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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Pentagon’s New Africa Command

Johannesburg, South Africa: As recently reported, the Pentagon is to create an entirely new military command dedicated entirely to Africa. To be established sometime this year, the command is concrete evidence of the importance the US is placing on Africa as a theatre in the war on terror and a future security issue.

What’s happening: Up till now, Africa has been divided up amongst three of the existing five Unified Combatant Commands. The bulk of the continent falls under European Command, much of East Africa falls under Central Command and Madagascar is the responsibility of Pacific Command. The new Africa Command will end this fragmentation by unifying the whole of Africa (except Egypt) under a single command structure.

Why it’s happening: In this globalising world, the US is increasingly realising that Africa and its problems cannot simply be ignored. Not only is the continent showing signs of becoming a home for radical Islamist groups like al-Qaeda, but with the US getting a lot more of its oil and other resources from Africa it cannot afford to allow instability to grow unchecked. Nor can it allow China’s rising influence on the continent to go unchallenged, necessitating greater US involvement in order to limit it.

Placing Africa under one military command will allow the US to focus its money and manpower more effectively, since there will be a command focused on Africa exclusively and not merely as a distraction from its main purpose as is currently the case. As such, it’ll provide a home for those officers who choose to specialise in African affairs while providing the promotion opportunities and incentives to encourage others to follow that path, increasing the US military’s institutional knowledge about the continent and its problems. Another benefit is that it will provide a single point of interaction with the African Union, allowing the latter to deal through the same people and organisation no matter where they are in Africa.

The implications: Those fearing a massive influx of American soldiers into Africa can rest easy, there’ll be no such thing. Nor will there be the creation of huge airbases or anything similar. Unlike European Command and Central Command, Africa Command’s main role is going to be preventative support, not fighting wars. At most, it will have a few thousand troops whose main purpose is the training of select African armies in peacekeeping, counter-terrorism and similar activities.

A key indicator of this new role is the fact that the position of Africom’s second-in-command is reserved for a State Department official, not a military officer. This is important, as the command will be the trial case for a new kind of interaction, melding State Department political and economic assistance and guidance with the Pentagon’s military support for training and supporting local police and military forces. It’s hoped this new approach will simultaneously provide both security and prosperity, by improving the governance of African countries will building the capacity of their security forces to assert control over more of their territory more effectively.

Before the command is fully operational in September 2008 however, a few issues need to be ironed out. The most important is where the headquarters will be based, a question fraught with political implications. Politically, the two locations that make the most sense would be Ethiopia (as the seat of the African Union) and South Africa, though it’s far from clear whether the ANC would be ready to accept it here. But logistically, it makes the most sense for the base to be located somewhere in north or east Africa, close to the operations already ongoing such as the Horn of Africa Joint Task Force and the Trans-Sahel counter-terrorism initiative. In balance, I’d say that Ethiopia probably represents the most likely location, though it’s tough to make a definite prediction.

One thing is for sure, that whether correct or not the new command is going to fundamentally change the way the US’s interaction with Africa in all spheres. I think it’s a positive step, but it will only be effective if African governments decide to actively work alongside it and not oppose it based on some silly concept of ‘neo-colonialism’ or something similar. Time will tell whether they’re wise enough to realise it.

Darren Olivier, Commentary.co.za
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