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US/Africa: A militarised diplomacy

Posted on Monday, 22 March 2010 11:27

The USA’s men in khaki are increasing their activity in Africa, despite a cold reception to the idea of hosting a base on the continent and warnings that the endeavour risks conflating local problems with international terrorist groups.

In a series of articles on US military policy in Africa,The Africa Reportinterviews the soldiers in charge of Africom, the US Africa Command in Stuttgart, and visits its Camp Lemonier base in Djibouti. Our team of journalists report from Mali where the US is providing training and trucks to the Malian military, and examine the amount of military spending in Africa.

In a former Nazi commando camp on the outskirts of Stuttgart in Germany, US military strategy in Africa is taking shape. For it is this drab and heavily reinforced compound, the Kelley Barracks, that serves as headquarters for the US Africa Command (Africom). The initial idea of headquartering the command in Africa was dropped after a fierce debate on the continent in which several states made it clear that a US military command would not be welcome. Depending on who one talks to, Africom is either a constructive effort at engagement with a region too long neglected by the US government or the beginnings of a sinister neocolonial adventure.

Certainly, Africom – the newest of the USA’s regional military commands – shows the growing geopolitical importance of Africa. Traditionally, Washington’s security establishment has shown little interest in Africa compared with its concentration of effort in Asia and Latin America. Faced with growing challenges – such as energy security, Islamist insurgencies and rivalry with China – US securocrats have been rethinking their military posture. The US has certainly increased its presence, but it has been increased with an arm’s-length strategy, with little room for understanding local issues. There are boots on the ground but more drones in the air. US troops do not engage in African peacekeeping efforts, taking painful lessons from the East African embassy bombings and failed US missions in Somalia.

Getting its bearings

Africom got off to a wobbly start under former President George W. Bush in 2007, amid accusations that it would promote the militarisation of US-Africa policy. African governments almost unanimously opposed the US invasion of Iraq and consequently were sceptical about US intentions in Africa.

Since the beginning of President Barack Obama’s administration, greeted with general enthusiasm in Africa, Washington has talked peace and multilateralism on the international front, while waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. During Obama’s first trip to Africa in July 2009, he told the Ghanaian parliament that “we must first recognise the fundamental truth … Development depends on good governance.” There has been a toning down of the ‘war on terror’ rhetoric and, according to the Africom Commander, General William ‘Kip’ Ward, an indefinite deferral of plans to locate the command headquarters in Africa, but there has been no big push to support African good governance.


General William ‘Kip’ Ward, Commander of US Africa Command

The Africa Report: How do you see the role of the Africa Command?

GENERAL WILLIAM WARD: We try to do things that will cause our activities to lead to the increased capacity of Africans to provide for their own security, which is a pretty substantial departure from other Pentagon commands. Now, to be sure, if the president of United States says, “Ward, we want you to go and do something,” then with the proper resources and policy we’ll go do it, but that’s not the day today.Our approach is a different approach because of the lack of assigned [military] forces in our command. We will work with others who have a stake in bringing stability, be those inter-agency partners or international actors – the Department of State or USAID, for example.

Have you overcome initial suspicions about the USA’s motives in Africa??

Yes. We’re transparent in what we do. Where our programmes are going on on the continent, people are seeing what we’re doing – and they are not the things that were being said against us. I don’t go to Africa now and get those same kind of complaints.

Will Africom ever be based in Africa?

I don’t expect it but I don’t know, because the command’s headquarters is not the essential part of what we want to do with respect to our programmes and activities to work with Africans to increase their capacity.

Interviewed by Christopher Thompson

“There’s no need to move to Africa, we can do the job from here [in Germany],” one advisor said bluntly. Certainly the appointment of Ward, described by one confidant as “a gentleman soldier”, has done much to ease the jitters initially felt by many African states.

According to Chris Fomunyoh, ?Africa director at the US-based National Democratic Institute, Bush’s interventionist foreign policy and clumsy public relations had made many African governments uneasy at the prospect of an American base in their midst. “Since then, Ward has been on a publicity blitz,” he says. “So there isn’t the same level of suspicion like there was two or three years ago.”

The mood music has changed decisively, but it is far less clear whether the inauguration of Barack Obama has changed US military policy on the ground in Africa. A recent innovation is heightened cooperation with European military training programmes in countries such as Niger, Guinea, the DRC and Somalia. In some eyes this could represent a new pragmatism between US and European forces operating in some of Africa’s most resource-rich and strategically-important countries.

