The U.S. military was content for years to keep half an eye on Africa's security, sharing oversight of the continent with Europe, but in recent years U.S. strategic interest in Africa has grown. Not only does Al Qaeda have a presence on the continent, but the value of Africa's oil has soared and China has grown more aggressive in courting African nations. That was the reasoning behind the creation of AFRICOM, the first American strategic military command with sole responsibility for the 53 nations on the African continent, which officially started operations last week.
Despite Africa's new strategic value, U.S. officials have scaled back AFRICOM's mission significantly. When the idea was first floated early in 2007, proponents of AFRICOM had hoped to combine a wide range of military and civilian programs under one roof, training and equipping cooperative African security forces but also promoting development and aid projects across the continent. U.S. officials had also hoped to find an African country willing to permanently host a much larger U.S. military contingent. Unable to find a country willing to host American forces, the Pentagon has had to keep AFRICOM's 1,300 soldiers in Stuttgart, Germany. And it has scrapped, at least for now, plans to make AFRICOM anything other than an umbrella organization for military and security training. AFRICOM will focus exclusively on training the military operations of African nations and leave development work to civilian agencies.
The policy change is partly due to pressure from politicians and observers in Africa, who feared a strong AFRICOM would lead to a militarization of American foreign policy in Africa. They also feared a blurring of the lines between critical development work and security, especially in countries such as Mali, Niger and Somalia, that are threatened by weak democratic institutions, corruption and terrorism. In particular, critics pointed to Afghanistan, where Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRT's, tried to fuse military operations with development work. Aid workers and humanitarian groups felt their neutrality was compromised by association with the U.S. military. "It doesn't seem to make sense to tie up military developments with development issues," says Thomas Wheeler, a security analyst at the South African Institute for International Affairs. U.S. officials say that they are adapting to political realities in Africa. "The PRT's were not a model for us," says Vincent Crawley, and AFRICOM spokesman, "Afghanistan is a combat environment. We are not conducting combat operations anywhere on the African continent right now."
A less ambitious AFRICOM is part of a change in the U.S. military whole approach to Africa. In the last 18 months, U.S combat troops have conducted military operations on the ground in, among other places, Africa's Sahel region, military officials confirm. "There have been operations in the past, but U.S policy has changed," says Crawley. U.S. forces are now focusing exclusively on specific, long-term goals of shoring up African security forces to combat smuggling off the coasts; training security forces in fragile countries like Niger to patrol their own borders; and working with the various governments to help strengthen African institutions like the African Union forces.
Not everybody is in favor of the scaling back of AFRICOM. Many African security experts believe that a blurring of lines between military and development missions would help the continent. "You could say that soldiers are problematic," says Naison Ngoma, Director of the Security Governance Program at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. "But humanitarian organizations won't go into areas that aren't secure; so they should work hand in glove with the military." Down the road, of course, a certain amount of mission creep may be inevitable. It may even be desirable.