Think Again

Think Again: Africom

U.S. Africa Command was launched to controversy and has been met with skepticism ever since. Behind two years of mixed messages, a coherent mission might finally be emerging. Here's what you need to know about the world's next U.S. military hub.

As if the U.S. military weren't busy enough in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's now got another project looming: building an entirely new Africa Command from the ground up. For years, the Department of Defense split the continent between three existing commands - Central, European, and Pacific. But on February 6, 2007, the George W. Bush administration announced that Africa was finally going to get individual attention.

If the move was meant as demonstration of Africa's crucial importance to the United States, however, it was received as more of an insult. From the moment that U.S. Africa Command (Africom) was even mentioned, rumors began to fly. The command was surely looking for a permanent home on the African continent, critics said, and the new military organization would lead to a burgeoning U.S. military presence in the region. Some, including most of the governments in Sub-Saharan Africa, feared a sort of neocolonial U.S. engagement. Meanwhile, Africom failed (and still fails) to clearly explain its mission, adding credibility to the rampant doubts.

Two years later, fevers have cooled, but Africom remains a contentious issue. Here's a look at what the command really is (and isn't), and why it fits in quite nicely with the world of counterinsurgency traditionally left to commanders in the Middle East and Central Asia.

"Africom was created to fight terrorism."

Only in part. To understand the question, it's important to look first at one of the most seemingly simple yet actually most devilish questions about the command: What does Africom really do? After the command's launch two and a half years ago, even the U.S. government struggled to figure that out. Africom's civilian counterparts in the State Department, for example, felt both confused and threatened. How did they fit in, now that Africom would be running the show? The command's impenetrable and vague mission statement doesn't help matters. Africom, it says, "conducts sustained security engagement through military-to-military programs, military-sponsored activities, and other military operations as directed to promote a stable and secure African environment in support of U.S. foreign policy."

This internal lack of direction is one reason that Africom has been so vulnerable to criticism. It's clear that Africom's main job is to get to know African militaries - to help train them, to help boost their professionalism, and to generally serve as a good example to countries, many of which have never had a military that was subservient to a civilian government. Part of this will be enabling African countries to staff U.N. peacekeeping missions, a project already begun under the State Department's Global Peace Operations Initiative.

But after that, things get fuzzier. Analyst J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, mentions energy security as one primary goal. "[T]he significance of Africa for the United States' energy security cannot be underestimated," he wrote in The Brown Journal of World Affairs in the Fall/Winter of 2008. Places such as Nigeria are becoming the default big suppliers as policymakers shift dependence away from the Middle East.

And yes, terrorism is important too, not least because it's probably the most pressing concern from the U.S. perspective. One good indication about how the United States started looking at Africa after the September 11 attacks was the Pan-Sahel initiative, an attempt to boost the capacity of local troops in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger to find and root out local terror. A second initiative, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, followed two years later, adding five more countries to the list. Such programs reflected a shift in security mentalities that began to see poverty, discontent, and poor governance as root grievances associated with terror. And they'll certainly continue under Africom.

So for those worried about an oppressive U.S. military presence in Africa, the question may be less what the U.S. troops are doing as what missions they are training African troops to carry out. And here, it is myopic to see Africa purely in terms of terrorism, oil, and peacekeeping. All three of these key interests, while critical to the United States, are less likely to be the complaints of your average African. Much more needed than counterterror squads is good policing, any resident of Johannesburg or Lagos will tell you. But pickpockets and armed robbers don't score too high as U.S.-dubbed strategic threats.

For some African countries, a strong military may even be counterproductive, particularly if other sectors of the government fail to improve in tandem. As one analyst put it at a recent conference on Africom, making the military more professional than the government sounds like a recipe for a coup. Look no further than Guinea for proof: The military takeover of November 2008, was initially greeted with protests of joy on the streets of a country cursed by decades of lethargic and corrupt civilian leadership. If that military has been trained in counterterrorism tactics, one can imagine the relative ease with which they could put down any would-be opposition.

"Africom wants to find a base on the continent."

