Beyond AFRICOM: Toward a New Concept of Security in Africa

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Attaining security in the post-9/11 world has shaped the Bush administration’s foreign policy paradigm and has prompted a reorganization of the United States’ entire national security apparatus. New rules have been assigned, new positions created, and the US government has situated itself to take the lead in countering what it sees as the nation’s biggest security threat – radical Islam. But in the end, generating long-term security has less to do with fighting rogue terrorist groups than with bolstering the power of women, teachers, youth, microfinance, and an overall fair and equitable foreign policy.

At first, the United States’ post-9/11 foreign policy allowed for a reasonable course of retaliation against the Afghani government for its long history of supporting radical Islam. Al Qaeda cells were also targeted for their ties to the attacks on US homeland.  Then, the rhetoric and procedures began to shift. It is now no longer about exerting retribution upon those particular individuals who did America harm, it is about a Global War on Terror, a war that instills fear in the American people, and according to the Bush Administration, a war that justifies a vast network of defense and security operations worldwide.

The most recent –and perhaps the most disturbing– development in today’s foreign policy strategy is the mission of the new US military command for Africa (AFRICOM).

The current administration sees Africa as a possible threat both because of its geopolitical location near the Middle East and its substantial Muslim population. The American government also recognizes the natural resource wealth of the continent as a foundation for replenishing the world’s depleting oil supplies, allowing the US to maintain its dependence on foreign fuel.

To the public, AFRICOM is presented as a benign presence that will bring stability, peace, and prosperity to the African continent. Looking deeper, it is a military command that has been structured to give the Department of Defense (DoD) a dangerous level of jurisdiction over the State Department, USAID, and other civilian agencies. Ambassadors, who have traditionally been the point-persons for US foreign operations, may now report to General William E. Ward, Commander of AFRICOM.

Developments like AFRICOM reveal that the Bush Administration’s new national security strategy relies on putting soldiers at the front of nearly all foreign operations. Unsurprisingly then, African civil society and many African governments have voiced a resounding ‘no’ to AFRICOM that only confirms the need for the US to re-evaluate its War on Terror and hunt for oil. The concerns of the US government are in some ways legitimate, but the strategy has been such that Africans now feel harassed by the flawed agenda of the Bush Administration.

If indeed the new command is intended to bring security to the African people, the mandate must change. Ultimately, the US government must recognize the power of a just and fair foreign policy in Africa and must listen to the voices arising on the continent. By investing in other aspects of security beyond those of the DoD, the US could go a long way toward achieving stability and democracy in Africa.

What the people of Africa need is not increased military presence but debt relief, fair trade policies, jobs, expansion of education, and improvements upon existing US legislation such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Account. If the US were willing to boost the budgets of the State Department and USAID toward these ends, we may find precisely the results the Bush Administration is seeking in terms of stability. Long-term security is not generated through armed soldiers but rather through teachers, women, youth, microfinance, and an overall fair and equitable foreign policy.

Though the foibles of the current administration are playing out particularly strong in AFRICOM, it is not just Africans who will suffer. SouthCom, the US military command in Latin America, is also seeing its mandate reformed and restructured to fit the new post-9/11 strategy. Quietly but surely, the State Department has given some of its power of diplomacy to the Defense Department, to the detriment of the people of foreign nations as well as the United States.

Ultimately, peace and democracy in Africa are elements that can be attained if America is willing to work in concert with Africans to determine their needs and desires. Pushing a military strategy that serves merely to benefit special interest groups like private military sub-contractors and the oil industry will only provoke opposition, as it has already done in many countries around the world. Advancing a diplomatic strategy that relies on true partnership with African governments, the African Union, and African civil society is the only approach that is truly in the mutual, long-term interests of the American people and the citizens of Africa’s many nations.

Fear of terrorism and shortages of oil precludes the US government from setting its sights on a more practical, just, and beneficial foreign policy strategy. The war in Iraq, AFRICOM, and the restructuring of the executive branch are merely pieces of an overall shift – a shift that must be opposed, not least because of its capacity to damage the lives of foreign citizens for the sake of America’s immediate interests.

–Beth Tuckey

A modified version of this article appeared in Pambazuka News and on AllAfrica.com. February 2008.

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