Appearing Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced the creation of a new, unified military command for Africa. The move represents the administration's single most purposeful step towards assigning Africa its due priority. And if properly executed, the Africa Command would represent a significant long-term engagement that would anchor the continent firmly in America's orbit-before terrorists as well as state competitors make it the next front in their strategic challenges to our interests and those of Africa's peoples.
To date, the focus on Africa has largely been short- or, at best, medium-term in scope: tracking terrorists, providing training and, to a certain extent, reinforcing counterterrorism capacities. And yet the most recent iteration of the National Security Strategy of the United States of America affirmed: "Africa holds growing geo-strategic importance and is a high priority of this Administration." The 2002 version of that document also said: "weak states . . . can pose a great danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders."
The strategy documents got it right on both counts. And there is a healthy bit of enlightened self-interest for the United States in Africa. Currently sub-Saharan Africa supplies the U.S. with nearly 20 percent of its petroleum needs and, according to National Intelligence Council estimates, within a decade, the West African sub-region will be providing more than one-quarter of North American oil imports by 2015, thus surpassing the total volume of oil imports from the Middle East. In the words of General Peter Pace's own testimony before the committee, though, "Political and humanitarian challenges in Africa are myriad, including the specter of growing instability, genocide, civil war, and safe havens for terrorists."
And for the Africa Command, there are challenges closer to home. Between now and the stand-up of the command (currently scheduled for September), the Bush Administration will need to work closely with the eclectic bipartisan group of Africa Command supporters on the Hill. In an interview with an African news service last week, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), for example, declared it "vital to strengthening our relationships with African nations"-to ensure that the new structure gets the manpower, equipment and other inputs it needs. And, in a period when many in the Congressional majority will be looking askance at defense appropriations, this may well entail fighting and winning an intramural "resource war" within the U.S. military itself.
The Africa Command will also ignite an ideological contest about the role of the military and, to be effective, will require a major break with conventional doctrinal mentalities, both within the armed services themselves and between government agencies. The command's engagement has to include diplomacy, development work, humanitarian relief and other "nation-building" tasks that some in the military have been loathe to take on and others in the government-the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) come to mind-will be less than enthused to see men and women in uniform engaged in. But in today's geostrategic environment, perhaps no one else can leverage the focus and resources of the Pentagon.
The last major overhaul of the United States military, the Goldwater-Nichols reorganization of 1986, created nine unified combatant commands but never achieved an African Command. Dr. Gates was understating the case when he said that the new Africa Command (to cover all of Africa except for Egypt, which will remain under CENTCOM's responsibility) will enable the United States "to have a more effective and integrated approach" than the current, Cold War-era structure permits.
The present organization, with three of the five regional commands having jurisdiction over some part of Africa, could hardly be more dizzyingly dysfunctional. Until now, most of the continent fell under the aegis of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), based in Stuttgart, Germany, which had responsibility for 42 of the 53 countries in Africa. As if fighting the war in Iraq were not enough, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), based in Tampa, Florida, has had responsibility for eight African countries-Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Seychelles, Somalia and Sudan-as well as the waters of the Red Sea and those western portions of the Indian Ocean not covered by the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM). PACOM's oversees Comoros, Mauritius and Madagascar, as well as the waters of the Indian Ocean, excluding those north of 5° S and west of 68° E (which fell into CENTCOM's purview) and those west of 42° E (which were handled by EUCOM's Sixth Fleet, based in Naples, Italy).
Having long advocated both a robust U.S. security engagement in Africa in general and the creation of the a unified combatant command for the continent in particular-I weighed the issues at some length several years ago in American Foreign Policy Interests and discuss the evolving strategic framework in the forthcoming issue of Comparative Strategy-I am more than pleased by the defense chief's announcement. Also positive is the fact that Army General William E. "Kip" Ward, currently the deputy commander of EUCOM and coincidentally the fifth African-American to reach four-star rank, is among those often mentioned as possible candidates to head Africa Command; both his exemplary record and the appreciation of the grand strategic raison d'être for the Africa Command which he demonstrated during its planning phase give him an inside track for the nomination.
Perhaps Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Theresa Whelan put it best in borrowing a key phrase from the Unified Command Plan, published by the Pentagon last year: "we want to prevent problems from becoming crises and crises from becoming catastrophes." While U.S. policy might be motivated by the cold calculus of political realism, moral principles are not divorced from those interests and can, in fact, help advance them.
J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and does not represent that of any government agency or other organization.