June 2008

Why Is The Pentagon Marching Into Africa?

By Daniel Volman (dvolman@igc.org)*

On February 6, 2007, President Bush announced that the Pentagon would create a new military command for Africa—to be known as AFRICOM—thus significantly raising the continent’s status in American military strategy. Few Americans even noticed at the time and most are still unaware of this startlingly dangerous development. So why is this new military command being created? Why is it being created at this time? What does it mean for Africa? And what does it mean for America, for America’s access to Africa’s oil, for America’s security from terrorism, and for the future of the men and women who serve in America’s armed services?

AFRICOM—which becomes operational on October 1, 2008—will oversee the growing array of U.S. military programs already being implemented in Africa. These range from military training, to the delivery of millions of dollars worth of weaponry and other military equipment, to the establishment of a new U.S. military base on the continent, to the deployment of aircraft carrier battle groups to patrol the waters of the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, to the deployment of U.S. troops on battlefields in Somalia, Chad, and Mali. In fact, it would surprise most people to know that American soldiers are already fighting in Africa. In January and June 2007, U.S. troops based in Djibouti mounted air and naval strikes aimed at alleged al-Qaeda members—killing dozens of Somali civilians instead—and in September 2007, a U.S. cargo plane flying supplies to Malian counter-insurgency troops was hit by ground fire from Tuareg insurgents, although no Americans were injured and the plane returned safely to its base.

Despite the best efforts of administration spokespeople to portray the new command as a benign instrument of America’s best intentions for Africa, it is clear that AFRICOM it is being created at this time for three main reasons: to protect America’s access to African oil supplies, which currently account for 20 percent of our oil imports; to expand the war on terrorism in Africa, and to counter China’s growing political influence and economic involvement in the continent. The administration has come to believe these goals can only be met by radically expanding U.S. military involvement in Africa.

The administration’s strategy is the real threat to our interests as American citizens. It will lead to greater violence and political instability in key oil-producing countries and lead to major cuts in U.S. oil imports, thus undermining American economic stability and prosperity. It will further alienate Africa’s large Muslim populations and its marginalized ethnic communities and strengthen the appeal of armed Islamic extremist groups and other militant organizations, leading to even more violence and acts of terrorism. And it will be seen by the Chinese leadership as a justification for them to intensify their own involvement in Africa, including their support for repressive regimes and their own pursuit of access to oil and other natural resources, leading to greater competition between the United States and China over Africa, with all the negative consequences that entails for America’s long-term interests.

AFRICOM is a trap that President Bush has left to his successor—whoever that might be. Up until now, the creation of the new command has proceeded unimpeded, without any serious scrutiny or challenge. Indeed, few people—and even few members of Congress—are really aware of what is about to happen and what it will mean to them. But there is still time to bring this march to folly to a halt.

It is clear, however, that members of Congress are not going to act anytime soon unless they get a clear message from us that we expect them to bring the Pentagon and the new Africa Command under control. At the very least, we should demand that Congress fulfill its own responsibility to give AFRICOM the scrutiny it deserves. Both the Africa Subcommittees in the Senate and the House have held one public hearing each. This is not enough. There should be further hearings before the subcommittees and both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee should closely examine the issue.

Beyond this, we should urge Congress to take action to ensure that the creation of AFRICOM does not lead to the continued shift of authority over U.S. policy toward Africa to the Pentagon, that Blackwater and other private military contractors are not let loose in Africa, that U.S. interest in democracy and the protection of human rights in Africa is not shoved aside completely in an ill-conceived attempt to meet America’s insatiable appetite for oil and protect us from terrorism, and that the Pentagon be required to make regular reports to Congress about exactly what it is up to in Africa.

None of this is going to happen, however, unless Congress hears from us. To make sure that they do, a number of organizations and individuals launched a campaign in the summer of 2007 to educate the American people about the new command and to mobilize public opposition to the creation of AFRICOM. For more information or to join the campaign against AFRICOM, please contact dvolman@igc.org.

* Daniel Volman is the Director of the African Security Research Project in Washington, DC, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars (www.concernedafricascholars.org). He is a specialist on U.S. military activities in Africa and the author of numerous articles and research reports.

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