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by Robert Gribbin

One of the Foreign Service’s most experienced Africa specialists assesses the Pentagon’s new Africa Command, what it is, what it will do, and how it will relate to American embassies and ambassadors on the continent. There will be issues, he finds, but they can be managed, and it will be “up to U.S. ambassadors in the field to guide all these new boots into careful paths.” — Ed.

In October 2007 AFRICOM, America’s new military command for Africa, assumed responsibilities for the continent that theretofore had been divided among EUCOM (European Command, for most of Africa), CENTCOM (Central Command, for the Horn, Sudan, and Kenya), and PACOM (Pacific Command, for Indian Ocean islands). Rationale for the new command is that it will improve the U.S. military focus on Africa and enhance American support for the development of African military establishments. Led by General William E. Ward and deputies Ambassador Mary Carlin Yates and Admiral Robert T. Moeller, AFRICOM is headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, where it is destined to remain for the foreseeable future.

While many African governments embrace the idea of more attention to their military needs, they are hesitant about seeing great power militarization of Africa and apprehensive about the perception (as much as the reality) of undermining continental neutrality enshrined in the Organization of African Unity and African Union charters. Others are skeptical about America’s real intentions, fearing a hidden agenda of hegemony.

The lack of a well articulated, clear explanation for the evolution to the new command from the U.S. government, coupled with concerns arising from the American military posture in Iraq and Afghanistan, have tended to excite and feed fodder to critics. They, in turn, decry extension of a global war on Islam, preparation to annex African oil fields, and U.S. military interference in politics, including regime change for nations that run afoul of Washington’s capricious whims. Of course, all of this so bluntly stated is balderdash, but there are kernels of truth within. U.S. policy does combat terrorism, and much of the global variety has Islamic connections. We want the world’s oil supplies to be secure, and we do criticize autocratic regimes, especially those like Robert Mugabe’s in Zimbabwe that egregiously abuse the rights of their people.

Observers are correct, however, in raising questions, because both the Defense and State Departments intend AFRICOM to be different from other Combatant Commands (CoComs). It will have as yet undefined responsibilities and tasks beyond the purely military sphere. For example, staffing plans call for a State Foreign Service Officer as lead deputy (Ambassador Yates is already in place) and up to a hundred or more civilian interagency personnel. If nothing else, this demonstrates a clear intent for programs that focus on humanitarian and development issues. Such organization supports an underlying reason for the new command internal to the United States: Advocates of more attention to Africa find AFRICOM a mechanism to pay more attention to the continent without really outlaying more resources. Continuation of that thinking, however, is that once in place, more resources will flow. Undoubtedly they will. Pentagon cynics would add that one more four-star billet and all the accompanying support translates into more advancement opportunities within the system.

Do Something Dramatic!
U.S. spokesmen have said that the new command will be oriented towards humanitarian issues and military improvements. It will respond to catastrophes, help build competent national militaries, sustain nascent regional organizations, and support economic development and political democracy. What appears to be missing in all the hoopla is an unequivocal response to Africa’s pressing security needs. More support for African armies, more training, and some equipment are desirable, suitable goals designed in the first instance to enable African militaries to participate more fully in African peacekeeping operations — to wit: Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Democratic Republic of the Congo. While this is a laudable objective, the U.S. contribution has a long time line. Meanwhile situations fester. Why not move faster?

Three responses jump out. Fortunately one, using the U.S. Navy to combat piracy in the Red Sea and off the Horn of Africa, is already underway. A similar effort to patrol the sea lanes off West Africa in order to halt illegal oil bunkering would be similarly aimed at restoring the rule of law. Clearly this would entail support of littoral states. However, most dramatic would be the provision of U.S. helicopters to UNAMIS, the UN peacekeeping operation in Sudan. The UN seeks a squadron of several dozen choppers: most for lift, but including several gun ships. Efforts to find helicopters have so far come up void. That lacuna risks scuttling the whole operation. A U.S. offer of such support would indeed reinforce our intent to help Africa. Howls and arguments against it would be loud, ranging from “we cannot bleed Iraq for Sudan,” and “the U.S, ought never participate in UN peacekeeping operations,” to “Sudan President Bashir would never accept American forces.” Undoubtedly, these are legitimate issues, but if AFRICOM wants to respond to legitimate security needs in Africa, no better task awaits. Just fighting the policy battle within the USG, with the UN, and with Sudan would show solid commitment to Africa and underscore the legitimacy of the new command.

Ambassadorial Responsibility
From the State Department perspective, we need not fear AFRICOM. It does indeed have positive elements that should advance American interests in various African nations. Seconding FSOs to the command will help ensure broader thematic perspectives. However, AFRICOM also comes laden with some issues that if not sorted out early might become irksome.

Existing chief of mission authority is adequate for AFRICOM, but serving and future ambassadors need to exercise their responsibilities even while military components need to fully understand their chain of command. In short, the ambassador has absolute authority over personnel and operations in his or her country of assignment. We should think about and treat non-resident AFRICOM personnel exactly as we considered previous command elements. Visitors need country clearances. JCET (exercises), IMET and ACOTA (training), FMS (sales), TSCTP (anti-terrorism), and other programs, training, and exercises are subject to ambassadorial approval. Only CJTFHOA (Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa) forces — 1500 troops stationed at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti — fall under the operational command of a CoCom (formerly called a CINC), which is currently CENTCOM (as the shift to AFRICOM control has yet to be effected). In accordance with existing practice such combat elements enjoy a separate chain of command, even though their in-country, non-combat activities — drilling wells in Djibouti for example — remain subject to ambassadorial oversight. Since aside from CJTFHOA, AFRICOM does not anticipate stationing additional combat personnel on the continent, i.e., no other bases, exceptions to chief of mission authority should not occur elsewhere.

