A Commanding Presence in Africa


| March 22, 2007


In the latest chapter of Africa's long military history, the Pentagon has announced that it will set up a new African Command for the region. The vast continent was, until recently, divvied up among a handful of 'combatant commands' -- centralized units grouped by region or function to oversee different military forces. While the new marching orders indicate renewed interests in the region, it's not yet clear exactly what those interests are.

In announcing the new African Command (AFRICOM in military shorthand) in February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained that the previous arrangement -- which had Africa under the shared auspices of the Pentagon's European, Central, and Pacific commands -- was an 'outdated arrangement left over from the Cold War.' AFRICOM, he explained, will 'oversee security cooperation, building partnership capability, defense support to non-military missions, and, if directed, military operations on the African continent.'

This significant announcement has flown under the media radar, according to Paul McLeary of the Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily. Most of the coverage of AFRICOM, McLeary notes, has come from media outlets outside the United States, and much of it, he writes, is mired in suspicion. Take, for example, Simon Tisdall's piece in the Guardian, which described the development thusly: 'With Gulf of Guinea countries including Nigeria and Angola projected to provide a quarter of US oil imports within a decade, with Islamist terrorism worries in the Sahel and Horn of Africa, and with China prowling for resources and markets, the US plainly feels a second wind of change is blowing, necessitating increased leverage.'

In one of the few stateside media entries, Conn Hallinan strikes a similarly skeptical tone, arguing that the wealth of African oil is the overarching motivation for establishing AFRICOM -- not the Bush administration's 'rhetoric of 'freedom' and 'stability.'' In a Right Web piece republished by TomPaine.com, Hallinan notes that the National Energy Policy Development Group estimates that a quarter of all US oil imports will come from Africa by the year 2015. Given the fact that China, India, and other energy-seeking countries are already investing heavily in Africa, the stage is set for a resource race across the continent.



McLeary, on the other hand, bills AFRICOM as a primarily 'humanitarian operation, with serious -- and necessary -- anti-terrorism military programs.' In a separate piece for Foreign Policy, McLeary argues that the centralized US military presence is a reasonable response to the rise in interstate conflict within northern Africa and the Horn, as well as the emergence of groups like the Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates out of Algeria.

While motives and aspirations remain unclear, one thing is certain: There's not enough coverage of the issue in the American media to help people understand the development or its consequences. As McLeary writes: 'We only wish that we didn't have to argue with niche Web sites and foreign newspapers about this. It's a debate that should be playing out in our mainstream press.'