Sunday, October 5, 2008

Say hello to Africom

Though it went basically unnoticed in the American press, the US military underwent a major shake-up in its priorities last Wednesday when it established the Africa Command (or Africom).

“Commands” are the tool the military uses to organize its actions in a specific part of the world – Europe has its own command, so does the Middle East and the Pacific. Until last week operations in Africa were carved up among these three other commands, an awkward arrangement at best.

The Pentagon says that Africom’s main responsibility will be to help African nations fight terrorism, while supporting democracy in the continent and supplying humanitarian relief. Nations in Africa though are more skeptical, especially emerging powers like South Africa, Nigeria and Libya. They worry that Africom is the start of an American militarization of the region and wonder about how much humanitarian aid will actually be provided by the US military (Hugo Chavez in Venezuela voiced a similar concern over the US Navy’s recent decision to reactivate the US Fourth Fleet supposedly to provide humanitarian assistance to South America). Some Americans are asking the same questions. The New York Times quotes former Clinton administration Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon who said: “The military should stick to military tasks and let diplomats and development experts direct other aspects of U.S. policy in Africa.”

Nearly a quarter of all US development aid now flows through the Pentagon, a drastic increase from just the past decade when the military controlled less than 4%. US military officials counter with the claim that they have found that an interagency approach is the best way to deal with troubled regions, and that the military only acts in a supporting role to development efforts.

It will take some time to see how Africom plays out on the ground. For now Africom isn’t even based in Africa – there has been reluctance among African nations to hosting a large American base, though Liberia is said to be interested – so for now it will operate from afar in Stuttgart, Germany. What is clear though is that Africa will be a larger and larger part of US foreign policy in the coming years for a very simple, and familiar reason – oil.

Estimates are that the US could import up to 25% of its crude oil from West Africa within the next decade. It’s also a part of he world where our influence has been waning, China has been investing heavily in Africa in the past few years, and now Russia is showing interest in the region as well, signing development deals with Libya earlier in the year, and now having some talks with Somalia, meaning that Africom could have a very interesting future.
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