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by Ambassador (ret.) Edward Marks

The establishment of the U.S. Africa Command raises some questions regarding the role of the military in U.S. Africa policy, as it will be performing many tasks generally thought of as the responsibility of State and other civilian agencies; and because its resources are much superior, it risks displacing embassies as the primary de facto American interlocutor with African governments. This essay discusses these issues and offers specific suggestions on how AFRICOM can address them and work effectively with State, AID, and other government agencies. – Ed.

The establishment of the new geographic unified command – U.S. Africa Command, AFRICOM – appears to be an attempt to deal with three perceived problems:

  • American policy towards Africa;
  • American policy for dealing with terrorism in Africa;
  • Department of Defense desire to fill an organizational lacuna.

Let me comment on these questions in reverse order, beginning with the one that may be the least important or significant.

Since World War II the U.S. military have developed an organizational structure to manage their enormous, complicated, and very resource-dominated world and to fulfill their mission of defending the United States. The core of this concern is the primary military mission of war fighting. Millions of people and vast amounts of materiel have to be managed in a manner which must be centralized and decentralized at the same time. Defining this process is an organizational and war fighting doctrine which divides their world view into three levels: strategic, operational, and tactical. Reflecting this perspective, the military side of the Department of Defense is organized hierarchically into a chain of command headed by the President and the Secretary of Defense, then a collection of unified commands, each responsible for a geographic area (e.g., the Pacific region, as in the U.S. Pacific Command, PACOM) or a mission (e.g., the Special Operations Command, SOCOM).  This system began somewhat serendipitously in WWII with CINCPAC, the Commander-in-Chief Pacific, and was over the years expanded until only Africa remained an identifiable geographic region without a designated U.S. military command.  U.S. military concerns in Africa were run out of the three adjoining geographic commands: EUCOM, CENTCOM, and PACOM. 

In a sense, then, one block on the Power Point slide remained unfilled, and several years ago DoD decided to fill it by creating a military geographic command for Africa, hence AFRICOM. 

Therefore, from a purely bureaucratic point of view, assuming that DoD continues to utilize this “COCOM” system, the creation of AFRICOM makes sense. If Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Pacific all have a military command devoted to them, why not Africa?   As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it to the Senate Armed Services Committee: Creating AFRICOM “will enable us to have a more effective and integrated approach than the current arrangement of dividing Africa between [different regional commands].”

AFRICOM Raises Questions

However, the introduction of AFRICOM has raised a number of questions arising from the definition of is mission, description of its organization and resources, and certain other “administrative” characteristics such as the venue of its headquarters.1

  • The COCOMs’ original mission of war fighting has been expanded over recent years to increasingly include humanitarian assistance and post-conflict reconstruction, although these are not uniquely DoD missions but those in which the military are involved – at least in theory – as only one player on the U.S government team.  Unfortunately, in recent years they have too often been the only player called upon by the “coach.”
  • Even counter-terrorism, while clearly a sub-set of the traditional military mission, is not a unique DoD mission and not primarily the responsibility of the geographic commands such as AFRICOM. Recent Pentagon policy directives have stated that “irregular warfare” (which includes military counter-terrorism) is “likely to be conducted by Special Operations forces…”
  • Plans for actually locating AFRICOM’s headquarters on the African continent raise significant political and practical questions. 
  • There are questions about the need for such a large and prominent military organization given the comparatively limited policy and operational objectives the United States has in Africa.  Unified commands are expensive bureaucratic organizations headed by very senior officers. AFRICOM will have approximately 1,300 personnel but no component military forces. Do current and projected American security programs in Africa really need this much overhead?
  • Various aspects of the AFRICOM plan have raised serious inter-governmental and public diplomacy concerns.

Nevertheless, given the DoD commitment to the unified command model, the desire to complete a global set of such organizations is understandable.  Let us accept therefore, that AFRICOM exists and will play a role in American policy in Africa. The question therefore is to determine the scale and scope of that role.

