'It's the Peace Corps with a weapon'

The United States is stepping up its operations in Africa, which it sees as the next major front against terrorism.

Using the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, for the past two years America has been sharing weapons and tactics with nine amiable nations in central and west Africa. This, along with humanitarian schemes such as well building, aims to promote cooperation between the U.S. military and African armies in and around the Sahara in an effort to make the zone less hospitable to terrorist groups.

Writes Scott Johnson of Newsweek:

Sgt Chris Rourke, a US Army reservist in a 12-man American Civil Affairs unit living in Dire Dawa, in eastern Ethiopia, says it comes down to this: ‘It’s the Peace Corps with a weapon’.

Austin Merrill notes much the same. Having come across the US military while on assignment in Timbuktu

The Special Forces team — while I was with them — spent more time caring for sick children and planning how to improve villagers’ access to drinking water than it did coaching Malian soldiers at target practice.

America is trying to win the hearts and minds of people who might otherwise be opposition — or worse, a threat.

The US has offered what it considers appropriate aid in different countries. While things like inoculations were important in Mali, Humvees were vital to help Kenya “combat terrorism”. Meanwhile, reservists and national guardsmen in Ethiopia are building schools and bridges “to wrestle key local leaders, clan elders and unemployed youth over to their vision of Ethiopia’s future” (Newsweek).

Soon a dedicated strategic command, Africom, will be set up to centralise and expand US international interests on the continent. The agency would combine military, economic and aid programmes in one office and could launch as soon as October, although a host nation has yet to be decided. Critics say it could cement American relations with less-than-savoury regimes such as Ethiopia, which is touted as a base for the command.

The Pentagon says Africom will bring its hearts-and-mind campaign closer to the people; critics say it represents the militarisation of US Africa policy. Already, the United States has identified the Sahel, a region stretching west from Eritrea across the broadest part of Africa, as the next critical zone in the war on terror and started working with repressive governments in Chad and Algeria, among others, to further American interests there.

The continent is home to several terrorist groups, most notably the loose coalition in north Africa that is al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which formed in January and has claimed responsibility for recent bomb attacks in Algeria. As such, it is understandable that the US would want a major base nearby.

However, many in the region would oppose this because of concerns about imperialism, be it economic or political. Fears of a conflict with China — which has more consulates and embassies on the continent than the US does — also exist.

The timescale involved is sure to provoke opposition. This isn’t a short or even medium-term operation.

General Charles Wald, who has pushed the idea of an Africom-style organisation, has said avoiding another Iraq or Afghanistan is the ultimate goal.

This needs to be a different approach to what the military does. It ought to be capacity building and governance building. There’s a lot of money going into Africa, and a lot of people care. But it’s just not being coordinated properly. It’s time to start facing the fact that we’ve got to do this in a holistic, synergistic way. It’s going to take time—50 years at least. (my emphasis)

The US military has tried to allay such fears on the Africom website. Meanwhile, Ryan Henry, US principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, has tried to downplay concerns of a 21st century Scramble for Africa.

The command is focused on African solutions that are led by Africans… We do not see this command getting involved in operations. There will be no new troops assigned to Africa as a result of this and there will be no new bases associated with it. We think the solutions to Africa’s security problems need to be indigenously developed in Africa. Some outsiders can help, but they can’t do the heavy lifting.

Nonetheless, he is quite open about the US using Africom strictly for its own interests. AP security correspondent Mark Trevelyan writes:

Despite the emphasis on developing indigenous African security, Henry did not rule out the possibility that Washington would intervene with its own forces if it had intelligence pinpointing a top al-Qaida figure in an African country.

“It would depend on a myriad of circumstances. If we thought that someone was going to unleash an attack somewhere in the world that was on the scale of 9/11 or greater, we’re obviously going to do something about it,” he said.

America has already acted on its al-Qaida suspicions. During the 2006 Somali civil war, when the Islamic Courts Union ruled much of the south, US gunships attacked ICU positions. This was because of a belief that the union was backing, or at least had ties to, al-Qaida. After backing local warlords against the Islamists, the US supported an Ethiopian invasion of the country. A coalition of Ethiopian and Somali government forces defeated the courts, although a guerilla campaign can not be ruled out. Somalia is still a shambles.

Unfortunately, by accepting the deployment of Ethiopian forces outside that nation’s borders the US has encouraged wider regional tensions. Eritrea was accused of sending soldiers to support the ICU, and its conflict with Ethiopia has smouldered for years, occasionally erupting into all-out war. Tensions between Ethiopia — which fought a war with Somalia in the 1970s — and Somalis within its borders also complicate the situation.

The Ethiopian government’s record on human rights is getting increasingly worse. Allying itself to such a regime will only undermine the moral and political credibility of Africom, especially if the organisation is based there. However, the US will likely feel the benefits of having an ally in a strategic area outweighs such concerns. It has happened many times before.

Resolving this regional mess would presumably be a priority for Africom. Whether or not this would include working with African Union peacekeepers in Somalia or be limited to police training is unclear at this time.

It will be interesting to see what focus Africom takes: will it prioritise military training and support, or will it get more involved in humanitarian duties? Will it be effective? Can it be effective?

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