Fireside Chat: An African Affair

The United States's strategic interests in Africa are getting larger, lending credence to the idea of establishing Africa Command (AFRICOM). At the same time, it would be a mistake to view military entities as the only means of engaging Africa. For the United States to make an impact, the U.S. government needs to have a closely coordinated policy that also involves its civil-affairs programs.

Of course, the United States remains consumed by Iraq. And until its diplomatic energies and military assets are relieved by a change in policy, it's going to find it more difficult to immerse itself in other places of strategic importance. James W. Riley recently spoke with National Interest author Jonathan Stevenson about the evolution of U.S. Special Operations Forces and U.S.-African relations.

In "The Somali Model?" you mention the military commander's increasing diplomatic role around the world and the need for increased military-to-military and civil-affairs programs. Could you expand on this?

It means closer day-to-day relationships between the U.S. military commanders who are deployed overseas and their counterparts. And that can mean training, or it can extend to other kinds of security relationships that are struck both bilaterally and multilaterally. I think those kinds of relationships, at least in respect to Africa, stand to become thicker and more intimate by virtue of the creation of AFRICOM, which is scheduled to be stood up in September 2008.

Why should the United States strengthen its presence on the continent through AFRICOM? And does AFRICOM increase the chances of actually generating a backlash and anti-Americanism on the continent?

Certainly, that is a possibility. I think we need to point out three basic interests or concerns of the United States and its foreign policy that favor the creation of AFRICOM. One is increased terrorist activity and recruitment on the continent. The second is securing access to hydro-carbons and diversifying oil supplies as much as possible outside of the Middle East. There are very clear interests here, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea and west Africa, but also in east Africa the Sudan region. The third is the fact that Africa is becoming of greater geo-political significance because of China's involvement there. So those are three very substantial strategic priorities that the creation of AFRICOM would service.

It is true that some commentators in Africa are worried that the establishment of a combat and command dedicated exclusively to Africa smacks of a kind of neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism that's going to turn Africa into a geo-political pawn like it had been during the Cold War. I think that the way to counter that impression is for there to be a relatively small footprint in terms of the actual number of troops deployed and administrative infrastructure that's there. And that we have people there to show a serious interest not just in security concerns, but also in political stability and the need to make African lives better-and to promote better governance.

You touch on the relationships between the U.S. government, private military firms (PMF) and their African clients. Is this a type model that could work?

I don't think it's an alternative to AFRICOM for a couple of reasons. One is that PMFs throw up red flags for an awful lot of African governments. Their viewed as mercenaries, and the mercenaries that some African countries have had experience with have been populated mainly by former South African soldiers, who are not met with sympathy. So, I think you have to be very careful about these PMFs in Africa. Having said that, the United States capacity is very limited, as is Africa's. I'm sure there is a need and a place for some sort of outsourcing, but I think it has to be seen as being closely supervised by professional military staff, which would mean AFRICOM.

In your piece you say, "coercive, strictly military enterprises will not provide durable solutions to Africa's political problems", but what will ? And is this in any way related to Fourth Generation Warfare?

Sure it is. And I think that a lot of the activities of the Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa are engaged in, like drilling wells and providing certain kinds of emergency relief to people in the regions in which they operate, are testimony to the fact that the U.S. military in general is aware of the kinds of non-coercive, non-kinetic activities that SOFs can do in order to improve perceptions of U.S. power. This is not something which the U.S. military is institutionally unaware of. In fact, it talks about this a great deal in the context of "strategic communication", which is viewed as lacking in the War on Terror. We've really had a hard time conveying the message that our projection of military power is really intended to better people lives. And I think that as the military moves forward in meeting very stiff challenges today it's going to be increasingly concerned with this issue. And there's no question in that SOFs can help with strategic communications.

After the Black Hawk Down incident, many feel that the United States suffers from a lack of commitment and that this is a weakness. Are there any correlations to be drawn from our experiences in Africa and Afghanistan and Iraq?