No -- at least, not now. Of all the rumors that clouded Africom's rollout two years ago, none was more persistent than the idea that Africom was looking for an African base. It didn't help dispel whispers when several African governments unilaterally condemned Africom and refused to welcome U.S. troops; Liberia was the only country that offered to play host.

But Africom is not searching for a base today, even if it had been before getting so seriously spurned. From its current locale in Stuttgart, Germany, Africom is well positioned for its so far limited tasks (which, as mentioned, still need clear definition) and has no desire to move. It has no permanent troops at its disposal, so the command has to request men through the Department of Defense as tasks arise. And as for the rest of Africom's 1,300-staff, which includes 300 Special Operations, 250 intelligence, and a big chunk of civilians, getting around Africa is actually easier from Stuttgart than, say, Monrovia. To fly from West to East Africa, you have to fly through Europe anyway.

Might Africom have a real presence in Africa someday? Many believe that the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), founded separately in 2002 and now under Africom's purview, might be a sign of what is to come. Based in Djibouti, the 1,500-person troop and civilian contingent has been active in regional training programs, counter terror, intelligence operations, and humanitarian assistance. Call it a trial run?

"Africom will militarize foreign aid."

Perhaps. A major objection to Africom has been the fear that the new command would "militarize" foreign aid, with soldiers taking over traditionally civilian tasks. The danger would be twofold: Not only would the military be less effective in carrying out humanitarian jobs, but it would compromise the neutrality of independent aid workers, as the line between military and civilian blurred. The State Department was among the first to raise this concern. As an Office of the Inspector General report released this summer explained, there was "considerable internal debate [within the Africa Bureau] about the wisdom of military funding of U.S. development and public diplomacy activities in Africa."

The fear stems from the very real dominance of Africom, and the Defense Department in general, over the State Department when it comes to manpower, funding, and agility. Africom's emphasis on development as one of the major means of "conflict prevention" also raises questions about what the military will be doing. And the military's hands are usually far less tied by paperwork, earmarks, and procurement restrictions than civilian agencies, particularly the notoriously bureaucratic U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Lacking any clear policy on the matter, a de facto solution has arisen, summed up neatly in the Department of Defense's field manual on Stability Operations: "Many stability operations tasks are best performed by indigenous, foreign, or U.S. civilian professionals. Nonetheless, U.S. military forces should be prepared to perform all tasks necessary to establish or maintain order when civilians cannot do so." In other words, if State can't do it, Defense will -- so long as it has the funding and authority.

The jury is still out as to whether this emerging shift of responsibility is a good one. Sometimes, the military is indeed right for the job -- for example, when the task is actual military training, funds for which are today still allocated to State. There are also nonmilitary situations in which soldiers can be useful: When the civilian government in South Africa was still denying the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the U.S. military helped train South African soldiers in prevention -- a sort of "back door" public health measure. Africom's military staff would rather not become the developers, and they readily acknowledge that this is not, and should not be, their role. But lacking the civilian capacity to fill the gap, they might just have to adapt.

"The fight between the Department of State and the Department of Defense in Africa is over."

If it is, Congress didn't get the memo. Over the last two years, there has been a decrease in the tension between the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense over the division of tasks in Africa. But while the two agencies are now largely in agreement that Africa needs a civilian surge (Defense Secretary Gates once lamented that the military personnel on one aircraft carrier outnumbered the entire Foreign Service), Congress hasn't caught up. Revamping the State Department with a massive increase in personnel, funding, and jurisdiction, a promise made by current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is as yet a pipe dream.

Why is it so hard to get funding for State? In many ways, State's relative decline is a vicious cycle: Congress believes that State lacks capacity to carry out projects, so it assigns them elsewhere, often to Defense, which is relatively more equipped. Each time this happens, State loses a chance to build itself up, and so Congress's impressions are reinforced.

