AFRICOM: Open for Business?

By Ron Capps

A few weeks ago, I visited the headquarters of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in Stuttgart, Germany as part of a research project on the imbalance between America's military and civilian expeditionary capabilities. While I was there I met with military and civilian leaders of the United States' newest and most controversial regional combatant command. What I learned was encouraging, but not satisfying.

AFRICOM has been open for business for less than a year now. There aren't even signs in front of the buildings announcing what activities are where yet. Some programs are still in the process of transfer from European Command. For example, AFRICOM took full operational control of the military portion of the Trans-Sahel Counter-Terrorism Partnership on May 15th. So it's natural that there are still some rough edges and that one might find a few sticky windows and the like.

But several things are clear from my visit:

- Africa Command, and its engagement with Africans, is growing. When I asked about future programming and activities in the interviews I conducted, the response was always "bigger."

- The Command is desperately concerned with its image. After stumbling out of the strategic communications starting blocks and fighting the perception that U.S. foreign policy in Africa was to be led by the United States military, the Command's briefings and program information documents are littered with words promoting its vision of shared responsibility and combined operations. Every program note lists partners; at every turn Africa Command is said to be assisting rather than leading.

- The Command and its programs are well funded. Africa Command received $75.5 million for fiscal year 2008 and $310 million for fiscal year 2009. Often, individual programs are funded separately: Operation Objective Voice, the military's information operation in support of the Trans-Sahel Counter-Terrorism Partnership, is planning a $30 million program for the next few years.

All of these things are good. But with a little perspective, they also expose gaps in the U.S. government's engagement strategy, capacity and commitment. 

- The military is only one element of foreign affairs. As Africa Command and its programs grow, so should the Department of State and USAID. Yet, embassies in Africa are understaffed. State and USAID are unable to field sufficient numbers of trained personnel to promote democratic governance, expand public diplomacy outreach programs, counter the development of extremism, and support democratic and economic development . This imbalance diminishes America's ability to engage across the full spectrum of defense, diplomacy and development and means that soldiers are forced to do the work of development and diplomacy professionals. 

- The American military has unparalleled capacity and competence. There are missions in Africa where AFRICOM's forces should actually be leading. There are enormous peacekeeping needs in Africa -- Chad, Darfur, Southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo. We should be there taking our share of the risk and giving our best to protect the civilians displaced by these terrible wars. Where are the American peacekeepers?

- While $310 million seems like a lot of money, in reality it is about one-half of one percent of the Defense Department budget. Africa gets shortchanged again.

Overall, AFRICOM seemed coltish: not yet fully matured, but full of energy and potential. As Africa Command grows, I hope the U.S. administration will balance its engagement on the continent by adding more State Department and USAID personnel to the mix, increasing its financial commitment, and taking on its share of the peacekeeping duties.