Don't militarize U.S.-Africa ties

October 05, 2007|By Frida Berrigan and William D. Hartung

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left little room for news coverage or informed discussion of what is going on in the rest of the world and how it relates to U.S. security interests. This goes double for Africa, which was largely ignored in policymaking circles even before Iraq and 9/11 began to dominate the foreign policy agenda.

Thus, few Americans are likely aware that the U.S. relationship with Africa has become increasingly militarized. In the long run, such a focus is not beneficial for either Africa or the United States.

When most Americans think of U.S. relations with Africa, they probably think of Washington as a helper, clearing the way for humanitarian assistance in areas plagued by war and natural disaster, funding programs to treat or prevent HIV-AIDS, or providing development assistance to the continent's battered economies.

But in the minds of U.S. policymakers, Africa has emerged as a "third front" in the war on terrorism. Actions such as U.S. support for an Ethiopian incursion into Somalia to battle Islamists there and recent discussions about labeling Ethiopia's rival Eritrea a terrorist nation give a sense of where Washington's priorities lie. As Rear Adm. Richard W. Hunt, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, explains: "Africa is the new frontier that we need to engage now, or we are going to end up doing it later in a very negative way."

In keeping with this emphasis, Washington has created a U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), charged with minding U.S. interests on the continent. And as a recent report from the Center for Defense Information has documented, the militarization of America's Africa policy predates the creation of the command. U.S. military aid to Djibouti, which hosts a military base with 1,800 U.S. personnel, increased fortyfold in the five years after 9/11 compared with the previous five years. Military assistance to Kenya and Algeria - both viewed as pivotal states for U.S. anti-terror operations in Africa - has also increased drastically.

The United States can help key African states build up peacekeeping capacities without having a major military presence there. Indeed, such a presence threatens to undermine relations with key potential allies, such as South Africa, whose defense minister has refused to meet with the incoming head of AFRICOM, arguing that "Africa has to avoid the presence of foreign forces on her soil." And while governments in Liberia and Ethiopia have expressed a willingness to host the African command, this is unlikely to prove popular with most of their citizens, who are suspicious of U.S. motives in their neighborhoods.

The United States should also consider how it wants to be seen in Africa. Increasingly, military and civilian leaders have acknowledged that a new definition of security must address a wide range of threats to human life - from poverty and disease to environmental devastation and government repression. In keeping with this outlook, the primary face of U.S. policy in the region should not be a military one.

Terrorism is a serious issue in Africa, but it is not the only issue. Drought, famine, HIV-AIDS and the lack of clean water and adequate housing kill Africans in far larger numbers than terrorism does - the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania notwithstanding. U.S. prestige on the continent would be much greater if our policy did more to solve some of these larger challenges to African lives and livelihoods.

The Bush administration's Millennium Challenge Account is one mechanism to promote development and battle disease on the continent, but it is modest in scope. Long-term, robustly funded initiatives to advance the public good are needed to build the trust essential to fostering genuine cooperation in fighting terrorism.

Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana has observed that the Pentagon enjoys far greater resources in Africa than the State Department does. The time to reorient and demilitarize U.S. Africa policy is now. To do otherwise risks turning the continent into yet another reservoir of anti-American sentiment that will only make it easier for terrorists to gain followers in the decades to come.

Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate with the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation. Her e-mail is berrigan@newamerica.net. William D. Hartung directs the initiative. His e-mail is hartung@newamerica.net.

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