The Disturbing Direction of US Africa Policy

The creation of AFRICOM signifies deeper and more sustained U.S. military engagement on the continent than we have ever seen. Yet, AFRICOM is hardly surprising; the militarization of U.S. Africa policy has been underway for a decade now. The danger though lies in what is increasingly absent: accountability.

Ironically, the latest phase in U.S. Africa policy began and is now culminating with Somalia. The end of the Cold War brought new Western optimism for humanitarian operations, especially in Africa. The first Bush administration, in its final days, authorized 25,000 U.S. marines for “peacekeeping” in Somalia. President Clinton supported this mission, until eighteen troops were brutally killed in October 1993. Domestic pressure forced rapid withdrawal.

The resulting cynicism led Clinton to issue the famous Presidential Decision Directive 25, stating that the U.S. would only send peacekeepers to conflicts that “pose direct threat to our national security.” For some, this signaled disengagement from Africa. However, the result was not detachment, but subtler relationships. In particular, U.S. policy since has prioritized strengthening bilateral military relationships with key geo-strategic allies, such as Nigeria, Ethiopia and Uganda. In exchange for supporting U.S. interests, these allies have received increased aid, diplomatic support and military cooperation.

Military assistance and training of these African allies has also steadily increased, much of it under the heading of “peacekeeping.” Clinton launched the Africa Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI), which current President Bush has continued under the new name African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA). Between these two programs, the U.S. trained at least 10,000 African troops from 1997 to 2005. Though helpful to build capacity, this training has privileged particular national militaries, instead of regional or sub-regional bodies.

The ‘war on terror’ has changed the political landscape, but U.S. privileging of military relationships has only increased. According to the World Policy Institute, foreign military financing has doubled from 2000 to 2006. Coordination on counterterrorism has intensified existing alliances and fostered new unlikely ties with states such as Algeria and Sudan. Intelligence sharing and military access have taken clear priority over peacemaking.

In addition, the U.S. military has sought unprecedented access to the continent. The 2002 establishment of the Djibouti-based Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa has placed at least 1,800 U.S. troops permanently in the region. This has coincided with the establishment of “access points,” where the U.S. military can refuel aircraft, temporarily house soldiers and store equipment. Such points now exist in Algeria, Kenya and Uganda. This groundwork provides foundation for AFRICOM.

The strategy here is to position the U.S. military to support regional allies as they pursue specific U.S. counter-terror objectives on the continent. Rather than getting bogged down in Somalia as happened in 1993, why not let African militaries do the dirty work? Many African leaders, anxious for aid and diplomatic cover, have happily accepted such arrangements. The perk (or peril) of this approach is that accountability is elusive.

This brings us back to Somalia. At the end of 2006, Ethiopia invaded to dismantle the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), who had seized control of Mogadishu just six months before. The U.S., along with giving tacit approval for this incursion, supported with two air strikes on southern Somalia on 8 and 23 January. The quick defeat of the Islamists was hailed as a victory for counter-terrorism, yet optimism faded as Mogadishu plunged into violence. March and April have brought the worst violence in Somalia since its civil war in the early 1990s.

Yet, as one journalist aptly put it: “Somalia burns, but does anyone care?” Surely, some of us do. The question, though, is how we expose and engage these recent trends. How do we begin mobilizing now before Somalia becomes just the first in a long line of new proxy wars in Africa? The erosion of political accountability will likely continue as military relationships deepen with the advent of AFRICOM.

Until we name this phenomenon, we cannot engage or resist it. The first step must be a serious appraisal of this militarization, understanding its roots and context. This is a conversation not just for those in Washington, but for peacebuilders and activists throughout Africa.

As U.S. engagement in Africa continues, the message of Isaiah could not be timelier: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” We must become the Isaiah’s of today.

By Peter Quaranto

Peter Quaranto is a Marshall Scholar, studying at the University of Bradford’s Peace Studies department. He co-founded AFJN’s sponsored campaign, the Uganda Conflict Action Network, which has become Resolve Uganda. He now works as a senior researcher for that organization and has provided us with this reflection on the new US military command for Africa.