“Whole of Government” Policy

U.S. policy towards Africa must, obviously, be a “whole of government” policy – involving political, economic, social, and security concerns. The priority given each of these elements is a major aspect of policy judgment, and will vary from country to country.   Opinions vary, but few knowledgeable observers or commentators would place military considerations at the top of the list.  Even with respect to the terrorist challenge, “The war we are fighting is not only a military problem. It’s not even primarily a military problem. …military action alone is insufficient – it must be subordinate to diplomatic, political, and economic action,” to quote LTG James M. Dubik following his tour in Iraq.

As eloquently explained is a recent report by Refugees International:

There is broad agreement that combating today’s global threats requires a balanced, integrated approach with coordinated defense, diplomacy and development efforts. In practice, the Pentagon is largely dictating America’s approach to foreign policy. The nation’s foreign aid budget is too low; its civilian capacity to construct and carry out effective, long-term policies to rebuild states is too weak; interventions abroad are often unilateral when multilateral solutions could be more effective; and the military, which is well trained to invade countries, not to build them up, is playing an increasingly active and well-funded role in promoting development and democracy. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted that U.S. soldiers conducting development and assistance activities in countries where they frequently don’t speak the language is “no replacement for the real thing – civilian involvement and expertise.”

The rising military role in shaping U.S. global engagement is a challenge to the next president. Foreign assistance represents less than one percent of the federal budget, while defense spending is 20%. … Although several high-level task forces and commissions have emphasized the urgent need to modernize our aid infrastructure and increase sustainable development activities, such assistance is increasingly being overseen by military institutions whose policies are driven by the Global War on Terror, not by the war against poverty. Between 1998 and 2005, the percentage of Official Development Assistance the Pentagon controlled exploded from 3.5% to nearly 22%, while the percentage controlled by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) shrunk from 65% to 40%.

This civil-military imbalance has particular ramifications for Africa, where Global War on Terror imperatives do not address the continent’s biggest needs for security assistance. The U.S. is only helping four African countries transform their armies and security agencies into professional organizations that protect citizens rather than abuse them. Resources are allocated in a manner that does not reflect the continent’s most pressing priorities. For example, the U.S. has allocated $49.65 million for reforming a 2,000-strong Liberian army to defend the four million people of that country. In contrast, it only plans to spend $5.5 million in 2009 to help reform a 164,000-strong army in the DR Congo, a country with 65 million people where Africa’s “first world war” claimed the lives of over five million people.

In other words, the primary contemporary requirements in Africa are governance and economic development, but the U.S. government is not organized or resourced with those priorities in mind.  Even with respect to terrorism it has been noted that “in general, terrorist networks have instead found safety in weak, corrupted, quasi-states – Pakistan, Yemen, Kenya, the Philippines, Guinea, Indonesia. Terrorist networks, like mafias, appear to flourish where states are badly governed rather than not at all.”2  Too many African governments fall into this category.

Whatever U.S. African policy is or should be, it must focus on these politico-economic questions and should be well integrated and comprehensive.  U.S. interests in Africa will be best served by assisting African governments to implement effective governance and to pursue economic development. Security concerns are of course part of this mix, both for the countries of the region and for the United States, but the security problems of Africa are not essentially military. They stem from the failure of governments to govern effectively. 

Security Subordinate to Policy

Of course effective governance requires competent and responsible security forces – military and police.  Therefore U.S. security assistance is desirable. But it is a subordinate area, subordinate to U.S. policy towards Africa. There are no significant traditional military threats in or to Africa, and therefore little need for large-scale traditional military training or equipment assistance. While security is a basic requirement for effective governance and economic development, it is a mistake to think that security is created by security forces. Power comes out of the barrel of a gun; security is created by competent governments. In fact, the basic theme of U.S. military engagement to date has reflected this essentially modest approach.  This experience is reflected in one comment on AFRICOM’S mission, given in a DoD report: “In that context the command would help build the capacity of African countries to reduce conflict, improve security, deny terrorists sanctuary and support crisis response.”