To be fair, some in Congress may be starting to catch on. A recent flap over information operations (IO), the blanket term for military programs meant to "influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision making while protecting our own," according to the Department of Defense dictionary, shows that Congress is beginning to question whether the DoD should always win out over State. IO overlaps with Public Diplomacy, a task traditionally held within the State Department but increasingly carried out by Defense. The House Committee on Appropriations recently cut the Department of Defense's budget for IO in half, explaining, "The Committee has serious concerns about not only the significant amount of funding being spent on these programs, but more importantly, about the Department's assumption of this mission area within its roles and responsibilities."

Still, no big change is in sight for the balance of power between the military and civilian sides. For the moment, Africom will have to muddle along.

"Africom will be a command 'unlike any other'"

It will have to be. Africom promises to be "A Different Kind of Command," with staff from multiple U.S. agencies and a mandate that differs substantially from other military posts. Africa command even drew on a revolutionary new military doctrine that added steps to the traditionally defined four-phase process of U.S. military engagement: deter/engage, seize initiative, dominate, and transition. Africom falls into a new "phase zero," before any of these other four: conflict prevention. According to a participant at a recent Africom conference, that means doing everything possible to avoid having to get involved in "another 25-year Plan Colombia" to clean up a long-term, well-entrenched mess -- a reference to the $5-billion plus involvement of the United States in that country's drug and insurgency problems.

What remains to be seen is how well this mission can come together. Africom has quite a similar job to, say, forces in Afghanistan who are hoping to rebuild broken militaries, foster economic growth, and all the while boost daily security. The counterinsurgency and the African Security worlds are beginning to merge, or at least mix, in the world of ideas in Washington. The two groups may well share also their failure or success.

U.S. Military: CJTF-HOA

Think Again

Think Again: Debt Relief

Debt relief has become the feel-good economic policy of the new millennium, trumpeted by Irish rock star Bono, Pope John Paul II, and virtually everyone in between. But despite its overwhelming popularity among policymakers and the public, debt relief is a bad deal for the world’s poor. By transferring scarce resources to corrupt governments with proven track records of misusing aid, debt forgiveness might only aggravate poverty among the world’s most vulnerable populations.

"Jubilee 2000 Sparked the Debt Relief Movement"

No. Sorry, Bono, but debt relief is not new. As long ago as 1967, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development argued that debt service payments in many poor nations had reached "critical situations." A decade later, official bilateral creditors wrote off $6 billion in debt to 45 poor countries. In 1984, a World Bank report on Africa suggested that financial support packages for countries in the region should include "multiyear debt relief and longer grace periods." Since 1987, successive G-7 summits have offered increasingly lenient terms, such as postponement of repayment deadlines, on debts owed by poor countries. (Ironically, each new batch of terms and conditions was named after the opulent site of the G-7 meeting, such as the "Venice terms," the "Toronto terms," and the "London terms.") In the late 1980s and 1990s, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) began offering special loan programs to African nations, essentially allowing governments to pay back high-interest loans with low-interest loans -- just as real a form of debt relief as partial forgiveness of the loans. The World Bank and IMF's more recent and well-publicized Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt relief program therefore represents but a deepening of earlier efforts to reduce the debt burdens of the world's poorest nations. Remarkably, the HIPC nations kept borrowing enough new funds in the 1980s and 1990s to more than offset the past debt relief: From 1989 to 1997, debt forgiveness for the 41 nations now designated as HIPCs reached $33 billion, while new borrowing for the same countries totaled $41 billion.

So by the time the Jubilee 2000 movement began spreading its debt relief gospel in the late 1990s, a wide constituency for alleviating poor nations' debt already existed. However, Jubilee 2000 and other pro-debt relief groups succeeded in raising the visibility and popularity of the issue to unprecedented heights. High-profile endorsements range from Irish rock star Bono to Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama to Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs; even retiring U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms has climbed onto the debt relief band-wagon. In that respect, Jubilee 2000 (rechristened "Drop the Debt" before the organization's campaign officially ended on July 31, 2001) should be commended for putting the world's poor on the agenda -- at a time when most people in rich nations simply don't care -- even if the organization's proselytizing efforts inevitably oversimplify the problems of foreign debt.

