establishment of AFRICOM reflects a recognition by U.S. policymakers that American interests in Africa, including countering terrorism, maintaining access to African energy resources, and addressing the challenges posed by poverty, corruption, armed conflict, and disease, necessitate greater focus by DOD. Financial, logistical, and training constraints have often hindered the ability of African militaries to adequately meet these challenges, as have military force readiness issues related to high HIV/AIDS rates.

Some officials refer to AFRICOM as a combatant command "plus." This implies all the roles and responsibilities of a traditional combatant command, but also includes a broader "soft power" mandate aimed at preemptively reducing conflict and incorporating a larger civilian component to address those challenges. AFRICOM's prospective mission is to promote U.S. strategic objectives by working with African states and regional organizations to help strengthen stability and security in the region. The command's military operations, when needed, would aim to deter aggression and respond to crises. DOD officials argue that AFRICOM would allow the U.S. military to more efficiently identify and address potential problems or hot spots before they escalate into major crises. They suggest the command could provide a venue for more efficient and effective coordination among U.S. agencies, both military and civilian, as well as with African partners and other international actors. Operationalizing this broad mandate may prove difficult. While many at the State Department and USAID welcome DOD's ability to leverage resources and organize complex operations, there is concern that the military may overestimate its capabilities as well as its diplomatic role in Africa, or pursue activities outside its core mandate.

U.S. forces conduct a variety of operations on the continent, ranging from humanitarian relief and de-mining to support for peace operations, maritime interception, and, when necessary, the evacuation of U.S. citizens from conflict zones. Civil-military operations are an integral part of a broader counter-terrorism mission. The U.S. military is also working to strengthen the capacity of African militaries to secure their borders, combat terrorism and other criminal activity, and participate in international peacekeeping and stability operations. Several of these initiatives are funded through the State Department, which provides overall guidance and direction for the programs. Administration officials argue that AFRICOM would not only allow the U.S. military to coordinate these operations more efficiently, but that it would also allow DOD to better coordinate with other U.S. agencies, as well as with other countries, like Britain and France, which also provide training and assistance for African security forces.

AFRICOM is expected to begin as a sub-unified command under EUCOM by October 2007 and become a fully operational, stand-alone command by October 2008. Many of the details regarding the command's structure and footprint in Africa have yet to be announced. According to DOD officials, the new command will seek greater interagency coordination and have a larger civilian staff than other commands. DOD is considering including a State Department official in the command structure of AFRICOM, possibly as one of two deputy commanders.

DOD intends to eventually locate AFRICOM on the African continent, because, officials argue, deploying AFRICOM's staff in close geographic proximity to their African counterparts and to U.S. diplomatic missions there would enable more efficient interaction. U.S. officials are consulting with strategic partners in the region to identify a suitable headquarters location. DOD is also considering opening several small sub-regional offices under AFRICOM to better coordinate with Africa's regional and sub-regional organizations. The Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) already has a semi-permanent troop presence in Djibouti with more than 1,500 U.S. military and civilian personnel in residence. The U.S. military also has access to a number of foreign air bases and ports in Africa and has established "bare-bones" facilities maintained by local troops in at least 10 countries. The Pentagon has stressed that AFRICOM does not represent an attempt to increase U.S. troop levels on the continent. There are concerns, however, both in Africa and internationally, that moving the Command headquarters to Africa might be the first step in an alleged U.S. military agenda to establish a substantially larger presence in the region.

AFRICOM’s creation highlights a number of questions for U.S. policymakers regarding the role of the U.S. military in Africa. Is a new command really needed, or will it impose unnecessary strains on fiscal and military resources at a time when both are stretched? Will the eventual size and scope of the U.S. military footprint in Africa reflect genuine strategic needs, or will AFRICOM develop independent institutional imperatives that demand resources regardless of need? Are the State Department and USAID, which have far greater experience in Africa than DOD, being fully incorporated in the planning process, or are they being left on the sidelines as a better-resourced Pentagon moves onto the field?

Strategic planners agree that U.S. military efforts should support, rather than guide, the U.S. political, economic, and social objectives. To that end, policymakers should consider African perceptions of AFRICOM. There is considerable concern over U.S. motivations for creating the command, and some Africans worry that the move represents a neo-colonial effort to dominate the region militarily. Reports of U.S. air strikes in Somalia and alleged U.S. support for Ethiopia's military intervention there have added to those concerns, and many are skeptical of the purposes of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts as well. Observers have focused increased attention on China's role in Africa in recent years, and some question whether an Africa Command might be part of a new contest for influence on the continent with the Asian giant. (See Dulue Mbachu, "Skepticism Over U.S. Africa Command," ISN Security Watch, February 19, 2007.) Some African governments and militaries, on the other hand, have received the AFRICOM proposal with cautious optimism, hoping it will herald increased resources, training, and assistance. U.S. officials involved in the creation of AFRICOM have begun a series of consultations with African nations to discuss their plans for the command. Hopefully, these exchanges will lead to an AFRICOM that reflects the mutual interests of both Africa and the United States.

Lauren Ploch is an Africa policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service(CRS) and author of a recent CRS Report on AFRICOM . The views expressed are those of the author and not of the Congressional Research Service, which does not take or advocate policy positions.

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Lauren Ploch