The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM): building partnership or neo-colonialism of U.S.-Africa relations?

Author:da Cruz, Jose de Arimateia
Position:OTHER PAPERS - Essay


The end of the Cold War and the attacks of September 11th have drastically changed the United States' geo-strategic interests and perceptions. Africa had long been on the periphery of U.S. interest, but this is quickly changing. The War on Terror, Africa's vast natural resources and the still existing widespread instability across the continent are all factors that play a role for the new foreign policy of the United States. According to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, the new U.S. African Command is "part of a broader vision of U.S. policy" intended to adapt to the new developments after the end of the Cold War. (1) While previously, Africa was seen as only of humanitarian interest, it is now increasingly becoming of national security interest for the United States.

According to Thomas-Greenfield, the new "conceptual framework" of the Bush administration is focused on developing new strategic partnerships with key players within Africa, such as International Organizations, state and non-state actors, to help increase peace and security within the continent. (2) However, the central goal is to help African countries, international organizations and non-state actors help themselves, and not force foreign ideas and security paradigms on these actors. According to Ryan Henry, the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for policy, AFRICOM is meant to support the "indigenous leadership efforts that are currently going on ... and to complement rather than compete with any leadership efforts currently going on." (3) In essence, the United States strives to support conflict resolution, African peace missions and the fight against terror.

The Pentagon's Unified Command Plan divides the world into zones, called "Unified Commands," on the basis of geo-strategic military purposes. (4) These commands administrate and coordinate all Defense Department personnel, equipment and operations in the specific area. Previously, Africa was divided between three unified commands, the European Command (EUCOM), the Central Command (CENTCOM) and the Pacific Command (PACOM). EUCOM has responsibility over most of the countries in the African mainland, CENTCOM over Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya and PACOM over Madagascar, the Seychelles and Indian Ocean region of the African coast. AFRICOM, now, is intended to cover all African countries except Egypt, which, because of its close relationship with the Middle East, remains under CENTCOM. (5) The previous division of Africa under three commands caused a few complications and proved fairly inefficient. According to Sean McFate, Africa was never a primary priority for any of the three commands, due to the placement of their main headquarters elsewhere and the division violated the "principle of unity of command." (6) Further, he claims the Department of Defense lacked an appropriate number of African experts and centering the general focus of AFRICOM now solely on mediating between Africa and the United States will help implement effective policies that target the essence of the problems the continent faces.

Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, stated that the creation of AFRICOM will improve the United States' approach towards African policy and make it more effective and integrated. (7) Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Robert Gates stated that the new command was intended to build partnerships and security cooperation, and support non-military and military missions on the continent. (8) Apart from the long-standing humanitarian interest in the region, the U.S. is now expanding its foreign policy scope and giving the African continent a place of greater importance in its national security calculations.


The African Command (AFRICOM) is structured differently from the other commands, such as EUCOM and CENTCOM, which were established to fight wars. In a White House press release that announced the establishment of the African Command, President Bush described its purpose to be to "enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth in Africa." (9) As Sean McFate stated, military missions usually do not incorporate development, health and education. (10) This stands in stark contrast, to the usual military approach of "hard power," which uses military force and coercion to advance U.S. interests.


To adapt to the current global geopolitical climate, the U.S. seems to place more emphasis on what Joseph Nye termed "soft power." (11) Soft power is defined as a means of achieving national goals by employing the attractiveness of a nation's foreign policy, values and culture to obtain desired outcomes. (12) He writes that while the military might of the U.S. remains unquestioned in the world, that sort of power often fails to achieve U.S. interests. Hard power is the "power to coerce" and can lead to resentment, while soft power is the "power to attract" which can prove more valuable in certain situations.

In his article "The Decline of American Soft Power," Nye contemplates the rising sentiment of Anti-Americanism in the world and comes to the conclusion that the U.S. will not be able to fight terrorism without the help of other nations. (13) Thus, foreign nations are less likely to value cooperation with the United States, if public unpopularity of the U.S. is high. In essence, Nye advocates something which he terms "smart power, a combination of hard power and soft power, as was done during the Cold War." (14) While Nye's article uses these ideas in reference to the Muslim world, they can also be transplanted onto the Unites States' relations to countries in Africa.

Thus, the plan for AFRICOM may be part of a greater U.S. foreign policy strategy of "smart power" in the developing world. Placing increasing emphasis on "development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth in Africa" could be an attempt at U.S. image building in order to win the trust of the nations of the continent. (15) Plain hard power, a solely military presence, is likely to be rejected as a neocolonialism attempt by most governments of the region. However, placing the primary focus not on the military, but on other government agencies active in the field of development, economics growth, and education that are willing to coordinate programs and coordinate operations with local and international NGOs will likely win more approval.


The United States has had military ties to Africa since the beginnings of its national sovereignty. Under Thomas Jefferson, the Navy was employed to fight piracy in North Africa and in and after the 1830s to combat the trans-Atlantic slave trade. (16) In World War II, the U.S. was involved in the Allied operations in North Africa (Operation Torch), and Linda Thomas Greenfield even goes as far as to say, "Africa ... proved to be the strategic underbelly of Europe." However, the military priorities of the United States remained not in Africa, but elsewhere throughout the previous centuries.

AFRICOM, which became fully operational on October 1st, 2008, administers the implementation of a series of military and security operations in Africa that are sponsored by the State Department and the Defense Department. (17) Among these operations are bilateral and multilateral military training programs and exercises such as the "Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance Programme" (ACOTA), the "International Military Education and Training Programme" (IMET), the "Foreign Military Sales Programme" (FMS), the "African Coastal and Boarder Security Programme" and the "Excess Defense Articles Programme." (18) The Combined Joint Task Force--Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), initiated in 2002, supports security patrols in African coastal waters around the Horn of Africa. The "Joint Task Force Aztec Silence" (JTFAS) carries out counter-terrorism operations in North and West Africa in coordination with the local countries. In 2007, naval operations were extended into the Gulf of Guinea and base access agreements were negotiated between the Bush administration and the governments of Gabon, Morocco, Tunisia, Namibia, Sao Tome, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia, opening local military bases to U.S. troops. (19)

The United States also has diplomatic and humanitarian relations with African nations. Under the Bush administration, development assistance more than tripled after 2001. (20) The United States supports and considers the African Union, sub-regional communities like the Economic Community of West-African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union's New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) as important actors to promote conflict resolution, economic development and cooperation between the African states. Of rising importance are also non-state actors, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are able to be a stable force even in countries where the state authority is eroding due to conflict. Other non-state actors, such as drug and money trafficking organizations are seen as threats for the entire region, because they facilitate illegal trans-boarder activity and are a factor in the spread of terrorism. (21)

A series of development assistance programs have also evolved over the last few years. According to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, President George W. Bush's Emergency Plan For Aids Relief (PEPFAR) was the "largest international health initiative in history ever dedicated to one disease" mainly for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. (22) Recognizing that the primary cause of death among children in many African countries is malaria, the administration appropriated a sum of $1.2.billion to be distributed over the next five years for bed nets, spraying and medication. The United...

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