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Africa: Testing Ground for the new U.S. Defense Guidance for the 21st Century

By Ann Phillips, Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center

The Pentagon's new strategic guidance, "Sustaining U.S.Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,"  released in January 2012 outlines major changes in the U.S. defense posture, from a geostrategic shift toward Asia and the Pacific to restructuring its forces. The section on stability and counterinsurgency operations states that the U.S. will no longer "…conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" as it has done in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Rather, the U.S. will "emphasize non-military means and military-to-military cooperation."  Specifically, the U.S. will focus on building the capabilities of partners in regions at risk and rely more heavily on Special Forces, technology, and intelligence, as well as diplomacy and development assistance to promote U.S. national security.

What does this mean for Africa? For starters, U.S. security concerns about the strengthening and spread of extremist groups in weak states, the largest number of which are found in Africa, elevate the continent's at-risk status. If one looks more closely, however, elements of the new guidance have been practiced in Africa for some time. For example, the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) Program began in 1997 with the goal to strengthen the capabilities of African partner nations to participate in multinational peace support operations. Since that time, 25 African militaries have participated in the ACOTA program and have contributed to more than two dozen peacekeeping missions. Currently ACOTA is helping to prepare African troops for service in Somalia and Darfur, among others.

The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), established in 2007 and operational in 2008, was the first combatant command to institutionalize the three "D" approach (Defense, Diplomacy and Development) to national security. As such, Department of State and USAID officials are part of command planning and engagement on the continent. The comprehensive approach is intended to help build host country military, governance, and development capabilities to avert crisis and to enable Africans to find effective solutions to problems on the continent. One example of this approach is the development of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), AFRICOM's forward operating task force located at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. The task force, originally created as the primary military component to combatting terrorism under Operation Endure Freedom- Horn of Africa, expanded its mission in 2002 from a "capture and kill" operation to one that helps create conditions intended to dry up the recruitment pool for extremism. As such, AFRICOM has served as a precursor to the new guidance which precludes U.S. interventions with large land forces and empowers local solutions.

More recently, U.S. Special Forces have ramped up their presence in Africa under the auspices of the new strategic guidance.  Several activities illustrate this fact. First, they are assisting Ugandan forces in the hunt for Joseph Kony, head of the Lord's Resistance Army. They have also been detected in Mali following the coup, although officially, all U.S. military units were withdrawnin March 2012. However, it appears that Special Forces are maintaining a presence to counter Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has set up shop in northern Mali. To the south is Boko Haram, an Islamist militia with possible links to al Qaeda which is active in Nigeria. Nigeria is an important supplier of oil to the U.S. and has uranium mines in areas where extremists are active.  Niger is caught in the middle--drawn into the Mali struggles by its own Tuareg separatists and Islamic militants and destabilized in the south by Boko Haram. U.S. Special Forces are also working with Niger's military to bolster their ability to control and reduce destabilizing forces.

Intelligence-sharing is another part of the package to strengthen African abilities to handle the increasing threat of extremism. U.S.spy planes and drones are part of this effort in the Horn of Africa. A network of small air bases have been established in Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and the Seychelles to monitor al-Qaeda affiliates and other militias.

What is the significance of these efforts? Opinions are divided.  One side argues that the U.S. is putting African personnel on the front lines to bear the brunt of the struggle against extremism.  As such, they are proxies serving U.S. interests.  Another perspective sees the approach in a more positive light.  That is, U.S. assistance is primarily just that — assistance that enables African authorities to more effectively deal with sources of instability, including extremism, as well as a host of other challenges.  

Questions still linger regardless of interpretation: which governments will the U.S. support and based on what criteria?  What will the U.S. do in cases of conflicts where there are no partners, such as in Mali?  Whether these efforts will succeed on the continent remains to be seen. However, how the overall shift in U.S. defense posture will operate in practice can already be observed in many African countries.

About the Author

Ann L. Phillips

Former Public Policy Scholar;
Former Professor of International Security Studies Director, Program in Security, Stability, Transition and Reconstruction, George C. Marshall Center, Germany

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more