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“Implementing AFRICOM”

Ambassador (ret.) Edward Marks

I hesitate to cross swords with Bob Gribbin, whose experience and knowledge of Africa is unsurpassed. Nevertheless I believe he is seriously mistaken about the Department of Defense’s move to create an African regional command.

There are serious objections on various levels, from strategic to operational to tactical. I won’t go into all of them here, but on the strategic level I do not believe the contemporary problems in Africa are security related in the Department of Defense sense. This is not the Africa of the “Winds of Change” era where U.S. policy interests included Cold War concerns and there was a great similarity of challenges facing the newly independent African governments taking over governance reins from their former colonial masters. Security in Africa today is not a military problem but a symptom of lack of effective governance. It cannot be resolved by more military training and equipment. Trying to use the military tool would be equivalent to resolving the Thirty Year War in Europe by injecting more soldiers and training and equipment rather pursuing a political settlement (albeit one based on exhaustion) which eventually did so.

But the justification for AFRICOM argues that is there is a need for new and innovative organization for dealing with Africa, and there may be. In which case we should be looking for a “whole of government” approach, not the tweaking of an outmoded military model. The Regional Combatant Commands are a refined version of WWII combat commands designed for the Cold War. In the Cold War, where we mainly avoided actual combat, the COCOMs expanded beyond their primary war planning and war fighting role into what they call engagement activities. The military tasks mentioned (briefly and vaguely) for AFRICOM are of this engagement character, with a careful statement that no warfighting duties are envisaged.

These engagement tasks for AFRICOM are largely justified on two grounds: fighting terrorism and “nation-building.” With respect to the first, I can only note that the military themselves have decided that the Regional Combatant Commands are not the appropriate organizational mechanism for the GWOT, hence the upgrading and leadership role given the Special Operations Command. In addition, it might be useful to remember former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s almost esprit de l’escalier query: “Are we creating more terrorists than we are killing?” I doubt if the ”we” he is referring to is the State Department, USAID, or the Peace Corps.

But there is also the argument that AFRICOM will be a new innovation in bureaucracy, heavily “civilian” in character and will pursue largely civilian, “nation-building” type programs. If we wish to pursue and expand such programs then why use a military organization, with all the expense — COCOMS are very expensive organizations, and I thought the armed forces were strained for personnel and money because of demands of the two ongoing wars — and political baggage that identification carries. No matter how you dress it up, a hammer is a hammer and should not be used to perform other tasks.

Much as I respect and admire our military colleagues, and I do, there is no justification and many reasons to oppose their being given broad, ill-defined, largely political and developmental tasks which are the responsibility of other departments and agencies. If the existing civilian institutions are not equipped or funded to do these jobs, then the obvious answer is to make them so. One quick and easy move would be to fund the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stability in State, which I understand is still without meaningful operational funds — three years after being created with a great deal of publicity. Another approach could be a significantly expanded USAID African Division with serious resources, and possibly a military officer as a Deputy Assistant Administrator to supervise security related support activities.

Ambassador Gribbin is very sanguine about the implications for Ambassadors and our diplomatic missions. I am not. With the best will in the world, a military command is a high-powered, well-resourced bureaucracy staffed with sincere and devoted Type A personalities. No military command headed by a four-star general will be lean and mean; it will have large staffs all looking for something to do. It will inevitably lean forward and become involved in all sorts of activities — it is in their professional DNA to do so — none of which have yet been identified as useful much less necessary. Do we not remember Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s lament about the difficulties faced by a mouse sharing a bed with an elephant?

Finally, there should be widespread concern about the use of a military instrument to manage our continent-wide political relations. The critical comments coming out of Africa are only the surface manifestations of the continuing adverse political aspects of the U.S. regional military command system. The Regional Combatant Commanders (do note their title — Regional Combatant Commanders) are often referred to as Viceroys, and the appellation is not intended to be complimentary. The Regional Combatant Commands represent an imperial structure in the minds of many, and no amount of protestation of innocence on our part or adding some civilian staff will change that impression. Remember the scenes in Lawrence of Arabia with the Foreign Office representative tagging along behind the general?

In sum, the increasing militarization of our foreign relations is already painfully obvious: why, then, are we expanding it even further in Africa? AFRICOM is a retrograde move, fulfilling H.L. Mencken’s observation that there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.

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