Pentagon imperative: a spotlight on Africa

Moving away from a strategic posture that has placed Africa on the bottom rung of priorities, the Pentagon is "fast tracking" the creation of a regional command dedicated exclusively to the continent, likely to be tagged "Africa Command."

This is a big step for the US military, which has long held this troubled continent at arm's length. While an Africa Command is overdue, it must be pursued with care and caution.

Africa's growing strategic importance is clear. Within a decade, 25 percent of US oil imports will come from Africa, mainly from Nigeria, Algeria, and Angola. Several African countries are potential terrorist havens or targets, as demonstrated by the 1998 Al Qaeda bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Radical Islam is spreading in Africa, in part due to the efforts of Sudan, a state sponsor of terrorism. Somalia is also under the sway of Islamist extremists.

The US military has intervened in Africa more than 20 times in the past 15 years, including in Liberia in 2003, when it helped end a brutal factional war. Today the US is providing airlift and other aid to African peacekeepers in Sudan's Darfur region. The need for such operations will continue.

Why concede Africa to China?

Meanwhile, China is rapidly laying down stakes in Africa. China's commerce is mushrooming throughout Africa, and it is seeking to secure Africa's natural resources and markets. China is second only to the US as an importer of African oil. African governments generally favor China for its dogmatic opposition to external "interference" in their affairs. Closer US-Africa military cooperation, spurred by an Africa Command, would help offset this bias. Why concede Africa to Beijing, which undermines democracy, human rights, and transparency?

The Pentagon currently splits Africa among three regional commands: European Command, Central Command, and Pacific Command. European Command's responsibility for 45 African countries reflects colonial and cold war legacies. The Pentagon's Unified Command Plan, which establishes areas of responsibility, has been revised 20 times since 1946. Another change is overdue.

The core function of a combatant command is to plan for military contingencies in the region. Yet Central Command has its hands full fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and watching Iran. While the European Command has been increasing its African activities, its key focus has followed the eastward expansion of NATO. The Pacific Command, meanwhile, is headquartered more than 10,000 miles from Madagascar. These commands are challenged to closely monitor Africa's troubled states and vast ungoverned areas.

A command dedicated to Africa would improve US intelligence in the region, which withered after the cold war and is now desperately needed. It would also enhance planning for future US involvement in Africa and would probably decrease associated costs.

The 1993 Black Hawk helicopter debacle in Somalia might have been avoided with the closer attention a dedicated command brings. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda might have been checked had the Pentagon been more focused on Africa. A command dedicated to Africa's unique political, economic, social, and other challenges should improve the Pentagon's relationship with the State Department and the many other US government agencies operating on the continent.

Properly designed, a dedicated military command would give US ambassadors in Africa added leverage, not a bureaucratic competitor. The State Department, though generally lacking the military's can-do spirit, must remain the lead policymaker. The Pentagon's forte isn't human rights, democracy-building, and similar concerns. An Africa Command should keep a small footprint, much like the current Southern Command for South America. Another caveat: improved capacity to work with African nations in a crisis should not predestine an American intervention.

A commitment, not a 'scramble for Africa'

Establishing an Africa Command should signal to Africans that the US is their partner. Yet this reconfiguration is vulnerable to mischaracterization as a modern-day "scramble for Africa" by the most powerful military in the world. African sensitivity to colonialism and foreign manipulation runs deep.

The Bush administration should consult extensively with African governments and key civil society figures regarding the implications and form of this Pentagon reorganization before its rollout, framing it as a sign of the continent's increasing prominence, not its many ills.

An Africa Command, which would require presidential approval, represents a significant long-term US commitment. But if done correctly, the Pentagon's considerable capabilities will pay dividends on a continent that is finally receiving the strategic attention it deserves.

Rep. Ed Royce (R) of California chaired the House Subcommittee on Africa from 1997-2005.

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