Africom: The New US Military Command for Africa

On 6 February 2007, President Bush announced that the United States would create a new military command for Africa, to be known as Africa Command or Africom.  Throughout the Cold War and for more than a decade afterwards, the U.S. did not have a military command for Africa; instead, U.S. military activities on the African continent were conducted by three separate military commands: the European Command, which had responsibility for most of the continent; the Central Command, which oversaw Egypt and the Horn of Africa region along with the Middle East and Central Asia; and the Pacific Command, which administered military ties with Madagascar and other islands in the Indian Ocean.

Until the creation of Africom, the administration of U.S.-African military relations was conducted through three different commands.  All three were primarily concerned with other regions of the world that were of great importance to the United States on their own and had only a few middle-rank staff members dedicated to Africa.  This reflected the fact that Africa was chiefly viewed as a regional theater in the global Cold War, or as an adjunct to U.S.-European relations, or — as in the immediate post-Cold War period — as a region of little concern to the United States.  But when the Bush administration declared that access to Africa’s oil supplies would henceforth be defined as a “strategic national interest” of the United States and proclaimed that America was engaged in a Global War on Terrorism following the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, Africa’s status in U.S. national security policy and military affairs rose dramatically.

According to Theresa Whelan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs — the highest ranking Defense Department official with principal responsibility for Africa at the Pentagon, who has supervised U.S. military policy toward Africa for the Bush administration — Africom attained the status of a sub-unified command under the European Command on 1 October 2007, and is scheduled to be fully operational as a separate unified command no later than 1 October 2008.  The process of creating the new command will be conducted by a special transition team — which will include officers from both the State Department and the Defense Department — that will carry out its work in Stuttgart, Germany, in coordination with the European Command.

Africom will not look like traditional unified commands.  In particular, there is no intention, at least at present, to assign the new command control over large military units.  This is in line with ongoing efforts to reduce the presence of large numbers of American troops overseas in order to consolidate or eliminate expensive bases and bring as many troops as possible back to the United States where they will be available for deployment anywhere in the world that Washington wants to send them.  Since there is no way to anticipate where troops will be sent and the Pentagon has the ability to deploy sizable forces over long distances in a very short time, Washington plans to keep as many troops as possible in the United States and send them abroad only when it judges it necessary.  This, however, was exactly the intention when the Clinton and Reagan administrations created the Central Command and based it in Tampa, Florida; and now the Central Command is running two major wars in southwest Asia from headquarters in Qatar.

Africom will also be composed of both military and civilian personnel, including officers from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the commander of the new command will have both a military and a civilian deputy.  On 10 July 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that the President had nominated four-star General William E. “Kip” Ward to be the commander of Africom.  General Ward, an African-American who was commissioned into the infantry in 1971, is currently serving as the deputy commander of the European Command.  Previously he served as the commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) in Mogadishu, Somalia during “Operation Restore Hope” in 1992-1994, commander of the NATO-led Stabilization Force in Bosnia during “Operation Joint Forge” in 2002-2003, and chief of the U.S. Office of Military Cooperation at the American Embassy in Cairo, Egypt.  The novel structure of the new command reflects the fact that Africom will be charged with overseeing both traditional military activities and programs that are funded through the State Department budget (see below for details on these programs).

The Bush administration has emphasized the uniqueness of this hybrid structure as evidence that the new command has only benign purposes: in the words of Theresa Whelan, “there are fears that Africom represents a militarization of U.S. foreign policy in Africa and that Africom will somehow become the lead U.S. Government interlocutor with Africa.  This fear is unfounded.”  Therefore, Bush administration officials insist that the purpose of Africom is misunderstood.

On closer examination, however, the difference between Africom and other commands — and the allegedly “unfounded” nature of its implications for the militarization of the continent — are not as real or genuine as the Bush administration officials would have us believe.  Of course Washington has other interests in Africa besides making it into another front in its Global War on Terrorism, maintaining and extending access to energy supplies and other strategic raw material, and competing with China and other rising economic powers for control over the continent’s resources; these include helping Africans deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic and other emerging diseases, strengthening and assisting peacekeeping and conflict resolution efforts, and responding to humanitarian disasters.  But it is simply disingenuous to suggest that accomplishing these three objectives is the main reason that Washington is now devoting so much effort and attention to the continent.  And of course Washington would prefer that selected friendly regimes take the lead in meeting these objects, so that the United States can avoid direct military involvement in Africa, particularly at a time when the U.S. military is so deeply committed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and preparing for possible attacks on Iran.  The hope that the Pentagon can build up African surrogates who can act on behalf of the United States is precisely why Washington is providing so much security assistance to these regimes and why it would like to provide even more in the future.  Indeed, as argued below, this is actually one of the main reasons that Africom is being created at this time.