In the dusty, rain-starved outskirts of Djibouti sits Camp Lemonier, the base of the Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) and the USA’s most conspicuous physical presence on the continent.

Security is tight, the walls are heavily fortified and, in contrast to the neighbouring French base, US soldiers and staffers are not encouraged to leave the blast-proof perimeter. Those that infrequently do are reminded by a large sign near the exit to “Be careful out there!” Although it is the only US base in Africa, the US has signed security agreements with Algeria, Botswana, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, São Tomé e Príncipe, Sierra Leone, ?Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia for the use of their ‘security locations’, more commonly known as ‘lily pads’.

Drones and insurgents?

Africom also has three permanent contingency operating locations: at the Kenyan naval base at Manda Bay and at Hurso and Bilate in Ethiopia, all of which have been used to mount attacks on Somali insurgents. Last year, a US Navy Special Warfare Task Unit was deployed to Manda Bay to train ?Kenyan troops in anti-terrorism and coastal patrol missions.

Camp Lemonier, which has 1,900 military and civilian staff, was also built by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001. Since then it has offered a base for several regional military operations. Intelligence from the CJTF-HOA supported Ethiopia’s December 2006 invasion of Somalia, and its troops used military facilities in ?Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya to launch air raids and missile strikes in 2007 and 2008 against suspected Al Qaida militants in Somalia.

US officials also interrogated prisoners held by Ethiopian troops after the fall of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union in December 2006. Occasional ‘kinetic’ actions such as these have continued under Obama, most spectacularly when the Djibouti base supported the special forces-led assassination of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. He was killed in a daylight helicopter missile strike in September 2009 for his suspected role in the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Obama has given broad support to the Somali government of President Shiekh Ahmed Sheikh Sharif, who received at least two US shipments of weapons last year. In late 2009, the CJTF-HOA provided logistical support and supplies to the French-led training of 500 Transitional Federal Government soldiers. Recently the CJTF-HOA increased its monitoring of traffic of suspected Islamist radicals between Somalia and Yemen, which Nigerian Islamist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab visited prior to his alleged attempt to blow up a US airliner en route to Detroit on 25 December.

Africom’s strategy of increased engagement with local forces while keeping American troops off the front lines is facing its first serious tests in Somalia. The Somali government launched a new offensive to retake Mogadishu in March, backed by US intelligence and funding. It was not immediately clear whether US aid would tip the balance against the Al Shabaab rebels.

The three d’s?

Under Obama, Africom makes much of its partnerships with African states under its ‘three D’ approach: diplomacy, development and defence. Yet according to officials, Africom’s top priority is counter-terrorism, much as it was under Bush. Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and narcotics trafficking – both of which are on the rise – are lesser, if important, concerns. Officials in the State Department and at USAID complain that Africom’s presence makes their jobs more difficult as the lines blur between aid and military diplomacy.

Africom helps train the African Union’s regional military brigades and provides logistics for AU peacekeeping operations in Darfur and Somalia. The trick, according to one analyst, “is not to be seen to be trying to usurp the AU security council’s role”.

Critics of the militarised approach are unlikely to be placated soon. Top of Africom’s priorities is Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara (OEF-TS), the USA’s ‘number three worldwide war on terrorism plan’, after Iraq and Afghanistan. The OEF-TS provides regional ‘anti-terrorist’ military training to armies in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia. Libyan membership is also being considered. Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is a particular target.

In helping such countries, the US runs the risk not only of being seen to prop up the security apparatuses of its favourite strongmen but also to falsely conflate what are essentially local insurgencies into a larger ‘war on terror’.

“Insurgencies in the Sahel are driven by local issues, and the US should use local intelligence to break them down into their discrete parts,” says Richard Cornwell at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies.

OEF-TS was allocated more than $436m between 2005 and 2009, and that figure is likely to grow. Africom officials said that since Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Detroit airplane bombing, Nigeria has acquired special prominence. One intelligence official at Africom said northern Nigeria “could become like western Pakistan – [terrorist] groups springing up all over the place, booming populations and incredible poverty”. This year’s regional military exercise in the Sahel, involving 600 US personnel, is codenamed Operation Flintlock. It is due to start in May and will be Africom’s biggest excercise to date.

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