Like Mark Twain's "death" in 1897 (he died in 1910), reports of AFRICOM's demise may be exaggerated. Concerns that AFRICOM hasn't been thought out or is unnecessary aren't supported by the actions and statements of those charged with building this entity. However, based on the poor marketing of AFRICOM, these concerns are not surprising.
I attended USC's AFRICOM conference earlier this month and between panel discussions and offline conversations, I came away with a new appreciation (and hope) for the newest, and very different, command.
This is not like the other Combatant Commands (one DOD representative said they dropped "Combatant" from the title, but depending on where you look, either all the commands include "Combatant" or none of the commands do). Also unlike other commands, AFRICOM is "focused on prevention and not containment or fighting wars." This is, as one speaker continued, is a "risk-laden experiment" that is like an Ironman with multidisciplinary requirements and always different demands (note: thank you for not saying it's a marathon... once you've done one marathon, they're easy, you can "fake" a marathon... Ironman triathlons are always unpredictable.). The goal, he continued, was to "keep combat troops off the continent for 50 years" because the consensus was, once troops landed on Africa, it would be extremely difficult to take them off.
General William "Kip" Ward realizes that only once in several generations is there the opportunity to stand up a new command. General Ward has worked hard to create something new and unique that addresses modern security dilemmas. Modern communications and the vastness of Africa make a singular location for AFRICOM impractical. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone is nearly 1/4 the size of the U.S. and has 130 million people alone. Across the continent political boundaries on the map mask tremendous language and cultural variations.
The goal, as it was laid out in the conference, is to divide AFRICOM into four tiers because it is "easy to overwhelm our African partners in [both] enthusiasm [and] size."
Tier 1: Central HQ. This will have a small staff of about 1,600. This is miniscule compared to other commands.
Tier 2: Five regional points of contacts that could be equated with embassies (but don't...)
Tier 3: Presence in 29 of the 53 U.S. embassies on the continent
Tier 4: the bulk of AFRICOM's people, those who do not require daily interaction with either the Africans or the commander daily, will be located off the continent.
By taking "combat" out of the Unified Combat Command, they hope to make the first step of synchronizing words with deeds to better coordinate and support development on the continent. Hence, unlike the other commands, the State Department and USAID have prominent roles unknown elsewhere in DOD.
Said more than once at the conference by both DOD and DOS was 97% of efforts in Africa today are State-managed or State-funded. Only 3% comes from DOD and only a third of that is "traditional military" efforts. AFRICOM is intended to better focus U.S. attention to the continent and to move away from "checkbook diplomacy".
The answer to "why now" should be "why not now?" To date, U.S. has largely ignored Africa as a strategic interest. Until 1958, African policy was ran out of State's Bureau of European Affairs. In 1958, President Eisenhower created the Bureau of African Affairs and the U.S. started to develop a cadre of officers with experience on the continent.
Fifty years after the creation of the African Bureau, why AFRICOM? There is more here than oil and other exports (there's a lot more than oil in Africa). Is this a response to China's increased attention on Africa? They say no, but I think there's an implicit connection: Africa is important for U.S. and global trade and security and previous engagement and state-building practices weren't working.
The goal and purpose of AFRICOM is to help the U.S. Government to engagement Africa as a continent more coherently. As one (uniformed) speaker put it, the goals are: to "support [projects] that are ongoing," doing "no harm to existing programs"; and "to go nowhere we're not invited" and have no garrisons or bases in Africa.
The value of propaganda of the deed is evident in all the conversations I've had, both at conferences and offline. There's a realization that America has a problem with its reputation, that we're "unreliable" and we'll "cut & run". Hopefully this creation, in the absence of any substantial equivalent from State, while not a silver bullet, is far better than the status quo.
While some see this as a boon for privatization, many suggest, including DOD representatives, AFRICOM would mean more in-sourcing and a better coordination of resources. The Liberian Ambassador to the U.S. complained at the conference how U.S. contractors brought in to train his soldiers were importing cooks to prepare, among other meals, continental breakfasts while unemployed Liberians cooks were looking for work outside the wire. His people didn’t want continental breakfasts and it took one year and a trip to DC to get the contractor to stop this practice. The comments were in the context that AFRICOM would bring U.S. military and over government (e.g. USAID, etc) resources, not local contracted resources, to such projects.
The marketing, at least so far, has achieved less than optimum results. For instance, when President Bush recently visited Ghana, he was confronted by questions about the U.S.'s desire to set up permanent military bases in Africa. If this had been proactively and effectively addressed, the question would not have been raised.
A few last comments. It was noteworthy the NGO speaker was more enthusiastic about and arguing more vigorously on the need for AFRICOM than the DOS or DOD speakers. Perhaps this was because of the oft-repeated lead to some statement from the DOS and DOD speakers in attendance: "I'm not an Africanist, but..."
Lastly, a closing comment by a former Director of USIA suggested the problem with public perceptions of AFRICOM may stem from its name. If the name were something less catchy more distance from CENTCOM, perhaps the global public would not have lingered on the subject for as long as it has.
It will be interesting to see if AFRICOM plays out as planned or if politicking interferes for short-term gain. While time will tell, time is also short.
Update: a reader who was at the conference wrote Alisha Ryu of VOA asked the most important question: "When are you going to talk about reality?" She had just return from Mogadishu two days prior and noted that U.S. policies had driven the Horn into an al Qaeda stronghold.
In my opinion, the panel response wasn’t strong enough, probably because the form of AFRICOM is still being cast. Centralizing coordination and bringing other resources – including human terrain mapping and R&S – to bear in a coherent manner would improve the effectiveness of full spectrum operations. At this time, it seems to me AFRICOM is the vehicle to do this.
In my opinion, first, AFRICAP is an example that 97% of spending in Africa is DOS and not DOD. In response I sent her the quote from the Liberian ambassador which she appended to her post (w/ my permission). Second, there is no other heavy-lifting capability in Africa now. USAID and other organizations need to be strengthened. DOD, even with AFRICOM, still won’t be the majority provider of manpower to building capacity. I see this contract as an example of DOS being significantly short of necessary capacity, as Gates highlighted not too long ago, and thus forced to outsource. The question isn’t “Hey, is this an example of AFRICOM formalizing privatization?” but “Why isn’t State given the capacity to in-source to meet this need?” Clearl y this isn’t a short-term requirement!