Friday, June 26, 2009

Africom’s Real Role

When the merger of the American military’s European Command, Central Command and Pacific Command responsibilities for Africa into a single Africa Command was announced in 2007, the Department of Defense made the same mistakes it made more than a decade ago in the announcement of an African Crisis Response Force. The plan was conceived without broad discussion, stakeholders in the U.S. and Africa were not fully informed and the atmospherics were ignored.

The United States has a history of engaging in a long Cold War with the Soviet Union that resulted n proxy wars on the continent, most notably in Angola. Almost simultaneous with the announcement was word of U.S. bombing and other military operations in Somalia. Aside from the airlifting of African peacekeepers and the evacuation of foreign nationals, Africans, as well as many Americans, have little background for automatically assuming a positive role for the U.S. military in Africa without new information. While there are solid reasons for Africom to exist, there has been too much assumption of goodwill for American military involvement in Africa and too little information sharing.

At the time of its announcement, the Defense Department was receiving generous funding, while the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development were struggling to obtain the funding they requested. When Defense officials jumped ahead and talked about the consolidation of military, diplomatic and humanitarian functions in Africa, it looked to some like a military takeover of Africa policy. State and USAID seemed to stand by and let Defense hang itself with its own words.

Now a State Department official is being forthright about the limitations of military involvement in America’s Africa policy. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson told an audience at a Constituency for Africa-African American Unity Caucus event this week that the military role in Africa will be limited to training and other military-to-military functions. “The only corps involved in humanitarian activities in Africa will be the Peace Corps and not the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers,” Carson said.

In reasserting the diplomatic role of State and the humanitarian role of USAID, Carson is attempting to dispel the wild rumors of American plans to contest China’s role in Africa. As the Sullivan Foundation-sponsored Trilateral dialogue involving American, Chinese and African representatives demonstrated in recent years, China and America are more likely to eventually be allies in Africa than adversaries in the Cold War style. One hopes Ambassador Carson’s definitive statement begins to set the record straight on that score.

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