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More U.S. Military Involvement in Africa

June 7, 2007


Last fall I wrote a post concerning Pentagon plans to establish a command in Africa [African Command]. The new command, I noted, would be a 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. Anyone who has spent much time in the national security arena is well aware that the African continent has not been high on the U.S. priority list. Responsibility for watching security developments in Africa have been split between U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command. As this new development implies, Africa is becoming a more strategic area.

The Bush administration announced in February that it is moving forward with plans to establish the U.S. Africa Command. This has raised some fear among the countries of Africa as well as some analysts [“U.S. Africa Command Brings New Concerns,” by Walter Pincus, Washington Post, 28 May 2007].

“The creation of the Defense Department Africa Command, with responsibilities to promote security and government stability in the region, has heightened concerns among African countries and in the U.S. government over the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, according to a newly released study by the Congressional Research Service. … AFRICOM would have traditional responsibilities of a combat command ‘to facilitate or lead [U.S.] military operations’ on the continent, but would also include ‘a broader “soft power” mandate aimed at preemptively reducing conflict and would incorporate a larger civilian component to address those challenges,’ according to the CRS study.”

In the February White House statement about this new command, the President said:

“This new command will strengthen our security cooperation with Africa and create new opportunities to bolster the capabilities of our partners in Africa. Africa Command will enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth in Africa.”

It’s clear that security will be an issue, but warfighting will not be the only focus of AFRICOM. Pincus writes:

“At a briefing last month after a trip to six African countries, Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters: ‘We discussed different mission areas … emphasizing the humanitarian, the building partnership capability, [and] civil affairs aspects.’ He said he discussed working ‘with the host nations to improve their capacity to exercise sovereignty over any ungoverned spaces’ where terrorists could establish training bases.”

The new command won’t be formally established until September 2008, although a transition staff is being established in Stuttgart, Germany. In the meantime, Admiral Harry Ulrich, Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, is not waiting to put his own plans for strengthening ties with Africa into place [“U.S. Navy Seeks to Expand Presence in W. Africa,” by Christopher P. Cavas, Defense News, 4 June 2007].

“The U.S. Navy is working with countries around the Gulf of Guinea to help establish a continuing naval presence in West Africa, the service’s top official in Europe said May 31. “I’m not sure we’ve cast a wide-enough net to make this as powerful as it can be for our partners,” Adm. Harry Ulrich, commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, told a group of African representatives at a forum in Washington.  Driving the Navy’s effort is the Global Fleet Stations (GFS) concept, where a U.S. Navy ship would spend several months in a region to provide a wide range of assistance and training, all in an effort to improve regional maritime security and safety.”

For decades the Navy has been conducting West African Training Cruises, but this new concept provides a more stable naval presence in the area. Cavas notes that improved relations with African countries should help improve intelligence efforts there, especially about possible terrorist activity. But Ulrich wants to make sure that this increased presence is mutually beneficial.

“The Navy over the past several years has steadily increased its appearances in West Africa, from about 12 days in 2004 to nearly full-time now. But a ship is not always on station — Ulrich noted that presently, only several P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft are in the region — and the United States would like a more capable platform. ‘We’re getting a large-volume ship,’ Ulrich explained to reporters, ‘and loading it with expertise — training teams — and we’re going to go down to the Gulf of Guinea and work the 11 Gulf of Guinea nations and build maritime capability and capacity. The ship is a platform that holds the training teams and the students, visiting the countries, bringing the students together and improving on their knowledge skills and ability so that they can provide for their own maritime safety and security.’ Plans are not yet finalized, but the ship is likely to be the landing ship dock Fort McHenry, based at Little Creek, Va., as part of the Atlantic Fleet. Amphibious ships like the Fort McHenry are designed to carry more than 400 Marines, as well as cargo, vehicles, landing craft and aircraft. Ulrich said he expects the ship to deploy to West Africa this fall and return in the spring of 2008. From 200 to 300 military personnel organized into various teams are expected to make the deployment in addition to the ship’s crew of just over 400, Ulrich said, adding the exact number and skills of the teams are still being worked out. The Navy has deployed several ships to the region in recent years, including a Mediterranean-based submarine tender and a command ship, and a frigate. But the GFS concept envisions something more substantial, Ulrich said. ‘What’s different is that we’ve sent smaller ships down to essentially do port visits. And as part of those port visits they’ve done some of this training that I’ve described. I find that to be very inefficient and not nearly as effective as I’d like to be.’ Current plans envision the Fort McHenry working a circuit, traveling between Senegal, Liberia, Ghana, Cameroon, São Tomé and Principe, Gabon and Angola. Training and support teams would be dropped off and picked up at each stop, spreading the deployment’s expertise around the area.”

As Cavas notes, one glaring omission to the list of countries to be visited is Nigeria. Things there simply remain too unsettled for the types of missions the Fort McHenry intends to carry out. Many Nigerians are still smarting from what they consider corrupt elections. Everyone involved is well aware, however, that success in the region (as well as much of the rest of sub-Saharan African) depends on the peaceful development of Africa’s most populated nation.

“Ambassador Peter Chaveas, director of the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), noted the importance of Nigeria as part of a successful GFS effort. ‘If you’re going to address the issues of maritime safety and security in the Gulf of Guinea you simply can’t do it without Nigeria,’ he told reporters. ‘That’s absolutely critical to it.’ Ulrich, who spoke at the ACSS offices at Fort McNair in Washington, said that although the Nigerian government was approached last year about participating in the deployment, the prospect of an upcoming national election caused the Nigerians to ask to revisit the issue at a later time. Ulrich noted that the inauguration May 29 of new Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua should clear the way for talks. ‘After they get their new ministers assigned we’ll re-engage them, and I have great anticipation that they’ll participate at that time,’ Ulrich said.”

Chaveas and Ulrich both understand that African nations view this latest initiative with some skepticism. Attention for Africa has come in fits and starts, but with little lasting commitment.
The Americans also are working hard to gain Africans’ confidence that the new effort represents a long-term commitment.

“‘One aspect of Africans’ experience with the United States,’ Chaveas said, ‘is that the United States has shown a great tendency to start some great initiatives and too often the experience is we’re not there five years later. We don’t follow through on it. And so Africans look at these things skeptically with that in mind.’ The key, he added, is to ‘make the case that we’re in this with them for the longer term.’ Ulrich said he was committed to a longer-term effort with the GFS initiative. ‘I don’t want to leave you with the impression that we’re going to do it, then we’re going to pause, then we’re going to stop. Just the opposite,’ he said. ‘My aspiration is to have a ship there essentially 365 days a year.'”

The new Africa Command and Global Fleet Stations should go a long ways towards convincing African leaders that things are changing and that their part of the world is becoming more strategically important. The promising thing about these new initiatives is that they are not simply looking for seek and destroy missions but seek real cooperation in a number of areas. As the President noted, we have a number of common interests including, development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth in Africa. These sectors represent the foundations upon which a more peaceful and prosperous continent can emerge.

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