AFRICOM on the Horn of Africa: The military’s fumbling humanitarian foot forward

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By Allison Burket, Associate Director

This article was initially published in our May -June 2010 newsletter

One of the stated advantages of the new U.S. military command for Africa (AFRICOM), has been that not only is it the first military command dedicated exclusively to Africa, a continent increasingly on our national security radar screen, but that it would also be one designed to take an innovative approach to security. Civilian and military leaders alike have increasingly emphasized the importance of addressing root causes of insecurity when trying to promote stability abroad, a trend that, in and of itself, could theoretically encourage a less militarized approach to foreign policy.

Yet, for the Department of Defense (DOD), this has meant movement towards a “3D” approach to security, which recognizes the role of diplomacy and development alongside defense in predicting and preventing conflict.  And for AFRICOM, this has meant becoming the first combatant command “plus” (to use Pentagon terminology), having an increased “soft power” mandate and pursuing a broader “interagency” approach to security. In practice, then, this trend has not meant improved diplomacy or development efforts, but an increased blurring of the lines between the roles and responsibilities of civilian and military branches of U.S. government abroad instead – one of the major concerns raised by groups like AFJN throughout AFRICOM’s unrolling. And AFRICOM’s most recent track record in the Horn of Africa suggests that these concerns haven’t been too far off the mark.

CJFT-HOA and its critics

With its proximity to the Middle East and an almost non-stop civil war in Somalia beginning in 1991, the Horn of Africa region has been of concern to the U.S. military for some time. The Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) and its host base in Djibouti were established in 2002 and originally designed to “capture and kill Islamist fighters and terrorists fleeing the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.” Coming under the control of AFRICOM in 2008, CJTF-HOA remains the U.S. military’s main operational presence on the continent.

CJTF-HOA’s stated mission is “to foster regional stability, build security capacity, and forge relationships using an indirect approach to counter violent extremism in the region” and many analysts consider it to be a model of the sort of “3D” approach AFRICOM aims to espouse. Thus, while it also remains involved in training and equipping programs and in targeted killings of al-Qaeda suspects (itself a subject of concern), CJTF-HOA has integrated diplomatic missions and humanitarian projects into its operations, aiming to win over “hearts and minds” in areas that may be susceptible to terrorist recruitment.

This military-led attempt to incorporate non-military foreign-policy tools into the battle against violent extremism not only sounds dubious but also has come under scrutiny by none other than the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which recently completed and released a report on a year-long audit of CJTF-HOA and its activities (read the full report here). The report identified a widespread lack of clarity about CJFT-HOA’s role and responsibilities in the region, but also insufficient knowledge and capability to pull off a humanitarian face, ultimately to the detriment of U.S. image in the region.

GAO found that AFRICOM lacked procedures for keeping track of and following-up on CJFT-HOA’s development projects, or for ensuring these projects appropriately fit within broader U.S. foreign policy goals. They came upon a dilapidated school that CJTF-HOA had built but long forgotten, a well that CJFT-HOA had dug without considering how the placement could cause conflicts within clan relationships, and numerous other projects with similar snafus. It became clear to GAO that CJTF-HOA personnel – with extremely short tour rotations typical of the military and insufficient cultural sensitivity training – contributed to an overall dysfunction in the application of CJTF-HOA’s mission, undermining the efficacy of any attempt at wielding “soft power” in the region.

The Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, which conducted extensive research on CJTF-HOA’s “hearts and mind” activities in eastern Kenya, takes the critique a step further. Their report found similar dysfunction in humanitarian projects, but they also zeroed in on the naïveté of the “hearts and minds” concept itself. Eastern Kenyans were well aware of the motivation for the humanitarian face and dubious of U.S. intentions. Even when grateful for a successful project, they were much more likely to maintain an opinion of the U.S. military informed by the military operations it conducts, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, or those contributing to the ongoing destabilizing role in the Horn—an opinion not likely to be swayed by small-scale projects.

Overall, scant evidence shows the kind of “soft power” activities that AFRICOM aims to expand end up increasing security for American, Somali, or Kenyan citizens. Meanwhile these activities simultaneously “threaten to erode long-held principles of aid provision based on need.” And, by linking humanitarian work so closely with the instruments of U.S. national security, CJTF-HOA compromises the neutrality that humanitarian workers rely on to access people in need during times of conflict.

In fact, because of allegations that food aid falls into the hands of al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked extremist group operating in Somalia, the U.S. has enforced a policy of withholding aid from organizations unless they can prove the aid will not reach that end (a virtually impossible requirement). Yet, U.S. arms sales and training and equipping programs for Somalia’s virtually powerless Transitional Federal Government (TFG) continues despite similar allegations.  The Associated Press, the New York Times, and others news organizations have reported that many U.S.-trained Somali soldiers regularly desert the TFG forces, sometimes to join al-Shabab, and that TFG officials often sell U.S.-provided weapons to al-Shabab. Furthermore, U.S. drone attacks and targeted killings of al-Qeada suspects certainly work against any attempts to inspire confidence among the Somali people that the U.S. is working for peace, as do increased scrutiny over U.S.-funded use of child soldiers by the TFG.

AFJN hopes that in light of these reports U.S. leaders will begin to raise serious questions about our engagement with Africa. Should AFRICOM, a military branch of U.S. foreign policy actively fueling the conflict in the Horn of Africa, be the one to begin taking the lead in “building relationships” and conducting humanitarian missions? Should the Defense budget truly be one of the only aspects of U.S. spending to not receive the freezes and line-by-line scrutiny currently facing the State Department and USAID budgets? And if CJTF-HOA is considered, as it is by many analysts, to be a model for the sort of activities AFRICOM and other “3-D” leaning branches of U.S. military could be doing, do we really want AFRICOM around at all?

This article was originally published in the May-June 2010 edition of Around Africa.

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