The American Legion Magazine
May 1, 2008
By Alan W. Dowd

For all its imperfections, the Bush administration deserves credit for something that few Americans have noticed over the last seven-plus years: elevating Africa to more than a foreign policy footnote.

Even as the administration focused on thwarting terrorist attacks in America, wresting nukes from North Korea and Iran, and prosecuting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it managed to build an infrastructure of programs and polices that future administrations will use to stabilize Africa.

The creation of the Pentagon’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) is only the latest example of America’s newfound interest in what was once a forgotten continent.


AFRICOM is an idea whose time has come. As Gen. William Ward, the first commander of AFRICOM, observes, “The economic, political and social importance of the African continent continues to grow.”

Ending what Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls an “outdated arrangement left over from the Cold War,” AFRICOM is the natural result of Washington’s long-overdue decision to formalize and focus its patchwork of operations on the continent. Africa was previously divided among three of the Pentagon’s geographic commands—Central Command (CENTCOM), which had overseen Egypt and much of East Africa; Pacific Command (PACOM), which had overseen the islands off Africa’s east coast; and European Command (EUCOM), which had shouldered responsibility for the rest of the Africa.

Once fully operational in October 2008, AFRICOM will have primary responsibility for the entire African continent, except Egypt, which will remain under CENTCOM’s purview.

According to the AFRICOM Transition Team, the new command will help Washington “prevent and respond to humanitarian crises,” combat terrorism, stabilize the continent and coordinate various interagency efforts with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department.

According to Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, the command will focus on “war-prevention rather than war-fighting.” She talks about “a more holistic approach” to security and development. And she notes that, if successful, AFRICOM will make U.S. military interventions less necessary. “AFRICOM is about helping Africans build greater capacity to assure their own security,” she explains.

By supporting the State Department, USAID and their various development programs, AFRICOM will encourage what Ward calls “African solutions to African challenges.” And by integrating closely with civilian agencies, AFRICOM will be decidedly different than its sister commands. For instance, AFRICOM’s deputy commander will be a high-ranking Foreign Service officer.

“It’s an evolutionary construct,” Ward concedes.[1] But it may be necessary, given Africa’s unique challenges and AFRICOM’s focus on humanitarian and development efforts. As Whelan has observed, “The United States spends approximately $9 billion a year in Africa funding programs in such areas as health, development, trade promotion and good governance”—but only $250 million on security-related programs.

Last year, The Economist reported “keen competition among African countries to host AFRICOM’s new headquarters.” That’s largely a function of the positive feelings many Africans hold for the United States. Polling conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals that African nations occupy eight of the top 11 spots in a survey of global views of the United States, with Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali and Uganda embracing “American ideas about democracy” and “American ways of doing business.”

According to National Defense Magazine, Navy officials are proposing to base the new command aboard a high-tech “joint command and control ship.”

No matter where AFRICOM is ultimately headquartered, Whelan says the Pentagon plans to “keep our footprint very small and very discreet.”


Some have criticized the new command for militarizing U.S. foreign policy in Africa. Last year, for example, Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, noted that some African governments “believe we are trying to extend the global war on terror.”

Although he seemed pleased that AFRICOM would elevate America’s relationship with Africa to a “priority rather than an afterthought,” Payne criticized the administration for a lack of consultation with Congress. “I was shocked and dismayed when I learned from a newspaper of the administration’s plans to establish AFRICOM,” he intoned.

The administration’s poor communication skills notwithstanding, what is really shocking and dismaying is the fact that it took until 2007 for the U.S. to create a military command devoted expressly to Africa, a resource-rich, war-torn continent of 877 million people.

As various witnesses observed during hearings chaired by Payne, for most of the postwar era, Washington’s Africa policy has ranged from “benign neglect” to “strategic neglect.” Indeed, one wonders how different Africa might be today if there had been an AFRICOM in 1992, 1994, 1998 or 2002. Maybe Somalia wouldn’t have starved. Maybe 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis would still be alive. Maybe al Qaeda wouldn’t have hit America’s embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Maybe Darfur wouldn’t have slid toward genocide.

