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AFRICOM's Dilemma: The "Global War on Terrorism" "Capacity Building," Humanitarianism, and the Future of U.S. Security Policy in Africa

AFRICOM's Dilemma: The 'Global War on Terrorism' 'Capacity Building,' Humanitarianism, and the Future of U.S. Security Policy in Africa - Cover

Authored by Robert G. Berschinski.

November 2007

77 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Africa is a continent of growing economic, social, political, and geostrategic importance. The establishment of a new Combatant Command for Africa–AFRICOM–marks an important milestone in the evolution of relations between the United States and the governments of Africa. Through AFRICOM, the U.S. Department of Defense will consolidate the efforts of three existing command headquarters as it seeks a more stable environment for political and economic growth in Africa. In line with this goal, AFRICOM is pioneering a bold new method of military engagement focused on war prevention, interagency cooperation, and development rather than on traditional war fighting.

The author contends that to achieve its goals vis-à-vis the African security landscape, AFRICOM must depart from the model of U.S. military operations on the continent since September 11, 2001. Using case studies from North and East Africa, the author argues that by amalgamating threats, overemphasizing “hard” counterterrorism initiatives, and intertwining military operations with humanitarianism, AFRICOM’s predecessors have harmed U.S. strategic interests. In line with this conclusion, he offers policy recommendations to maximize AFRICOM’s potential for future success.


The February 2007 decision to launch a new Department of Defense Unified Combatant Command for Africa (AFRICOM) has already been met with significant controversy both in the United States and abroad. AFRICOM’s proponents claim that the new command accurately reflects Africa’s growing strategic importance and an enlightened U.S. foreign policy focused on supporting “African solutions to African problems.” Its critics allege that the command demonstrates a self-serving American policy focused on fighting terrorism, securing the Africa’s burgeoning energy stocks, and countering Chinese influence.

To overcome such misgivings, AFRICOM must demonstrate a commitment to programs mutually beneficial to both African and American national interests. Yet a shrewd strategic communication campaign will not be enough to convince a skeptical African public that AFRICOM’s priorities mirror their own. Indeed, much African distrust is justified. Since September 11, 2001 (9/11), the Department of Defense’s (DoD) most significant endeavors in Africa have been undertaken in pursuit of narrowly conceived goals related to the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Operations in North and East Africa, though couched in a larger framework of development, long-term counterinsurgency, and a campaign to win “hearts and minds,” have nonetheless relied on offensive military operations focused on short-term objectives.

Though often tactically successful, these efforts— against Algerian insurgents in North Africa and an assortment of Islamists in Somalia—have neither benefited American security interests nor stabilized events in their respective regions. This failure is ascribable in part to the flawed assumptions on which the GWOT in Africa has rested. American counterterrorism initiatives in Africa since 9/11 have been based on a policy of “aggregation,” in which localized and disparate insurgencies have been amalgamated into a frightening, but artificially monolithic whole. Misdirected analyses regarding Africa’s sizable Muslim population, its overwhelming poverty, and its numerous ungoverned spaces and failed states further contribute to a distorted picture of the terrorist threat emanating from the continent. The result has been a series of high-profile, marginally valuable kinetic strikes on suspected terrorists; affiliation with proxy forces inimical to stated U.S. policy goals; and the corrosion of African support for many truly valuable and well-intentioned U.S. endeavors.

Because of its pioneering incorporation of security, development, and humanitarian functions into one organization, AFRICOM may be particularly susceptible to criticism if its sporadic “hard” operations overshadow its “softer” initiatives. This concern is not merely academic: If AFRICOM is seen as camouflaging militarism in the guise of humanitarianism, even non- DoD American efforts in Africa are likely to suffer a loss of legitimacy and effectiveness. It follows that, in order to be successful, AFRICOM must divorce itself from the model of U.S. military engagement in Africa since 9/11. As AFRICOM becomes fully operational by the end of 2008, its planners should recognize that saying the command is focused on African priorities will not be enough. Rather, AFRICOM must demonstrate its commitment to a long-term security relationship on African terms. In this regard, the attention and resources garnered by an American flag officer and fulltime staff can certainly benefit a continent heretofore largely ignored.

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