All well and good as far as it goes. The problem is that most explanations and descriptions of AFRICOM far exceed this essentially modest and security assistance oriented mission, combined with counterterrorism. However, as pointed out above, counter-terrorism is the responsibility of Special Operations Command.  Therefore AFRICOM is to focus on training local militaries and so-called “soft power” programs.  AFRICOM’s web site touts the many humanitarian and other assistance missions that U.S. military personnel will perform – from donating school supplies, to providing medical care, to preventing malaria, to supporting socioeconomic and confidence building programs. In fact, this non-security focused mission is the primary justification for the creation of AFRICOM. In an awesomely ambitious statement, Admiral Robert T. Moeller, the executive director of the AFRICOM Transition Team, stated that the command’s primary mission will be preventing “problems from becoming crises, and crises from becoming conflicts.”3 In pursuit of that objective, AFRICOM will focus, repeat focus, on providing humanitarian assistance, encouraging civic action, and dealing with natural disasters in addition to the more traditional military assistance programs.

Yet these tasks are the traditional responsibilities of other departments and agencies. Moreover, Congress recently created the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization in the Department of State for the express purpose of acting as the lead agency within the U.S. government for crisis management and post-conflict reconstruction.

To accomplish this stated mission, AFRICOM will not be organized like the traditional combat command with its Napoleonic style war fighting directorates but is to be organized more like an inter-agency entity or joint task force.  However, the trumpeted inclusion of other agency personnel now appears to consist of approximately 13 such officials. Much is made of the appointment of a senior State Department officer as one of the Deputy Commanders, but when queried as to whether this official would have any actual command authority, answers are extremely vague. In fact, it would appear that the civilian Deputy Commander will be little more than the traditional Foreign Policy Advisor (or POLAD), that is, a senior advisor rather than an active participant in the chain of command.

Military Performs Civilian Tasks

In other words, AFRICOM will be a military organization performing tasks generally conceived as being the responsibility of other departments and agencies, notably the Department of State, USAID, the old and much mourned USIA, FBI, Department of Justice, and DEA among others.

As noted by the Refugees International report, one of the most significant trends in U.S. development policy since September 11, 2001, is the growing involvement of the Department of Defense in providing U.S. foreign aid. The Pentagon now handles more than 20 percent of U.S. official development assistance (ODA), up from 6 percent only five years ago, according to the Center for Global Development. Much of this increase in ODA is concentrated in Iraq and Afghanistan and is likely to disappear when the U.S. involvement in both wars ends. However beyond these two conflicts, DoD is expanding its operations in the developing world to include activities that may be more appropriately undertaken by U.S. civilian actors, such as the Agency for International Development or the Department of State. These programs highlight a growing DoD aid role outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, reflecting a short-term security agenda which will exacerbate the longstanding and glaring imbalance between the military and civilian components of the U.S. approach to state-building in the developing world, and may undermine long-term U.S. foreign policy and development objectives to advance security, good governance, and growth.

“Though the arrival of USAFRICOM represents the next logical step in proactive peacetime engagement implementation, the new command underscores the appearance of policy militarization and ultimate weakens the link between the two threads” of policy.4   By moving so actively, despite the repeated protestations of allegiance to the “whole of government” approach, AFRICOM is taking the lead, and it is at best an open question as to whether the military can and should take that lead.  “The critical question is why the military is leading a new organization whose stated mission is, by definition, largely the responsibility of State.”5

A specific danger in the creation of AFRICOM is the installation of a military command as the primary de facto American interlocutor with African governments.  Its current mission statement will authorize, indeed encourage, AFRICOM to engage African governments on almost every question of politics and economics as well as military affairs.  With its bureaucratic muscle and prominence AFRICOM will almost certainly outshine the civilian agencies that are in fact the responsible agents for the broad range of intergovernmental relations and economic development. General Anthony Zinni, former Commander of USCENTCOM, has dramatically described the impression created by COCOM commanders with their private airplanes, large staffs, and extensive budgets as compared to American ambassadors and other diplomats operating on shoestring budgets. With the best will in the world, and with every intention of playing as part of the “whole of government” team, COCOM commanders and their staffs almost inevitably emphasize relations with their military counterparts, further exacerbating the worrisome trend of militarizing American foreign policy.  It is important to remember that “Any military intervention is extremely significant in politics. The political fallout is the same whether you send in a platoon or an army into another country – you have placed troops on foreign territory.”6   Uniforms do make a difference.