AFRICOM cannot change the past, but it can impact the future—a future that promises to force Americans to pay more attention to Africa. As President George W. Bush observed before his 2008 tour across Africa, the continent is “increasingly vital to our strategic interests.”

What are those interests?

Protecting the free flow of energy

“Persistent insecurity in Nigeria’s oil producing region,” according to Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, “poses a direct threat to U.S. strategic interests in sub-Saharan Africa.” In fact, the United States imports almost 15 percent of its oil from Nigeria. Nigeria is fifth, and Angola sixth, on the list of U.S. crude-oil suppliers.

Esther Pan at the Council on Foreign Relations reports that Nigeria’s oil reserves may approach 40 billion barrels. Angola is pumping two million barrels per day. And Equatorial Guinea’s “oil reserves per capita approach and may exceed those of Saudi Arabia.”

Gabon, Congo and Sudan also have oil reserves that may prove crucial in the coming decades.

Countering China

Geopolitics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and China has been filling the vacuum in Africa.

In McConnell’s understated words, “Beijing still engages in some activities—including arms sales—that could contribute to instability in Africa.”

Pan offers the details: China has provided military equipment and/or training to Equatorial Guinea; Sudan; Ethiopia; Eritrea; Burundi; Tanzania, recipient of “at least thirteen covert shipments of weapons labeled as agricultural equipment;” and Zimbabwe, recipient of fighter jets, military vehicles and small arms.

China is also investing billions in Africa’s oil-rich areas. Craving stability and resources, Somalia recently granted China oil-exploration rights.

Plus, as the Heritage Foundation’s Peter Brookes notes, China has invested $2 billion in Angola’s oil fields, $3 billion in Nigeria and $10 billion in the Sudanese energy sector.

Fighting Islamic radicalism

But China is not America’s only concern in Africa. Hoping to prevent the Talibanization of Africa, U.S. forces have been quietly at work on the forgotten continent since late 2001.

As The Washington Post reported in 2005, programs such as the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative provide training, equipment and intelligence to militaries in Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Jane’s Defense reports that elements of the 3rd Special Forces Group are in Mali.[2]

The U.S. task force in Djibouti numbers some 2,000 troops, and the U.S. is expanding its Djibouti base from 97 acres to nearly 500 acres.

“We are trying to dry up the recruiting pool for al Qaeda,” as Maj. Gen. Timothy Ghormley, who commanded U.S. forces on the Horn of Africa, told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006. “We’re waging peace just as hard as we can.”

And they are waging war in Africa with the same blend of ferocity and finesse. Recall last year’s operations in and around Somalia, which saw the U.S. military assist Somali and Ethiopian forces in their battle against jihadists along Africa’s east coast.  

Preventing humanitarian disasters and bolstering democracy

A recent report by The Economist tallies 11 different peacekeeping missions in Africa. Some are run by the African Union, others by the European Union, still others by the United Nations. In their totality, they underscore how fragile and fractured the continent remains—and how important AFRICOM could be to the continent’s future.

The U.S. has trained 39,000 African peacekeepers since 2005—“over 80 percent of African peacekeepers who are currently deployed,” according to the White House. Thousands of them have been sent to Darfur, the blood-soaked region in Sudan where an estimated 200,000 people have died in what Washington calls “genocide.”

A recent AP analysis found that the U.S. is spending $100 million to train and equip AU peacekeepers bound for Sudan. But so far, the UN-AU peacekeeping force has been ineffective in the face of a defiant Sudanese government.

In a grim repeat of what happened in the early 1990s, Western militaries and navies are again escorting aid deliveries bound for Somalia. Indeed, the waters around Africa are lawless, prompting the U.S. Navy and its allies to fight one of the sea’s oldest scourges: piracy.