So why is Africom being created and why now?  I would argue that the answer to this question is twofold.  First, the Bush administration would like to significantly expand its security assistance programs for regimes that are willing to act as surrogates, for friendly regimes — particularly in countries with abundant oil and natural gas supplies — and for efforts to increase its options for more direct military involvement in the future; but it has had difficulty getting the U.S. Congress and the Pentagon to provide the required funding or to devoting the necessary attention and energy to accomplish these tasks.  The creation of Africom will allow the administration to go to the U.S. Congress and argue that the establishment of Africom demonstrates the importance of Africa for U.S. national security and the administration’s commitment to give the continent the attention that it deserves.  If Africa is so important and if the administration’s actions show that it really wants to do all sorts of good things for Africa, it hopes to be in a much stronger position to make a convincing case that the legislature must appropriate substantially greater amounts of money to fund the new command’s operations.  And within the Pentagon, the establishment of Africom as a unified command under the authority of a high-ranking officer with direct access to the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will put the new command in a much stronger position to compete with other command for resources, manpower, and influence over policymaking.

Secondly, key members of the Bush administration, a small but growing and increasingly vocal group of legislators, and influential think tanks have become more and more alarmed by the growing efforts of China to expand its access to energy supplies and other resources from Africa and to enhance its political and economic influence throughout the continent.  These “alarmists” point to the considerable resources that China is devoting to the achievement of these goals and to the engagement of Chinese officials at the highest level — including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, both of whom have made tours of the continent and have hosted high-level meetings in Beijing with African heads of state — as evidence of a “grand strategy” on the part of China that jeopardizes U.S. national security interests and that is aimed, ultimately, at usurping the West’s position on the continent.  The creation of Africom, therefore, should be seen as one element of a broad effort to develop a “grand strategy” on the part of the United States that will counter, and eventually defeat, China’s efforts.  It should also be understood as a measure that is intended to demonstrate to Beijing that Washington will match China’s actions, thus serving as a warning to the Chinese leadership that they should restrain themselves or face possible consequences to their relationship with America as well as to their interests in Africa.

So, what will Africom actually do when it becomes fully operational?  Basically, it will take over the implementation of a host of military, security cooperation, and security assistance programs, which are funded through either the State Department or the Defense Department.  These include the following:

Bilateral and Multilateral Joint Training Programs and Military Exercises

The United States provides military training to African military personnel through a wide variety of training and education programs.  In addition, it conducts military exercises in Africa jointly with African troops and also with the troops of its European allies to provide training to others and also to train its own forces for possible deployment to Africa in the future.  

Flintlock 2005 and 2007

These are Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) exercises conducted by units of the U.S. Army Special Forces and the U.S. Army Rangers, along with contingents from other units, to provide training experience both for American troops and for the troops of African countries (small numbers of European troops are also involved in these exercises).  Flintlock 2005 was held in June 2005, when more than one thousand U.S. personnel were sent to North and West Africa for counter-terrorism exercises in Algeria, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad that involved more than three thousand local service members.  In April 2007, U.S. Army Special Forces went to Niger for the first part of Flintlock 2007 and in late August 2007, some 350 American troops arrived in Mali for three weeks of Flintlock 2007 exercises with forces from Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.  Both Flintlock exercises were conducted as part of Operation Enduring Freedom — Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) which now links the United States with eight African countries: Mali, Chad, Niger, Mauritania, Nigeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria.  In 2004, the TSCTP was created to replace the Pan-Sahel Counter-Terrorism Initiative, which was initiated in 2002.  The TSCTP also involves smaller, regular training exercises conducted by U.S. Army Special Forces throughout the region.  Although changing budgetary methodology makes it difficult to be certain, it appears that the TSCTP received some $31 million in FY 2006, nearly $82 million in FY 2007, and is expected to receive approximately $100 million annually from FY 2008 through FY 2013.

Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance Program (ACOTA)

This program, which began operating in 2002, replaces the African Crisis Response Initiative launched in 1997 by the Clinton administration.  In 2004, it became part of the Global Peace Operations Initiative.  ACOTA is officially designed to provide training to African military forces to improve their ability to conduct peacekeeping operations, even if they take place in hostile environments.  But since the training includes both defensive and offensive military operations, it also enhances the ability of participating forces to engage in police operations against unarmed civilians, counter-insurgency operations, and even conventional military operations against the military forces of other countries.  By FY 2007, nineteen African countries were participating in the ACOTA program (Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia).  New budgetary methodology makes it impossible to ascertain the levels of funding for ACOTA, since the program’s funding is subsumed within the budget for the Global Peace Operations Initiative.

International Military Education and Training Program (IMET)

The IMET program brings African military officers to military academies and other military educational institutions in the United States for professional training.  Nearly all African countries participate in the program — including Libya for the first time in FY 2008 — and in FY 2006 (the last year for which country figures are available) it trained 14,731 students from the African continent (excluding Egypt) at a cost of $14.7 million.

Foreign Military Sales Program (FMS)

This program sells U.S. military equipment to African countries; such sales are conducted by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency of the Defense Department.  The U.S. government provides loans to finance the purchase of virtually all of this equipment through the Foreign Military Financing Program (FMF), but repayment of these loans by African governments is almost always waived, so that they amount to free grants.  In FY 2006, sub-Saharan African countries received a total of nearly $14 million in FMF funding, and the Maghrebi countries of Morocco and Tunisia received almost another $21 million; for FY 2007, the Bush administration requested nearly $15 million for sub-Saharan Africa and $21 million for the Morocco and Tunisia; and for FY 2008, the administration requested nearly $8 million for sub-Saharan Africa and nearly $6 million for the Maghreb.

African Coastal and Border Security Program (ACBS Program)

This program provides specialized equipment (such as patrol vessels and vehicles, communications equipment, night vision devices, and electronic monitors and sensors) to African countries to improve their ability to patrol and defend their own coastal waters and borders from terrorist operations, smuggling, and other illicit activities.  In some cases, airborne surveillance and intelligence training also may be provided.  In FY 2006, the ACBS Program received nearly $4 million in FMF funding, and Bush administration requested $4 million in FMF funding for the program in FY 2007.  No dedicated funding was requested for FY 2008, but the program may be revived in the future.

Excess Defense Articles Program (EDA)

This program is designed to conduct ad hoc transfers of surplus U.S. military equipment to foreign governments.  Transfers to African recipients have included the transfer of C-130 transport planes to South Africa and Botswana, trucks to Uganda, M-16 rifles to Senegal, and coastal patrol vessels to Nigeria.

Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA)

In October 2002, the U.S. Central Command played the leading role in the creation of this joint task force that was designed to conduct naval and aerial patrols in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the eastern Indian Ocean as part of the effort to detect and counter the activities of terrorist groups in the region.  Based at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, long the site of a major French military base, the CJTF-HOA is made up of approximate 1,400 U.S. military personnel — primarily sailors, Marines, and Special Forces troops — that works with a multi-national naval force composed of American naval vessels along with ships from the navies of France, Italy, and Germany, and other NATO allies.  The CJTF-FOA provided intelligence to Ethiopia in support of its invasion of Somalia in January 2007 and used military facilities in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya to launch its own attacks against alleged al-Qaeda members involved in the Council of Islamic Courts in Somalia in January and June of 2007.  The command authority for CJTF-HOA, currently under the U.S. Central Command, will be transferred to Africom by 2008.

Joint Task Force Aztec Silence (JTFAS)

In December 2003, the U.S. European Command created this joint task force under the commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet (Europe) to carry out counter-terrorism operations in North and West Africa and to coordinate U.S. operations with those of countries in those regions.  Specifically, JTFAS was charged with conducting surveillance operations using the assets of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and to share information, along with intelligence collected by U.S. intelligence agencies, with local military forces.  The primary assets employed in this effort are a squadron of U.S. Navy P-3 “Orion” based in Sigonella, Sicily.  In March 2004, P-3 aircraft from this squadron and reportedly operating from the southern Algerian base at Tamanrasset were deployed to monitor and gather intelligence on the movements of Algerian Salafist guerrillas operating in Chad and to provide this intelligence to Chadian forces engaged in combat against the guerrillas.

