African Command

Stephen DeAngelis

September 5, 2006

An article posted on the Time.com site by Sally B. Donnelly titled “The Pentagon Plans for an African Command” [24 August 2006], claims the Pentagon is about to announce a new unified combatant command for Africa. A Unified Combatant Command is composed of forces from two or more services, has a broad and continuing mission and is normally organized on a geographical basis. For example, the Iraq War falls under the auspices of the U.S. Central Command. Currently, operations in most of Africa are the responsibility of the U.S. European Command headquartered in Germany. Many analysts would welcome a command focused on Africa. Tom Barnett is one. In his latest book Blueprint for Action, “the first U.S. military commander of African Command” was one of his heroes yet discovered.

According to Donnelly’s article, that “hero” may well be Gen. William “Kip” Ward, a respected officer who is the Army’s only four-star African-American general. The article states:

Ward has boots-on-the-ground experience in Africa: he was a commander during the U.S.’s ill-fated mission in Somalia in 1993 and also served as a military representative in Egypt in 1998. Ward is currently the deputy commander at European Command, and as such oversees U.S. military relations with 43 African countries.

The article notes that not all pundits are happy with this development. For example, the article notes:

A former military officer who thinks highly of Ward nonetheless says creating an entirely new command compounds an existing problem. “The size and number of headquarters already is skewed too far in favor of ‘tail’ at the expense of warfighting ‘teeth.’ Want to increase ‘boots on the ground?’ Eliminate or downsize some of these staffs, don’t create more,” says this observer.

While it is easy to criticize bloated staffs, especially during times of conflict, I’m left wondering if “warfighting teeth” are the kinds of “boots on the ground” that should populate any African Command. For years critics have made comparisons between the ratio of flag officers to troops that existed during the Second World War to the ratio in today’s forces. I’m not sure those are fair comparisons. In order to keep the best and brightest officers in an all-volunteer force, they must have some hope of achieving flag rank. Why do I mention this? My point is simply that we should take advantage of the numbers of flag officers we have to gain influence around the world. It’s cost effective influence. Look at Europe. For years the naval attache in France was a flag officer. As a result, the attache had doors opened to him that were quickly closed when the position was downgraded to a captain’s billet. Another example is London. For decades the Navy maintained a headquarters kitty corner to the U.S. embassy. Although the commander of naval forces in Europe lived in Italy, his deputy lived in London and, for most of that time, was a three-star admiral. His high rank brought him invitations to high level dinners, meetings, and consultations that were sharply reduced when the position was demoted to a two-star position. As a result of downgrading positions, the U.S. lost influence — influence that could have been maintained (without much tail) simply by keeping high ranking officers in place. That is what I mean by cost effective influence. If you aren’t sitting at important tables, you aren’t exerting any influence.

Let me bring the discussion back to the African Command. While the unnamed former military officer believes that a new unified combatant command is being created to put warfighting power into Africa, I hope that is not the case. U.S. policy should be aimed at bringing peace and stability to the region and establishing a regional commander who can focus on that policy is a great first step to “shrinking the Gap.” I’m sure that the primary motivation for establishing such a staff is the fact that Africa is likely to be the next battle ground in the “long war,” but that battle need not always be fought with military weapons. A lean staff, headed by a respected senior flag officer can help exert cost effective influence across the continent.

Many military experts have long advocated paying more attention to Africa. While Central Command has had a small military contingent based in Djibouti (called Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa or ‘CJTF-HOA’) for several years, intelligence agencies and military officers have warned that the US should be spending more time and money in Africa. Gen. John Abizaid, the Centcom commander, laid out a laundry list of concerns to the Senate Armed Services Committee last March. While Abizaid spoke about the Horn of Africa, the threats stretch across much of the continent. “The Horn of Africa is vulnerable to penetration by regional extremist groups, terrorist activity, and ethnic violence. Al-Qaeda has a history of planning, training for, and conducting major terrorist attacks in this region, such as the bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The volatility of this region is fueled by a daunting list of challenges, to include extreme poverty, corruption, internal conflicts, border disputes, uncontrolled borders and territorial waters, weak internal security capabilities, natural disasters, famine, lack of dependable water sources, and an underdeveloped infrastructure. The combination of these serious challenges creates an environment that is ripe for exploitation by extremists and criminal organizations.”

Abizaid went on to note that his small task force was involved in much more than combat operations.

Abizaid did point out that the small operation in Djibouti has produced bang for the buck: “Working closely with U.S. Embassy personnel in the region, CJTF-HOA assists partner governments in building indigenous capacity to deny terrorists access to their territory. This not only includes training local security and border forces, but also involves assisting with low-level civic projects throughout HOA such as digging wells, building schools and distributing books, and holding medical and veterinary clinics in remote villages.” These efforts, Abizaid said, engender goodwill and help “discredit extremist propaganda and bolster local desires and capabilities to defeat terrorists before they can become entrenched.”

If the African Command can expand on this vision, it will be a welcome addition to the Pentagon’s unified command plan. Such a command is a necessity if development goals are to have a realistic chance of success. As I’ve written before, development begins with security. The African Command, however, should be only a small part of the community of practice that should work together to help bring African nations out of poverty.