By Allison Burket
Ariticle originally published in the Nov-Dec 09 edition of Around Africa
A recent conference on Capitol Hill, hosted by a think tank called the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (CADS) gave AFJN and other organizations an important insight into the ongoing definition and operation of the new military command for Africa (AFRICOM). It’s not that those who are proposing and directing AFRICOM are not hearing the opposition. It’s that they’re not really listening.

Well before AFRICOM’s official launch in October, 2008, organizations like AFJN have voiced concerns about AFRICOM seeing it as both a continuation of failed military practices on the continent and a new willingness to allow military to take the lead within U.S. foreign policy, at the expense of diplomatic and development efforts. The poor track record of U.S. military engagements on the continent, the ongoing training and equipping of militaries with miserable human rights records, and the tendency for an overconfident military to trump civilian oversight, are among some of the concerns members of civil society in the U.S. and in Africa have very actively voiced in response to the launch of the new command.

The comments of various contributors to the half-day conference – billed as a balanced conversation representing all voices on the issue – demonstrated that the outcry in response to AFRICOM’s launch has in fact been acknowledged by AFRICOM and State Department leadership. Louis Mazel from the State Department assured us that processes and programs were in place to reinforce the so-called “chief of mission authority,” emphasizing that military programs will always be controlled by the ambassador and steered by foreign policy objectives. The Government Accountability Office pointed to some of the increased oversight mechanisms for military programs by non-military personnel. Col. Paul Daniels of AFRICOM assured us that a long-term approach to policy in Africa is important to them. And, as everyone associated with AFRICOM seems to do when in public, they all spoke of helping Africans help themselves, of working such that “African nations can provide for their own security.” Are these promises really the solutions we are looking for?

In addition, there was agreement that the bewilderment within civil society surrounding the nature of AFRICOM and the contradictory messages about its purpose was due not only to poor public relations on the part of the command, but to a profound confusion within the command itself about its role and purpose. The consensus seemed to be that, while AFRICOM was not launched properly and is still not perfect, if we give it enough time, things will be straightened out. John Pendleton of the Government Accountability Office counseled “patience.” He said, “We’ve looked at lots of large-scale organizational transformation. They take typically five years. This …is going to take at least that long while everybody sort of figures out what their lane is.”

For AFJN, such concessions and adjustments in AFRICOM’s protocol demonstrate the importance of our advocacy, yet it is far from enough. In the meantime, the military assistance to the continent continues. Late October of this year, United States announced a $5 million increase in military aid to Mali, in the form of trucks, communication devices, and other pieces of military equipment, to help the Malian military fight the North African branch of al-Qaeda, known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has a presence in northern Mali.

Yet, conflict with Tuareg tribesmen in the north of Mali is many decades old and has grown out of disagreements over state boundaries and declining agricultural viability more than from the influence of transnational terrorist groups. Despite the promises of development efforts as a road to peace from past Malian governments, as Vijay Prashad from Trinity College in Connecticut puts it, “More money is on offer for counterterrorism than for development.” Current President Amadou Toumani Touré of Mali, a former military general, has promised a “total struggle” against the “terrorists” in the north, meaning that the development needs of the people in the region will continue to fade into the background, and the root causes of the instability will remain unaddressed.

While AFRICOM officials would likely point to the collaboration with the Mali military as an example of our readiness to help African nations develop their own security capacity, it is important to ask why and with what consequences this aid is being requested and delivered. The specter of al-Qaeda in North Africa and in the Sahelian region has been exaggerated in the past by African leaders looking for U.S. support as a means of bringing dissenting groups under state control. To be sure, incentive can be found in the rich mineral resources and the presence of oil deposits in the Tuareg’s region as well. Meanwhile, John Pendleton of the GAO reports that U.S. military programs in the Sahel region of Africa are characterized by “a lot of disagreement about the objectives, a lot of confusion.” Even further, U.S.-trained militaries in Mali and Niger have committed well-documented human rights abuses against the Tuaregs. Yet the aid continues.

Overall, it is clear that the lens through which officials understand and analyze “African security issues” still needs serious work. No one should be expected to believe that AFRICOM knows what African nations need to “provide for their own security,” when the record continues to show a short-sighted perspective based on fighting terrorism and protecting oil access. And it is hard to expect improved security on the continent when military-to-military relationships are the most heavily resourced facets of U.S. foreign policy. Professor Sandra Barnes of the University of Pennsylvania put it best: “When U.S. policies are carried out through the U.S. military, counterparts become their most influential points of contact,” she explained. “This means that the very people who lead the least democratic institutions are in the strongest positions to guide the thinking of the U.S. military officials who make profound decisions that can have long-term effects on African populations.”

The broader reality of the role of the military in African governments and the way our nation’s hefty financial, technical, and hardware contributions shift the balance of power within a nation, makes clear the insufficiency of changes promised at the conference – refinements in AFRICOM operating procedures, assurance of “selective partnering” alongside efforts to root out human rights violators, and things like the recruitment of sufficient number of State Department officials to increase civilian input and coordination. For the decision-makers at the conference, whether their concern for African nations’ ability to provide security for themselves is sincere or simply a rhetorical face for an energetic pursuit of American interests, the historical and ongoing reality on the ground demand that they take several steps back. Until they can take into account the complex economic, environmental, political, and historical causes of conflict on the continent, AFRICOM needs to stop.
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