AFRICOM at 10: partner training is still at the center of concerns, but the fight has intensified


A Sailor signals an AV-8B Harrier to take off aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, October 4, 2016, in support of Libya against Islamic State. The operation illustrates the growing profile of AFRICOM since its creation 10 years ago. (Nathan Wilkes / US Navy)

A Sailor signals an AV-8B Harrier to take off aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, October 4, 2016, in support of Libya against Islamic State.  The operation illustrates the growing profile of AFRICOM since its creation 10 years ago.

A Sailor signals an AV-8B Harrier to take off aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, October 4, 2016, in support of Libya against Islamic State. The operation illustrates the growing profile of AFRICOM since its creation 10 years ago. (Nathan Wilkes / US Navy)

Marine Staff Sgt.  Malachi McPherson, an explosive ordnance disposal technician with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa, assists a Ugandan People's Defense Forces soldier during a demolition range at Camp Singo, Uganda, on December 7, 2015.

Marine Staff Sgt. Malachi McPherson, an explosive ordnance disposal technician with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa, assists a Ugandan People’s Defense Forces soldier during a demolition range at Camp Singo, Uganda, on December 7, 2015. ()

Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit attach Hellfire AGM-114 missiles to an AH-1W Super Cobra aboard the amphibious transport dock USS San Antonio in Libya's support against Islamic State, Nov. 8, 2016.

Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit attach Hellfire AGM-114 missiles to an AH-1W Super Cobra aboard the amphibious transport dock USS San Antonio in Libya’s support against Islamic State, Nov. 8, 2016. (Ryan Young / US Marine Corps)

STUTTGART, Germany – When former President George W. Bush announced the formation of US Africa Command in 2007, the idea was that it would be a new, more friendly face of the US military: a combat command. focused more on partnerships than combat.

“Africa Command will not reflect the United States’ intention to kinetically engage in Africa. It’s about prevention. This is not about waging war, ”said Theresa Whelan, then Deputy Defense Secretary for African Affairs, when the command was established in October 2007.

But 10 years later, AFRICOM has evolved into something more like a mini US Central Command than the low intensity, soft power oriented Southern Command – the first model for military efforts in Africa.

The recent wave of high-profile and powerful measures in parts of Africa, where five servicemen have been killed in action in the past six months, raise questions about AFRICOM’s role as the Pentagon’s soft touch.

“I think there are things that have changed in command, and more importantly, there are things that have changed in Africa,” said Joseph Mason, AFRICOM command historian, reflecting on how of which AFRICOM has evolved in 10 years.

Over the past year, AFRICOM has launched 500 airstrikes against militants in Libya and carried out more than a dozen precision attacks against extremists in Somalia, where a Navy SEAL was killed in May.

The deaths last week of four American soldiers, ambushed in a sprawling but obscure swath of territory in Niger, shows how much the AFRICOM mission has intensified since the early days.

Initially, critics and skeptics of the Pentagon’s plan to install an Africa-only headquarters warned of the dangers of militarizing foreign policy there. Much of the early concern, often expressed by officials on the African continent and development organizations, prompted much speculation that the United States would be moving large numbers of troops to the continent to establish a new neighborhood there. general.

Compared to other regions, the military footprint in Africa remains difficult to quantify as forces enter and leave the continent on mission. At any one time, several thousand troops are operating in Africa, according to published estimates.

To counter such concerns, US officials in the early days of AFRICOM spoke of its unique structure, which includes an almost half-civilian staff. It also contains many niches for officials from other government agencies in the command structure and offers a civilian assistant to the four-star leader.

AFRICOM’s focus on “African solutions to African problems” meant that the United States was there to assist the military in their quest to professionalize and become more effective in providing security.

“We are not at war in Africa. We don’t expect to be at war in Africa either. Our embassies and AFRICOM will work together to make this happen, ”said Jendayi Frazer, former Deputy Secretary of State for Africa, in 2007.

The effort to soften and almost demilitarize the image of command has been mirrored by AFRICOM not using the traditional J-code nomenclature, a system that divides command responsibilities using cryptic military acronyms. “I think it was sold that way, and there was some authenticity to it,” Mason said.

Unchanged missions

While combat operations have increased over the past 12 months, AFRICOM officials still stress that the essence of its missions remains unchanged – training local military personnel to deal with their own security concerns. Most of the original structure is still intact even as AFRICOM adapts to a new threat environment, Mason said.

AFRICOM now hosts dozens of annual training events across the continent, which can range from large-scale multinational exercises to small unit efforts focused on improving tactics. Each year, AFRICOM conducts around 3,500 exercises and training programs, according to AFRICOM boss General Thomas Waldhauser.

Since 2007, “AFRICOM has made great strides … in becoming an organization seen by many today as ‘adding value’ to the challenges we face,” Waldhauser said in a recent address to African policy analysts. .

AFRICOM’s focus, he said, continues to be “by, with and through” African partners.

But conditions on the ground have become more difficult in Africa, and US policy has changed in response, showing a greater willingness to take deadly action as AFRICOM aligns with the fragile governments of Libya and Somalia to lead. occasional air strikes and raids.

In 2014, then-President Barack Obama created a $ 5 billion counterterrorism fund for Africa efforts, which laid the foundation for more robust operations. President Donald Trump has granted AFRICOM expanded powers to make decisions about when to carry out strikes in Somalia.

While openly talking about combat operations was an institutional taboo in the early days of AFRICOM, AFRICOM now publishes many of its operations, publishing strike counts.

“Threats have evolved and US government policy has evolved,” Mason said.

A gradual evolution

Around 2010, traditional military J codes were put in place to align with other combatant commands, a small but notable step as AFRICOM matured.

In 2011, the Arab Spring wreaked havoc in Libya. AFRICOM conducted its first major combat mission there, leading the first wave of airstrikes that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi. However, after-action reviews of the operation revealed that AFRICOM was not structured to lead a crisis. Many reforms have been made, including the creation of a new joint operations center at AFRICOM’s Kelley Barracks headquarters in Stuttgart.

The efforts to assemble a more agile headquarters were exposed when AFRICOM helped coordinate the U.S. response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia, which involved the mobilization of approximately 2,800 U.S. troops, said Mason.

In 2012, the death of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, highlighted further flaws in the command, which lacked forces close enough to conduct rescue operations at a targeted diplomatic facility. by activists. In response, AFRICOM has set up small outposts scattered across the continent, where troops can be mobilized and rotated in the event of a crisis. Today there are a dozen such facilities, including two in Niger, where the United States has around 800 troops, according to AFRICOM.

Meanwhile, over the past year, the resurgence of al-Shabab in Somalia and signs of the Islamic State in Libya have been AFRICOM’s primary focus. In Libya, a month-long US air campaign late last year helped local forces oust militants from a key stronghold in Sirte. AFRICOM officials continue to monitor the region and have vowed that more strikes will be carried out if necessary.

“Our mission statement outlines our three main tasks: building defense capabilities, responding to crises, and deterring and defeating transnational threats,” said Waldhauser. “As you might expect, the last of these, to deter and defeat transnational threats, is something we are focusing a lot of our attention on.”

[email protected] Twitter: @john_vandiver


Milton S. Rodgers

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