Time to close the debate on AFRICOM

This is the first post devoted to events in Africa and United States policy toward Africa. I will be providing analysis and comments on unfolding political, economic and diplomatic developments related to the African continent.

I believe it is time to close the debate about AFRICOM. The command exists. It is operating, and it is growing in competence.

First, I do not fear that AFRICOM is likely to take over US policy in Africa. Nor do I believe that US policy toward Africa will be militarized. The core element of US policy toward Africa has never changed since the late 1950s. That is economic development. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have agreed on this core element.

The original designers of AFRICOM understood this, and skillfully included economic development elements in the command’s table of organization. That is why AFRICOM has a deputy commander slot for social and economic development that is filled by a US Ambassador assigned by the State Department.

If the core element of US policy toward Africa is, and always has been, economic development, what is AFRICOM’s role in this matrix? In this regard, I do not believe AFRICOM has yet developed a concept that will make it and integral part of the total USG effort in Africa.

Here is my recommendation:

The majority of African military establishments do not have a defined mission. In the old days of the one-party African dictatorship, the role of the military was to protect the government from internal threats. Since the advent of multiparty democracy in Africa, beginning in the early 1990s, the role of the African military has become ambiguous.

In countries under threat from outside, like Mali vs. el-Qaeda in the Maghreb, it is clear that the military has to be out there on counter insurgency operations most of the time. But in most African countries, there is no similar threat. So, how should they spend their time, apart from training?

My view is that the African military has to make a contribution to economic development, just like every other element of African society. The majority of the African people continue to live in rural areas. The African military should be out there in the rural areas partnering with the farmers in developmental activities.

The most obvious example is re-forestation. A regiment of soldiers can plant a lot of trees in one day. The rural peasants can agree to nurture the saplings until they become self-sufficient.

The military can also utilize engineering equipment to build and maintain farm-to-market roads, and construct small irrigation systems so that farmers can produce vegetables for marketing in the urban centers. When I was US Ambassador to Senegal during 1977 -1980, we used FMF for engineering equipment. The Senegalese army maintained the equipment beautifully, and used it to help the rural farmer earn higher incomes.

So, in my view, AFRICOM should talk to their African counterparts and discuss how they can work together to contribute to economic development. Projects do not have to be big, and I am sure funds will be available to support good ideas.

What counts in all of this, in my view, is mil-mil collaboration in useful projects. If this is successful, mil-mil collaboration at some point in joint security operations will be so much more productive.

One final point: AFRICOM should resist calls to establish its headquarters in Liberia. I disagree with former Assistant Secretary Jendayi Fraser’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal in which she urged AFRICOM to accept Liberia’s invitation. It’s not that AFRICOM will be able to operate more effectively from its current base in Stuttgart, Germany. What is important, is that AFRICOM’s physical presence on the African continent will provide an easy target for anti-American propaganda that will picture the US as neo-colonialist and militaristic. At a time when the French are cutting back on their military presence in Africa, it is no time for the US to start augmenting its presence.

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