Even though the headquarters will remain in Germany, AFRICOM anticipates standing up about three or four sub-headquarters. Although locales have yet to be determined, logically they would correspond to the geographic regions of Africa. Djibouti takes care of eastern Africa, so sites will be needed in the west (Ghana or Liberia are leading candidates), the south (probably Botswana) and the north (Tunisia or Morocco, although this idea has less traction in the north). While important for the countries concerned, from an internal U.S. government perspective the interaction between the regional headquarters elements and the embassy will be crucial. On the whole, we should consider such offices as similar to regional USAID offices (REDSOs), i.e. the offices and their personnel fall under chief of mission authority. When in their home, host country, that ambassador is in charge; when traveling regionally, personnel and projects are the purview of the ambassador of the nation being visited.

Some of the issues arising with regional organizations that REDSOs deal with, such as the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) or the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), are already replicated on the military side. For example: If ECOWAS wants to do a military exercise in Togo with U.S. input, but the planning, logistical support, etc., come from ECOWAS headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, which ambassador has authority? The answer is both, so this requires coordination on the U.S. side. Multi-country coordination will loom even larger and become more complex as AFRICOM expands cooperation with the African Union and its growing security programs around the continent.

Practical Constraints
An AFRICOM regional office should have about thirty personnel. That is a lot of office space that is clearly not available inside any existing embassy. Pending expansion of chancelleries or building annexes, space will have to be leased. Housing, too, for thirty households — say eighty Americans — will need to be found. Schooling opportunities, health care, shipping, transportation, contracting, cashiering — virtually all the services required will pose an immense burden on receiving embassies. While everyone will do their utmost to make this work, it won’t be easy. A principle at stake is equity. Currently we strive to keep the playing field even. No one should get more, better, or different services at post than anyone else. Such an influx of personnel — particularly military personnel who are accustomed to a global standard of support — will challenge that approach; but adherence to that principle will be key to making AFRICOM offices and personnel part of the country team.

With an augmented military presence in-country there will be operational issues. One will be communications. AFRICOM offices will want their own separate systems. How can this be accommodated? Initially they can work through existing embassy networks, but there will be pressure for stand-alone systems. On the security side too, AFRICOM will want its own security, and logically so for a separate facility. Who guards the buildings? Who watches out for personnel? How to meld State and Defense Department practices? In addition to Marine Security Guards will we need Military Police? The question of weapons will undoubtedly arise, especially as an operational issue related to force protection in the wake of terrorist threats. Who in the country team can bear arms and under what circumstances?

Reporting, intelligence collection, and analysis present other issues. An AFRICOM office will report and will collect and evaluate information. Most ambassadors have existing understandings with Defense attachés as to what needs clearance by the ambassador or other embassy officers and what does not. A larger military element at post will necessarily intrude upon such understandings. Thus it will be incumbent upon the ambassador and the AFRICOM chief to work out these parameters. In order to ensure consistency, written guidelines should be developed.

Strike a Balance
Turf issues will intensify, and not just in AFRICOM office countries. Increasingly throughout Africa, U.S. military resources and projects are crossing ministerial lines. While the key local client for AFRICOM remains the host Ministry of Defense, U.S. military personnel and/or money already go to projects in ministries of water development, women’s affairs, health, interior, aviation, and so forth. Undertakings include a full gamut of activities ranging from humanitarian succor to AIDS prevention to democracy promotion. Obviously military programming risks duplication where USAID, Centers for Disease Control, public diplomacy outreach, Peace Corps, and others are already engaged. Host governments are quick to realize where the money is. They, in turn, focus requests to U.S. military elements. Washington policymakers as well as ambassadors in the field need to decide how much militarization of non-military assistance is wise and to ensure that such undertakings are properly vetted. Such discussions will become increasingly important when (not if) AFRICOM gets more resources to play with.

In conclusion, AFRICOM is initially a reorientation of American bureaucratic responsibilities that will probably work well for us, but remain confusing to African governments. Having nothing else to distract it, the new command will undoubtedly focus on Africa and follow through on programs. This does augur well for a more consistent partnership with the continent. How this grows, however, remains to be seen. I suspect that African governments will adjust to progress and that press-stoked fears of hegemony will diminish. However, the temptation on the American side will be to try to do too much. Even a small AFRICOM looms large compared to host country military establishments. Furthermore, AFRICOM’s budget (only $50 million) will dwarf a number of national budgets. We should recognize that Africa’s absorptive capacity is limited and few of its leaders really want competent generals commanding capable forces.

To misparaphrase Teddy Roosevelt, we don’t need a big stick in Africa, but we do need to tread carefully. Although Washington (as usual) will have the ultimate say, it will be up to U.S. ambassadors in the field to guide all these new boots into careful paths.End.



Robert E. Gribbin served as U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda and Central African Republic. Other diplomatic assignments included earlier postings in Bangui and Kigali as well as tours in Uganda, Kenya, and Africa-related offices in the State Department. After retirement from the Foreign Service, Ambassador Gribbin undertook short term assignments as chargé d’affaires in Nigeria, Burundi, Djibouti, Chad, and Mauritius as well as other postings in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, and Liberia. He is the author of the In Aftermath of Genocide: the U.S. Role in Rwanda. Currently, he writes, blogs (, lectures, plays golf, and sails.

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