The “Long War” Demands Proactive Engagement in Africa

“Speak softly, but carry a big stick” is one of former President Theodore Roosevelt’s most famous and enduring remarks. Big stick capabilities remain essential in preserving America’s security. However, in its “long war” struggle against violent Islamist extremists, U.S. armed forces seek a balanced approach that also addresses the “speak softly” side of the equation. As the Commander of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, recently pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article. “Military power can gain us time …but that is about it.”

The “speak softly” approach includes building indigenous governance and security capacity among regional powers so they can deal with these threats themselves. This is what the “long” in the current “long war” strategy means. Of course, the best way to accomplish this is to alleviate the social, political, and economic conditions that nurture development of the extremist thought that leads to violent action. It will indeed take a long time to help at risk nations reform and build indigenous governance capacity. Such change needs to take place slowly and gradually – and possess a local face. It is a capability that must have the proper mix between the traditional military to military training programs augmented by civil affairs and humanitarian relief efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and building governance capacity. Clearly, if the United States is going to deliver this product effectively, it will require much more than Department of Defense assets. But DOD is an essential player and can employ its capabilities in the first instance especially where security concerns exist. DOD must continue to strengthen its ability to perform this increasingly vital mission set.

Several such nascent DOD initiatives are underway in Africa. In November 2002, Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (JTF-HOA) was established as an effort to prevent operatives from Al Qaeda and Associated Movements (AQAM), who might escape Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, from finding safe harbor in the Horn of Africa. JTF-HOA’s area of responsibility includes several fragile nation states – Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Tanzania, Seychelles, Sudan, Uganda, and Yemen plus the failed state of Somalia. All lack the capacity to effectively govern their land, air, and sea territory. We must remember that the Horn of Africa was the home of Osama bin Laden from 1991 to 1996 and has suffered several lethal terrorist attacks including the bombings at the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack on a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, and the near-miss of a surface to air missile fired at an Israeli airliner. In addition to terror threats, this environment supports trans-national criminal activity such as smuggling, drug trafficking, and human trafficking; proliferation of small arms and light weapons, illegal immigration, piracy, illegal fishing, and the illegal exploitation of natural resources.

To date, JTF-HOA has not captured any known or would-be terrorists. One hopes that many were deterred from seeking safe harbor in the region because of JTF-HOA’s presence. Consequently, the mission’s focus has evolved over the past four years from a “kinetic” orientation to a long-term effort aimed at assisting regional governments develop effective governance and anti-terrorism capacity. It does this through a series of small scale, capacity-building activities in close coordination with the respective Chiefs of Mission and their Staffs as well as host nation officials. These include medical, dental, and veterinarian assist teams; engineering and humanitarian support missions aimed at helping local officials do beneficial tasks such as drilling wells and building schools and medical clinics; along with the traditional military to military training missions.

Another example of a long term, “speak softly” effort aimed at building local capacity is underway among Gulf of Guinea littoral nations. This effort is aimed at promoting cooperative maritime security in the energy-rich Gulf of Guinea and is being spearheaded by the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) through its Naval Component (CNE). The initiative has been several years in the making, but began to accelerate after a first-ever meeting of Gulf of Guinea Chiefs of Naval Operations hosted by CNE in October 2004. It resulted in a remarkable joint statement of commitment and a promise of follow-up meetings. Those follow-on meetings have in fact taken place with increasing participation and commitment. It is now safe to say that an integrated system of Maritime Domain Awareness is well within the realm of the possible. The result would be significantly enhanced regional maritime security to protect the territorial seas and economic zones of these West African nations.

Such efforts not only help local governments increase much needed governance capacity – they also increase principal in our regional good will accounts. We never know exactly when we may have to draw on those accounts, but we can be absolutely certain we will.

The long war can be won. But to facilitate its success and keep the U.S. focused for an extended period of time – decades – will require a more coordinated effort that effectively brings together the many disparate programs currently underway amongst several government departments and agencies. As the recently published Council on Foreign Relations Task Force Report, More Than Humanitarianism: A Strategic U.S. Approach Toward Africa, stated: “A successful U.S. counter terror strategy for Africa requires a forward-looking, long-term investment, concentrated on rebuilding depleted U.S. intelligence capacities and forming stable partnerships with key host governments that will create enduring African capacities to detect, deter, and interdict threats, and prosecute those responsible. These goals require patience and realism. They will only be realized through incremental, concerted efforts over several years.” (The report is available at http://www.cfr.org. Click on “By Region” and “Africa.”)

While the examples above are from the DOD side of our government, there are many other exciting efforts underway. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a steady increase in U.S. assistance and support to Africa. The Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) are key features of the Bush Administration’s substantive commitment. The State Department has recently announced a new approach to administering foreign assistance. Thirty-five “fast track” nations have been identified and 16 (46%) of them are in Africa. The best way to make sure the many programs currently underway across the U.S. Government yield the best possible return on investment is to improve interagency policy coordination.

These exciting efforts must be supported by a coherent strategic information and communications plan to help counter the ever increasing growth of extremist thought and radical behavior. We have been slow to operate in this critical area, but our enemy understands the power of strategic communications. That this is a battle for hearts and minds is indicated by this statement from Al Qaeda’s Ayman al Zawahiri: “More than half this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media...........we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of (Muslims).”

If the United States can deliver these programs in an effective, efficient, and coherent fashion, we can successfully help Africa help itself from becoming the next battle ground in the global war against Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic and affiliated foes. They will enable the United States to assist in proactively shaping a positive outcome rather than reacting once terrorists gain a foothold in the region, a serious humanitarian crisis develops, or civil war rages out of control. All the while, such efforts will steadily build an indigenous capacity to alleviate the disease, pain, and suffering that plagues large parts of Africa and build governance capacity and encourage transparency to alleviate the pervasive corruption that discourages assistance programs and locks the region in a cycle of deterioration. The stakes are high and this is a powerful opportunity our Nation must grasp and fully embrace. We have been presented an uncommon chance to proactively gain a step in the long war effort to enhance America’s twenty-first century security – let’s not miss it.
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Admiral Johnson was formerly Commander in Chief Allied Forces, Southern Europe (CINCSOUTH) and Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Europe (COMUSNAVEUR). He now heads Snow Ridge Associates in Harpswell, Maine.


The Online Africa Policy Forum is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

Admiral Gregory G. Johnson, U.S. Navy (Ret.)