The United States once viewed the continent of Africa as little more than a “Cold War game board,” explained Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant of defense for African Affairs at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), speaking at a recent panel discussion on future U.S. security relations with Africa.
“From a security standpoint, from a Defense Department perspective, we didn’t pay a whole heck of a lot of attention to Africa until the 1980s,” she said. Even after the Cold War ended, the focus in U.S. efforts directed toward Africa was on humanitarian and economic interests because there were no national security reasons why the United States should care about Africa, she said, adding “or so we thought.”
Globalization and the terror attacks of 9-11 changed attitudes about the importance of “soft” security, or development efforts, in Africa. Citing the destabilizing influence of regional terrorist groups throughout the continent who have jumped on the global jihad bandwagon, narco-traffickers in West Africa, and African immigration that has affected politics in European countries like France, Whelan emphasized the growing importance of the continent.
“Africa’s not so far away anymore; it’s actually right in our backyard,” she said during the discussion, which was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
In recognition of the changing relationship, the DoD has revised its regional command structure, creating what it calls the Africa Command (AFRICOM). Before AFRICOM, DoD activities on the continent were split among three different commands: U.S. Central (CENTCOM), Pacific (PACOM), and European (EUCOM) commands, with EUCOM responsible for the majority of the continent. AFRICOM consolidates responsibility for Africa under one unified command.
More than just a stab at military consolidation, however, AFRICOM was envisioned as “a different kind of command,” with plans to integrate representatives from civilian agencies, such as the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), into its staff at different levels. Indeed Ambassador Mary Yates, a civilian U.S. diplomat, serves as one of AFRICOM’s two deputy commanders.
That broader focus has created controversy for AFRICOM, which went live in October. Since the concept was first announced in 2007, critics have charged that DoD was trying to militarize foreign policy and take the lead in regional development efforts.
“I think it is fair to say that…AFRICOM has become freighted with a fair amount of symbolic importance because it does sort of signal a departure a bit in the way that we’re approaching some of these international issues,” John Pendleton, the author of a Government Accountability Office study that addressed the challenges of establishing the command, told Security Management.
That departure may be justified, however. Just as silos aren’t useful in intelligence collection, they may be worth tearing down in the international policy arena. Another way to look at it is that the separation was artificial and did not reflect how the real world works, as one expert explains.
“I think the primary focus for development will always remain the development agencies of the U.S. government,” says Dr. J. Peter Pham, the director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. “But I think [AFRICOM’s] a recognition that there [are] no hard firewalls,” he adds.
Pham and others agree that for security efforts in Africa to succeed, the United States must develop a clear national strategy for dealing with the continent.
“We’ve come to this recognition that Africa’s important,” Pham says. “We’re getting all this oil from there, there’s spaces where we have terrorist activities going on, and we have other countries—China, Russia, and others—getting very, very interested. So we’ve got all sorts of strategic reasons that we’re now paying attention to Africa, but we really haven’t developed a national strategy.”
At the panel discussion, Mauro De Lorenzo, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Africa is changing for the better. However, he explained, it is changing faster than U.S. institutions are.
The situation represents yet another challenge for President Obama’s administration. The President should direct staff to “conduct a review and a reorientation that places our relations with Africa on a firmer strategic footing in support of broader global interests,” De Lorenzo said. Toward that end, “AFRICOM is a tool,” he said. “It’s going to be an important tool, but it’s not the center.”