Naval Operations in the Gulf of Guinea

Although American naval forces operating in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea and other areas along Africa’s shores are formally under the command of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, based in the Mediterranean, and other U.S. Navy commands, Africom will also help coordinate naval operations along the African coastline.  As U.S. Navy Admiral Henry G. Ulrich III, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces (Europe) put it to reporters at Fort McNair in Washington, DC, in June 2007, “we hope, as they [Africom] stand up, to fold into their intentions and their planning,” and his command “will adjust, as necessary” as Africom becomes operational.  In a significant expansion of U.S. Navy operations in Africa, the U.S.S. Fort McHenry amphibious assault ship began a six-month deployment to the Gulf of Guinea in November 2007.  The ship carries 200-300 sailors and U.S. Coast Guard personnel, calling at ports in eleven countries (Angola, Benin, Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe, and Togo).  Its mission is to serve as a “floating schoolhouse” to train local forces in port and oil-platform security, search-and rescue missions, and medical and humanitarian assistance.  According to Admiral Ulrich, the deployment matches up perfectly with the work of the new Africa Command.  “If you look at the direction that the Africa Command has been given and the purpose of standing up the Africom, you’ll see that the (Gulf of Guinea) mission is closely aligned,” he told reporters.

Base Access Agreements for Cooperative Security Locations and Forward Operating Sites

Over the past few years, the Bush administration has negotiated base access agreements with the governments of Gabon, Kenya, Mali, Morocco, Tunisia, Namibia, Sao Tome, Senegal, Uganda, and Zambia.  Under these agreements, the United States gains access to local military bases and other facilities so that they can be used by American forces as transit bases or as forward operating bases for combat, surveillance, and other military operations.  They remain the property of the host African government and are not American bases in a legal sense, so that U.S. government officials are, technically, telling the truth when they deny that the United States has bases in these countries.  To date, the United States has done little to improve the capabilities of these facilities, so that there is little or no evidence of an American military presence at these locations.

In addition to these publicly acknowledged base access agreements, the Pentagon was granted permission to deploy P-3 “Orion” aerial surveillance aircraft at the airfield at Tamanrasset in southern Algeria under an agreement reportedly signed in during Algerian President Aldelaziz Bouteflika’s visit to Washington in July 2003.  The Brown and Root-Condor, a joint venture between a subsidiary of the American company, Halliburton, and the Algerian state-owned oil company, Sonatrach, is currently under contract to enlarge military air bases at Tamanrasset and at Bou Saada.  In December 2006, Salafist forces used an improvised mine and small arms to attack a convoy of Brown and Root-Condor employees who were returning to their hotel in the Algerian town of Bouchaaoui, killing an Algerian driver and wounding nine workers, including four Britons and one American.

Over the course of the coming months, there is one major issue related to the new command that remains to be resolved: whether and where in Africa will Africom establish a regional headquarters.  A series of consultations with the governments of a number of African countries — including Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Djibouti, Kenya — following the announcement of Africom found than none of them were willing to commit to hosting the new command.  As a result, the Pentagon has been forced to reconsider its plans and in June 2007 Ryan Henry, the Principal Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters that the Bush administration now intended to establish what he called “a distributed command” that would be “networked” in several countries in different regions of the continent.  Under questioning before the Senate Africa Subcommittee on 1 August 2007, Assistant Secretary Whelan said that Liberia, Botswana, Senegal, and Djibouti were among the countries that had expressed support for Africom — although only Liberia has publicly expressed a willingness to play host to Africom personnel — which clearly suggests that these countries are likely to accommodate elements of Africom’s headquarters staff when they eventually establish a presence on the continent sometime after October 2008.

Daniel Volman is the director of the African Security Research Project in Washington, DC, and the author of numerous articles on US security policy and African security issues. He can be contacted at the following email address: dvolman at igc dot org.  This article, a revised and shortened version of an article that will be published in the next issue of the Review of African Political Economy, first appeared in Pambazuka News on 7 November 2007.

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