Africa's Best Hope

This column was written by David Silverstein.

The impending announcement that the Department of Defense will create a separate regional command to focus on Africa is a good first step in helping to secure American interests on the resource-rich continent, now hotly-contested territory in the war on terrorism. The pertinent question at this point is how the command will be defined, what actions it will take, and what limitations will be placed on it even as the dangers to the people of Africa and U.S. national-security interests grow exponentially.

Despite substantial American economic aid, and steady levels of military assistance to Africa over the last 50 years, it remained a backwater in Washington, D.C.'s policy circles. A policy of stability on the cheap, based on support for pro-Western dictators and occasional freedom fighters along with endless (and fruitless) development schemes, was employed to protect U.S. interests on the continent. But Africa cannot be ignored any longer, and the Department of Defense appears ready to rise to that challenge.

Africa's vast mineral wealth is a critical part of America's economic future. Already we import some 15 percent of our annual oil requirements from Africa, which also possesses vast supplies of gold, diamonds, and rare minerals used in the production of the computers and communications equipment that fuel our economy. Seeking these resources, China has increasingly developed its economic investments and fostered new relationships with the warlords and dictators that control access to them.

The lure of mineral wealth and confusion of persistent instability also breed opportunities for Islamist terrorists who exploit widespread official corruption, use Arab expatriate commercial networks, and Dawa (religious outreach and conversion) to win recruits and create new terror outposts. Sudan is a longstanding state sponsor of terrorism, while Hezbollah maintains extensive networks throughout the continent.

The 12 northern states of ever-teetering Nigeria implemented Sharia law in 2000 in preference to the more liberal federal civil code. And networks of al Qaeda terrorists fueled by Sunni-Wahhabi funds have been active since the early 1990s on both coasts, including in Tanzania and Kenya (1998 U.S. embassy bombings, 2002 anti-aircraft attack over Mombassa), and formerly war-torn Liberia, where they engaged in the blood-diamond/money-laundering trade.

Before a new Africa Command can confront these problems the Pentagon must define its competency expansively and then defend it from the various bureaucratic interests that are most likely to see it as a threat and least likely to provide solutions. Responsibility for Africa is currently divided among three commands with a variety of missions and relatively few resources, given the size of the continent. By declaring that the new command would be led by a four-star general, the Pentagon has shown it understands the need for the muscle only a senior leader can muster. But a command without turf is pointless. If efficiency, speed of action, and clarity of purpose are paramount, then the Pentagon must definitively delegate responsibility for all of sub-Saharan Africa, including the Horn, to this command.

Barring wholesale takeover by foreign powers or terrorist groups, the mission in Africa is essentially that of winning hearts and minds through economic, educational, and public-health investments while providing military training and equipment for improved security. The decades of failure accumulated in Africa by the various Western and international aid agencies, and the never-ending conflicts that make economic advancement so difficult, make the U.S. military, with its resurgent competence in stability and pacification operations, the best hope for turning the tide. U.S. troops have long experience in these roles throughout Africa, building schools, drilling wells, training troops, and working with proxies, most recently advising Ethiopian troops in their victory over the Islamic Courts Union.

Even with the clear delineation of its area of operation and missions, there are other obstacles to overcome. The Democratic majority in Congress, led by Congressional Black Caucus members who traditionally favor economic aid programs for Africa, could fail to recognize the stakes in Africa and the unique skills the military brings. The State Department's "development warriors" are likely to work against this direct threat to their most beloved scene of ruin, and the anti-war crowd will undoubtedly bemoan the impending "re-colonizing" of the continent. But a stillborn command is most likely to result from longstanding bias within the Pentagon against nation building; such opponents, with their feeble grasp of history, will hide behind troop and military budget shortfalls and studiously neglect the military's long history of achievement in this arena — e.g., reconstruction and pacification in Europe, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan. They'd rather let Africa's problems fester until a more proper (read: conventional) mission develops there.

Both the proto-democracies and the contested semi-states of Africa require attention now, while the Islamists are still relatively weak, the Chinese have not yet monopolized the markets, and the tide of endless conflict can be turned. With the military already stretched thin, policymakers must realize that small numbers of troops with a well-defined mission can make Africans largely self-sufficient in staving off terrorists and warlords alike. With security in place the civil society that Africans deserve will have a chance to emerge.

But that won't happen if Africa Command can't take up the challenge.
By David Silverstein
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online