Published September 30, 2008
DAKAR, Senegal – A new command takes over all U.S. military operations in Africa on Wednesday, a controversial program that many Africans fear has a hidden agenda skewed by the war on terror and a self-interested scramble for resources.
Before Africom was created one year ago, American military programs on the continent had been divvied up by three other commands more concerned with NATO and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Commanders say Africom will bring a focused approach to Africa, which had never been a priority before.
But even some U.S. lawmakers have doubts — citing the intense hostility the program has generated among African governments.
"The Africom model and approach to date ... have serious flaws," Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass, who chairs the House national security and foreign affairs subcommittee, told The Associated Press.
Over the weekend, Congress slashed Africom's 2009 budget by a third to US$225 million. It also ordered Defense Secretary Robert Gates to report back by April 1 on how the command can be improved.
Africom is inheriting responsibility for a Centcom-run base in Djibouti, where 1,800 troops are deployed to keep Horn of Africa terror networks in check. It also takes over European Command's Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative and dozens of other military and maritime training programs.
Over the past year, Africom officials have crisscrossed the continent, fending off waves of suspicion and reiterating they have no plans to build new military bases outside Djibouti.
Tierney said the new command's rollout had been "badly bungled," its mission not made clear enough to African leaders.
Resistance among African governments has been so strong that commanders abandoned initial ambitions to install a headquarters on the continent. It is based in Stuttgart, Germany, instead, with about two dozen Africom liaison officers posted at embassies.
Africom's deputy for military operations, Vice Adm. Robert T. Moeller, said in a telephone interview Monday from Stuttgart that the confusion was "unfortunate" and the command's mandate has not changed.
"Our primary responsibility ... is working with our African partners to help them build their security capacity" — mainly by training armies and peacekeepers.
Moeller added that "a secure and stable Africa is very, very much in U.S strategic interests."
Indeed, West Africa's Gulf of Guinea already supplies more crude oil to the U.S. than the Persian Gulf. And failed states like Somalia have become havens for radical, al-Qaida-linked militants who bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Many of the African suspicions are rooted in the past.
Washington's Cold War legacy of supporting brutal dictators, coupled with Africa's tragic colonial history, has spawned a distrust of foreigners. And many believe it's no coincidence Africom was born as emerging powerhouses like China and India embark on a new scramble for the continent's increasingly valuable resources.
"Africans believe Africom is aimed at promoting America's interests, not Africa's," said Wafula Okumu, a Kenyan analyst at South Africa's Institute for Security Studies.
Most Africans don't trust their own militaries, which in places like Congo have turned weapons on their own people.
So "they don't trust Africom, either, because it's a military force," Okumu said. There is also "a suspicion America wants to use us, perhaps make us proxies" in the war on terror.
Moeller said counterterrorism is a priority for Africom, but it is not the only one.
From the beginning, Africom was cast as a different kind of command, one that would focus American military might not on fighting wars, but on preventing them through "soft power."
As part of the new approach, a civilian deputy equal to Moeller was appointed to coordinate humanitarian operations with other U.S. agencies. Africom's "interagency" makeup was trumpeted as a better way to meet the continent's development needs.
But only 13 of the 1,300 staff positions allotted so far are non-Defense Department jobs, a ratio Congress says is "not optimal for meeting U.S. long-term goals."
Erin Weir of Refugees International says Africom is part of a growing trend toward the "militarization" of American foreign policy, driven more by the war on terror than by development needs.
Over the last decade, the Washington-based group says the percentage of Pentagon-controlled development assistance abroad skyrocketed from 3 percent to 22 percent, while USAID's share dropped from 65 to 40 percent.
"Africom has become a lightening rod for a bigger concern, which is that U.S. foreign policy is being dictated almost entirely by the Department of Defense," Weir said.
Africom officials say such worries are unfounded. The organization says it aims to support, not shape U.S. policy. And of the US$9 billion America spends annually in sub-Saharan Africa, the Pentagon's share is just 3 percent.