Why the Pentagon should pay less attention to Africa

Gordon Adams writes: [A]fter decades of leaving Africa pretty much alone or engaging through health and economic assistance, the United States is now seriously involved, but driven by the mantra American “security.” Mixing these messages (development, health, and security) is proving difficult for the African countries. They have begun to wonder why the United States has suddenly developed an interest in their continent. Uneasy African governments resisted the notion that Africom should actually be based on the continent as the United States wanted, so the headquarters remains in Stuttgart, Germany.

Well, they might have reason to be concerned. A growing “security” focus for U.S. engagement in Africa changes things. So does the growing lead the Pentagon and the Special Operations forces are taking in that engagement. When security takes the lead, too often, governance and development step aside. And, while the security focus is ostensibly intended to strengthen African capacities to provide national and regional stability, they have the consequence, intended or not, of dragging the United States into Africa’s internal politics, at a potential cost to our long-term interests.

In Mali, for example, the appearance of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has led some in the U.S. military to warn that the Maghreb (that is, the Northwestern rim of the continent) is becoming a terrorist haven and to suggest that the U.S. cannot prevent this reality with a light, indirect military footprint. Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who overthrew the elected Malian government in 2012, was trained under IMET. In Algeria, the United States has partnered with an authoritarian regime in the pursuit of counterterrorism operations.

This increasing focus on security coincides with a broader trend over the past decade towards giving the Pentagon greater direct authority for security assistance programs overall. Where the State Department was once in the lead, DOD is now directly responsible, funded through its own budget, for a growing share of U.S. security assistance, accentuating the pronounced bias in those programs toward DOD’s needs, requirements, and missions.

The largest DOD programs have trained and equipped the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, at a cost well over $50 billion. They provide considerable budgetary support to the militaries of Jordan and Pakistan. By the time the United States left Iraq, the Pentagon was directly responsible for more than half of total U.S. funding for security assistance worldwide.

African programs are now part of this pattern. Especially in Africa, DOD has put the label of “Building Partner Capacity” on its activities. That the programs surely do. But especially in Africa, these activities support a particular kind of capacity — counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. These competencies are unhinged, in large part, from broader U.S. foreign policy objectives in Africa, and provide a sneaky way of pulling the United States into security relationships that may not serve our long-run goals for African state building or development.

The major problem is context. Focusing on our security interests in Africa risks ignoring the need for stronger, more capable, more responsive civilian governance and economic development. While DOD likes to argue that security comes first, before governance and development, the risk of militarizing our engagement in Africa is that it will end the development of fledgling accountable governance in Africa (and elsewhere) and increase hostility toward the United States.

Much as Iraq and Afghanistan reproduced the sad lessons of Vietnam, our slide into Africa risks becoming a sequel to a film we have already seen. Two decades of repression and “disappearances” in Latin America followed from a U.S. security and covert assistance program in the 1960s that focused on our fascination with and fear of insurgents and communists — at the cost of democracy and warm and fuzzy feelings about America. Cloaked in the mantra of “Building Partner Capacity,” here we go again, this time in Africa. [Continue reading...]

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