Late last year, for instance, the destroyer USS Porter sank pirate boats that had hijacked a Japanese tanker. This year, the amphibious landing ship USS Fort McHenry led a maritime security training program in West Africa known as Africa Partnership Station.

Kenya was once considered an African success story. But in 2008, it spiraled into bloodshed after dubious election results kept the opposition out of power. At least a thousand were killed—and a quarter-million displaced—in the resulting chaos. McConnell labeled it “a major setback in a country that had long been among Africa’s most prosperous, peaceful and stable countries.” Indeed, Kenya is a sobering reminder that even Africa’s most stable and progressive countries are only an election away from sliding backwards.

Of course, Liberia is a reminder of the opposite—that even places where democracy has been trampled can be revived.

By invading Liberia and seizing power in the 1990s, Charles Taylor triggered what the State Department calls “one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars.” It claimed 200,000 lives before regional and international organizations could engineer Taylor’s removal and put Liberia on the path to stability. Backed by the U.S. and the UN, and committed to fighting corruption, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—Africa’s first democratically elected female leader—is now leading her country along that path.

Taylor, who supported rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone in yet another civil war that killed 50,000, was exiled to Nigeria and indicted on war crimes charges by courts in Sierra Leone. With regional and international support, the war-torn country held free elections in 2007.

“In the past four years,” Bush observes, “there have been more than 50 democratic elections in Africa.”

Triumph and Tragedy

“Some people believe that we are establishing AFRICOM solely to fight terrorism or to secure oil resources or to discourage China,” Whelan has observed. “This is not true.”

But if these aren’t “solely” AFRICOM’s mission, then it is fair to infer that they account for part of AFRICOM’s mission—and that’s a good thing.

Complementing AFRICOM’s ambidextrous mission are new development and relief programs, including:

  • The Millennium Challenge Account. The MCA provides grants to countries that fight corruption, govern justly, embrace free markets, and invest in health and education. So far, 21 of the 41 countries that have been approved for MCA grants are found in Africa. And Bush notes that “two-thirds of the MCA’s $5.5 billion is being invested in Africa.”
  • The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Launched in 2003, at a time when only 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa were receiving antiretroviral AIDS drugs, the $15-billion PEPFAR program is now treating 1.4 million Africans. Thirteen of PEPFAR’s 15 focus countries are in Africa. Bush is working with Congress to double America’s initial investment, and he has persuaded the G-8 to match America’s commitment.
  • The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. This paved the way for unprecedented U.S.-Africa trade. Imports from sub-Saharan Africa have grown to $50 billion—six times their 2001 levels—and U.S. exports have doubled to $14 billion.
  • The President’s Malaria Initiative. This $1.2-billion program is credited with protecting 25 million people by distributing bed nets and medicine. In early 2008, Bush announced a joint U.S.-Tanzanian effort to distribute another 5.2 million insecticide-treated bed nets.[3]

Longtime Africa activist Bob Geldoff has called Bush’s transformative efforts on the continent a “triumph of American policy.”[4] But given the challenges that still loom in Africa, we’re a long way from triumph.

The good news is that AFRICOM and these humanitarian programs put America in a better position than ever before to prevent the tragedies that have scarred Africa for generations.

[1] Jim Garamone, “New commander speaks of military’s newest combatant command,” American Forces Press Service, October 4, 2007.

[2] See Ann Scoot Tyson, “US pushes anti-terrorism in Africa,” Washington Post, July 26, 2005; Nathan Hodge, “Training programmes signal deepening US ties with West Africa,” Jane’s Defense, September 7, 2007, www.janes.com/news/defence/land/jdw/jdw070907_1_n.shtml.

[3] AP, “Bush, in Tanzania, highlights anti-malaria effort,” February 18, 2008.

[4]Jon Ward, “Bob Geldof in Rwanda gives Bush his props,” The Washington Times, February 18, 2008.