Earlier, I expressed skepticism about AFRICOM’s viability based on institutional and strategic shortcomings as well as a long history of US military debacles and sore points in the SSA.
Eebon Barlow, the founder of the successful (and unfairly maligned) Executive Outcomes PSC, blogged about the subject with far better analysis and detail way back in November 08 that captures well how inhabitants of the SSA view AFRICOM and why they do so:
In “AFRICOM: A WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING – OR WHAT WENT WRONG?”, he rightly draws attention to some of the false assumptions American planners made that seemed terribly transparent from the get-go, such as as the selection of an “African” general with “appeal” (a mistaken assumption that may yet carry over to Barack Obama as well, though we cannot know for sure yet):
Whereas the US may view General Ward as an “African”, Africans don’t. This became apparent when General Ward toured Africa looking for a home-base for his humanitarian-diplomatic-economic mission. He didn’t understand the complexities of Africa, the politics, the people, their traditions, their distrust and their beliefs. The US, believing that Africa would find instant rapport with General Ward due to his historic “Africanness”, was wrong again.
as well as the long-standing problem of not enough human intelligence and analysis of the SSA on the ground, something that won’t be solved by AFRICOM troops and members shifting from photo op to photo op …
Unlike the Chinese who have made extensive use of human agents in gathering information and intelligence on Africa – as well as influence, the US has relied primarily on Satellite- and Technical Intelligence (SATINT and TECHINT). But Satint and Techint have many limitations – one of them being unable to see opportunities and correctly assess them.
and the US inattention to Africa and subsequent shock and surprise (hence the rush to roll out AFRICOM with buzz word rhetoric and little substance) when the Chinese, Indians and others swiftly moved in for economic and resource arrangements:
This misjudgement becomes even more serious when it is considered that the US took their eye off the African ball and focused it entirely on the Middle East pavilion. During this period, the Chinese seized the moment – with India and Russia following in their wake – and several Asian- and Russo-African pacts were entered into, effectively shutting out the USA.
The current mess in the Somali lands and the Gulf of Aden is a testement to the sort of half-baked solutions Americans previously engendered (let’s invade with aid (’93), let’s undercut progress and unleash the one force most hated in the area, the Ethiopians (’06-’07) and let’s play “stop the pirates” with half measures) that have only served to undercut America’s (and by extension, AFRICOM’s) reputation in the SSA. With no answers to African problems, AFRICOM is but a shiny, not so reasonably priced photo op center that does little on the ground of lasting import.
The attitude of AFRICOM’s head, General William Ward, is emblematic of the problems with AFRICOM in general. “We go where we’re asked to go” is simply not an acceptable answer if you’re not going to go where you NEED to go. That’s a passive, wait and see, whatever goes attitude that screams “we have no idea what we are doing right now”, but we can talk for days about what we could maybe do later on.
There are plenty of places AFRICOM needs to go (and won’t always be asked by the sort of entities it deals with) but can’t because there is no political will and not enough significant resources to go forth.
AFRICOM does not yet offer real solutions to Africa’s problems (it lacks the political will, the resources and the kind of quality leadership at the helm in multiple places that would foster solutions being implemented, not just talked about for years at conferences and meetings months after it was announced). It does not yet offer a vision for Africa (it does not have one yet) that would actually appeal to Africans and meet American interests in a way prior methods of policy making did.
Now it has suffered its first serious failure (though arguably the miserable disaster in Somalia by CTF-HOA, AFRICOM’s predecessor, is the more recent one on the minds of Africans) with few hints of success in the recent past and none foreseeable in the near future. At a time when Zimbabwe likely teeters toward collapse, when Sudan gears itself for war in 2011 when the South votes as it is expected to for independence and when chaos remains the order of the day in the Congo region, AFRICOM offers nothing but cheap conference talk and pass the buck attitudes.
Either it changes quickly or it will likely be left behind. The choice needs to be taken out of its current leaders’ hands.
Last year, I asked what the point of AFRICOM was. I criticized what I viewed as its bungled unveiling, at a time when it had no set definition or vision. I wondered what its mission would be, and how it would go about doing it.
Matt Armstrong (“Mountainrunner”, who has been doing INCREDIBLE work on public diplomacy in Washington D.C. and elsewhere) responded to my post with a well-informed analysis of how AFRICOM’s marketing was going badly but the concept was still solid.
A year has passed, and AFRICOM has only continued to fail, not only in its marketing, but in its execution.
The first failure seemed to be that AFRICOM’s creators and leaders did not consciously realize in their decision-making that the US and its military reputation on the continent did not receive a fresh reset from AFRICOM’s creation.
In recent memory (skip if you already know this tragicomedy of errors by heart), the US is remembered for a bungled effort in Somalia (displaying an utter lack of comprehension of Somalia’s tribal societies or the role outside aid played in conflict incubation), a non-effort on Rwanda’s genocide (that included an often bitterly remembered US effort to prevent African attempts to stop the genocide), the feeding and sheltering of the architects of Rwanda’s genocide in the Congo, so-so efforts to respond to criminal-state conspiracies of epidemic proportions in Sierra Leone and Liberia, indifference to Africa’s largest and deadliest war ever in the Congo and assorted failed or middling schemes to stem terrorism in the Sahara. Just in the past three years, America has promised do something about the lethal instability in Dar Fur and done next to nothing, egged on and supported an epic failure of an intervention in Somalia by an Ethiopian country most recently famous for killing thousands of its own citizens and done little to halt Zimbabwe’s slide to utter ruin.
Get all that? That’s the reputation AFRICOM came to the forefront with, irregardless of what was done with AIDS, trade and development. Indeed, AFRICOM’s first job was to convince African elites that it meant business, and that it would erase what has been considered by Africans a decade or more of American incompetence and indifference. A lot of talk has gone on, and more failed advice and training dished out to friends in Nigeria and Ethiopia. A great number of photo op efforts and small-scale relationship building (especially on the maritime security side) have taken place, but these are not the kind of ops that will change perceptions of AFRICOM on even a medium scale, let alone the image/reputation makeover it needed from Day One because it allowed misconceptions about its mission to run legion.
Now, AFRICOM was directed by then-President Bush to respond to a Ugandan request for help to take down the infamous Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The American help consisted of:
They described a team of 17 advisers and analysts from the Pentagon’s new Africa Command working closely with Ugandan officers on the mission, providing satellite phones, intelligence and $1 million in fuel.
The onset of fog and what appears to be a mix of poor planning and execution left the LRA free to fight another day, though civilians who were left undefended/unaccounted for in villages around the operational area were made to pay the price. As many as 900 of these civilians are dead in what has to be considered a bitter failure for both Uganda and AFRICOM.
This is not what you would hear talking to AFRICOM though. Responses there appear to center around a mix of “Its not our fault” and “Its not our failure”. This is about as brain dead a response as you could possibly imagine.
Not only does it falsely piss on the Ugandans for botching the op entirely (not exactly a good way to maintain alliances with countries or gain the cooperation of others), it advances the narrative in Africa that America simply does not take these problems seriously. It erodes African confidence in AFRICOM’s competence and role as an honest partner.
The bottom line is that in a joint effort, when one of AFRICOM’s partners fails, AFRICOM fails. Without this attitude and approach to joint efforts, whether it be applied on the security side or the development side (whatever that will consist of), AFRICOM will fail miserably in the short and long term alike.
Irregardless of whether its AFRICOM’s fault or whether its a case of AFRICOM simply not being what Africans want, without a grand strategy or at least a compelling theme that guides AFRICOM from Day One (not Day 502) AFRICOM is doomed to failure as it joins the ranks of other good ideas poorly executed.