A potentially significant long-term danger is that putting in place AFRICOM with this expansive mission and extensive resources for non-military programs may preclude decisions to move ahead and provide the appropriate departments and agencies with the necessary authority and, more important, resources to do these tasks. If AFRICOM is already “in the field” pursing these tasks will Congress and the Administration provide additional and possibly competitive resources? The desired objective of a “whole of government” approach to American policy in Africa may be stillborn even though there is serious interest, both outside and inside the U.S. government, to re-balance the three-legged stool of U.S. national security, so that the wobbly diplomatic and development legs can keep up with the defense leg. In an important lecture at Kansas State University in November 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates supported this view with a call for greater federal investment in U.S. civilian agencies, to help make a difference in fragile and war-torn states.

Specific Suggestions
However, now that AFRICOM is out of the box, so to speak, the question is how to utilize its capabilities in its area of expertise and how to fit that into the broader activities of the U.S. government.  The following suggestions may serve to that end:

  • AFRICOM’s headquarters should be moved from Europe (a totally inappropriate venue for a U.S. organization dealing with Africa) back to the continental United States.  Alternatives could be in Florida or in the Washington area, but the objective would be to place it in closer proximity to the State Department (the lead department for African affairs), USAID (the lead agency for most of AFRICOM’s assistance activities), and the Special Operations Command (the lead military organization for counter terrorism action).
  • AFRICOM’s mission statement should be redrafted to modify its currently over-ambitious “soft power” mission.
  • Implementation of AFRICOM’s “MOOTWA” (Military Operations Other Than War) type capability and activities should be coordinated and phased in, in accordance with related programs of the relevant lead civilian agencies, especially State and USAID.
  • AFRICOM’s staffing pattern and organization should continue to reflect significant other agency personnel contributions. This program should be one element of an extensive two-way personnel exchange program between the departments and organizations involved, including at senior levels.
  • Innovative, direct, and robust organizational arrangements between AFRICOM, State’s Bureau of African Affairs, the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, and USAID should be created to enable AFRICOM to play an active supporting role in the “whole of government” approach and to ensure that AFRICOM plans and programs are integrated at the policy/strategic level. (Extensive exchange programs should probably be initiated between all geographic commands and their State Department regional bureau counterparts, but current staffing levels in the Department of State are likely to preclude that for the present.)
  • The relationship between AFRICOM and Chiefs of Mission should be formally defined to ensure that AFRICOM personnel deployed in connection with security assistance, “soft power,” and other assistance programs are deployed as elements of the relevant Country Team under the overall authority of the Chief of Mission, and that these activities are fully integrated into the relevant Mission Performance Plans at the planning stage. This may require amendment of the current Chief of Mission authority.7

And finally, it would not hurt if the name of this new organization were changed to something less provocative than “United States Africa Command.”End.


1. “US to Raise Irregular War Capabilities,” Washington Post, December 4, 2008

2.  Ken Menkhaus, “The Journal of Conflict Studies”

3. Quotation taken from Stephanie Hanson, “The Pentagon’s New Africa Command”, Council of Foreign Relations, May 3, 2007.

4. Dennis R.J. Penn, “USAFRICOM: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy”, Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 51, 2008

5. ibid

6. General Makhmut Gareev, “Future War”, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, February 2007

7.  “As Chief of Mission, you have full responsibility for the direction, coordination, and supervision of all United States Government Executive Branch employees in [country] (except for elements and personnel under the command of a U.S. area military commander …).”


Ed Marks
Ed Marks

Ed Marks served more than 40 years in the U. S. Foreign Service, including an assignment as ambassador to Guinea-Bissau. He graduated from Michigan and Oklahoma universities and attended the National War College. Retiring in 1995, he subsequently served on detail to the U. S. Pacific Command. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College and a member of the American Diplomacy board.

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