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U.S.-Africa Relations to Militarize?

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/bush-podium2.jpgPresident George W. Bush (WDCpix)

When President George W. Bush toured Africa in February, he found African leaders steering the conversation to the Pentagon’s new U.S. Africa command, or Africom.

Africom is slated to begin operations in September. It marks the Pentagon’s first centralized operation for Africa, like the Defense Dept. now has, for example, Eucom for Europe or Centcom for the Middle East. The Pentagon, though, has envisioned using Africom as more than a military command. It is designed to help build U.S. soft power in Africa, through what it calls “active security” missions — like building schools and digging wells.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

To many African political leaders, this sounds a lot like an imperialist enterprise. They say Africom’s “active security” will result in the construction of military bases across the continent in order to interfere with sovereign political systems — and access the region’s oil reserves. Currently, the Pentagon has only one African base, at Dijbouti in the perpetually unstable, resource-poor Horn of Africa.

On the last day of his six-day tour, Bush finally addressed the topic of Africom, telling the president of Ghana, John Kufour, that it was “baloney” and “bull” that Africom will mean U.S. military bases in Africa.

Bush’s denials were continued last week by Pentagon officials who steadfastly repeated at a Congressional hearing Tuesday that Africom will follow the wish of almost every African country and not build military bases.

Left unanswered from the Bush administration, though, is what, then, Africom will do. A government audit released at the hearing indicates that there is great confusion between the Pentagon and State Dept. over whether Africom means that military officials, instead of relief workers and ambassadors, will work on Africa’s humanitarian and economic issues like combating AIDS and poverty. Without a clear plan, the administration has left itself vulnerable to critics, who think Africom will exploit Africa’s oil, and to lawmakers, who are simply confused.

“There is no strategy here that anybody can pinpoint or put a budget on,” said Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s National Security and Foreign Affairs subcommittee, which held the hearing.

“It’s not clear to me what’s happening here,” said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.). “I wish we knew if it was a mission to help Africa with its problems or have Africa help the U.S. with our problems.”

The new Government Accountability Office audit released Tuesday explained that Bush announced the creation of Africom in February 2007 as a way to provide a U.S. military presence on the continent — but one that wouldn’t engage in conflicts. Instead, the military would do “conflict-prevention programs,” ranging from training African military officers to conducting HIV/AIDS education.

Africom is also a response to what the president called the “emerging strategic importance” of Africa, in terms of both counterterrorism operations and China’s growing relationship with the continent. The president’s fiscal-year 2009 budget has put $400 million toward launching Africom.

But, as the GAO explains, Africom has set off alarm bells among both Africans and Americans already working in Africa. State Dept. officials as well non-governmental organizations are concerned that the Pentagon’s active security and conflict-prevention missions will be “militarizing U.S. foreign policy.” U.S. assistance to Africa has been traditionally left to ambassadors, the State Dept’s U.S. Agency for International Development and groups like the Red Cross.

Africom has also upset African nations who equated the planned construction of five Pentagon offices in Africa with the implementation of military bases and U.S. troops patrolling the continent. Anxious about bases, all 53 African countries, except Liberia, have said they don’t want a U.S. military command in their country. Instead, Africom’s headquarters will be in Stuttgart, Germany, until at least 2011.

Maj. Gen, Michael Snodgrass, the chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force Africa Command, said at the hearing that the military will “absolutely not” build bases in Africa. And Theresa Whalen, dep. assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, told lawmakers, “I totally and completely disagree that Africom does non-military operations.”

So Africom appears to be scaling back some of its original humanitarian ambitions. But what that leaves the military command doing is not known. The GAO report notes that between February 2007 and March 2008, “Africom’s mission statement went through several iterations that ranged in its emphasis on humanitarian-oriented activities to more traditional military programs.”

The result is uncertainty at the State Dept. and in Africa.

“State Dept. officials said that they had difficulty in responding to African’s concerns,” the report stated, “Because of their own confusion over Africom’s intended missions and goals.”

This lack of understanding has bred suspicion that an increased military presence in Africa is about African oil. Lauren Ploch, Analyst of African Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, noted at the hearing that the U.S. now extracts as much oil from Africa as from the Middle East.

Nigeria alone is expected to produce about a quarter of the oil imported to the U.S. by 2015. Ploch’s testimony notes that the Pentagon has identified assuring a stable, U.S friendly government in Nigeria as a key African goal.

“Bush is starting to look past the Middle East to Africa as the source for oil,” said Emira Woods, a foreign-policy expert at the liberal Institute for Policy Studies and a critic of Africom.

But if the Bush administration has any plans to use Africom as a vehicle for oil, it was not mentioned by Pentagon officials Tuesday. Instead, the hearing was bogged down in Defense Dept. denials about military bases and rarely discussed the original motivations for Africom.

The creation of Africom stemmed from the work of a planning team led by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The team spent part of 2006, Rumsfeld’s final year at the Pentagon, on how to establish a centralized command of Africa.

Rumsfeld worked from the White House’s 2006 national security strategy report that said it’s a U.S. priority to “partner with Africans to strengthen fragile and failing states and bring ungoverned areas under the control of an effective democracy.” One idea to promote Democratic institutions in Africa was through the creation of provincial reconstruction teams similar to those currently rebuilding Iraq.

But the Pentagon officials at the hearing appeared to be still sorting through how civilian construction assistance, counterterrorism and many other Africom-related ideas will be implemented.

“We’re talking about a continent that has 900 different languages and cultures,” said Snodgrass, the Air Force’s chief of staff for Africom. “It is an extraordinarily diverse set of cultures and interests that we’re trying to understand and work with.”

“OK, then,” Tierney said to laughter. “We’ll give you a week or two more to look at it.”

Actually, the Pentagon has until September.

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