A Commanding Presence in Africa

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Pacific commands — was an ‘outdated arrangement left over from the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.’

Go there >>
Quick, What’s AFRICOM?

Go there, too >>
US Moves in on Africa

And there >>
A Different Kind of Great Game

And there >>
Africa: The Right’s Stuff

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