With Somalia largely in the hands of fundamentalist Islamist groups, the Democratic Republic of Congo reeling in the efforts to hold free and fair elections, the Darfur crisis and its spillover to other countries, and reports of increased activity of both al Qaeda-affiliated Salafist groups and Iranian/Hezbollah affiliated Shi’ite groups, the United States can no longer afford to leave the vast African continent on the bottom rung of international priorities.
After several years of internal debate, the Pentagon is finally recognizing this reality and is moving to fast-track the creation of an “Africa Command,” on par with the Southern Command (South America), European Command etc.
As an unfortunate relic of the Cold War, Africa is currently divided among three different commands: European, Central and, for the islands off the east coast, the Pacific Command. This means no single unit has responsibility, accumulates historic knowledge or expertise, or looks at the entire package of inter-related issues, from terrorism to organized criminal structures to HIV/AIDs.
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), one of Congress’ most knowledgeable Africa hands and prime mover of the restructuring, outlined the difficulties this approach has brought in a Nov. 14 op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor:
“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 Africa 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.”
The Pentagon is now in the final phase of preparing different options for how the command would operate-as a full-fledged regional command or as a sub-command.
I think, given the vast and complex nature of the multiple Africa conflicts, the looming challenge of competing with the Chinese over commerce and natural resources, a command is fully warranted.
In addition to the terrorism issues that are scattered throughout the continent, having a unified command would allow a closer relationship with the armies we are trying to deal with, and a chance to gain more than a smattering of knowledge on each of the major issues and countries. And, as Royce wrote: “Why concede Africa to Beijing, which undermines democracy, human rights and transparency?”
A recent Nixon Center conference on Terrorism in Africa, in which I particpated, laid out some of the dangers now facing Africa: growing al Qaeda networks in eastern and southern Africa; Iran’s growing influence; the destabilization forces in the northeast presented by the United Islamic Courts, with the growing threat of wars across Ethiopia, and the increasing reliance of the United States on energy from the continent.
All of these factors, to me, argue for a strong command that can dedicate itself to the continent that will be on our worry list for the next decade and beyond.