"Third World Debts Are Illegitimate"

Unhelpful idea. Supporters of debt relief programs have often argued that new democratic governments in poor nations should not be forced to honor the debts that were incurred and mismanaged long ago by their corrupt and dictatorial predecessors. Certainly, some justice would be served if a legitimate and reformist new government refused to repay creditors foolish enough to have lent to a rotten old autocracy. But, in reality, there are few clear-cut political breaks with a corrupt past. The political factors that make governments corrupt tend to persist over time. How "clean" must the new government be to represent a complete departure from the misdeeds of an earlier regime? Consider President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, about the strongest possible example of a change from the past -- in his case, the notorious past of Ugandan strongman Idi Amin. Yet even Museveni's government continues to spend money on questionable military adventures in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Would Museveni qualify for debt relief under the "good new government" principle? And suppose a long-time corrupt politician remains in power, such as Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi. True justice would instead call for such leaders to pay back some of their loot to development agencies, who could then lend the money to a government with cleaner hands -- a highly unlikely scenario.

Making debt forgiveness contingent on the supposed "illegitimacy" of the original borrower simply creates perverse incentives by directing scarce aid resources to countries that have best proved their capacity to mismanage such funds. For example, Ivory Coast built not just one but two new national capitals in the hometowns of the country's previous rulers as it was piling up debt. Then it had a military coup and a tainted election. Is that the environment in which aid will be well used? Meanwhile, poor nations that did not mismanage their aid loans so badly -- such as India and Bangladesh -- now do not qualify for debt relief, even though their governments would likely put fresh aid resources to much better use.

Finally, the legitimacy rationale raises serious reputation concerns in the world's financial markets. Few private lenders will wish to provide fresh financing to a country if they know that a successor government has the right to repudiate the earlier debt as illegitimate. For the legitimacy argument to be at all convincing, the countries in question must show a huge and permanent change from the corruption of past regimes. Indeed, strict application of such a standard introduces the dread specter of "conditionality," i.e., the imposition of burdensome policy requirements on developing nations in exchange for assistance from international financial institutions. Only rather than focusing solely on economic policy conditions, the international lending agencies granting debt relief would now be compelled to make increasingly subjective judgments regarding a country's politics, governance structures, and adherence to the rule of law.

"Crushing Debts Worsen Third World Poverty"

Wrong in more ways than one. Yes, the total long-term debt of the 41 HIPC nations grew from $47 billion in 1980 to $159 billion in 1990 to $169 billion in 1999, but in reality the foreign debt of poor countries has always been partly fictional. Whenever debt service became too onerous, the poor nations simply received new loans to repay old ones. Recent studies have found that new World Bank adjustment loans to poor countries in the 1980s and 1990s increased in lock step with mounting debt service. Likewise, another study found that official lenders tend to match increases in the payment obligations of highly indebted African countries with an increase in new loans. Indeed, over the past two decades, new lending to African countries more than covered debt service payments on old loans.

Second, debt relief advocates should remember that poor people don't owe foreign debt -- their governments do. Poor nations suffer poverty not because of high debt burdens but because spendthrift governments constantly seek to redistribute the existing economic pie to privileged political élites rather than try to make the pie grow larger through sound economic policies. The debt-burdened government of Kenya managed to find enough money to reward President Moi's home region with the Eldoret International Airport in 1996, a facility that almost nobody uses.

Left to themselves, bad governments are likely to engage in new borrowing to replace the forgiven loans, so the debt burden wouldn't fall in the end anyway. And even if irresponsible governments do not run up new debts, they could always finance their redistributive ways by running down government assets (like oil and minerals), leaving future generations condemned to the same overall debt burden. Ultimately, debt relief will only help reduce debt burdens if government policies make a true shift away from redistributive politics and toward a focus on economic development.

"Debt Relief Allows Poor Nations to Spend More on Health and Education"

No. In 1999, Jubilee 2000 enthused that with debt relief "the year 2000 could signal the beginning of dramatic improvements in healthcare, education, employment and development for countries crippled by debt." Unfortunately, such statements fail to recognize some harsh realities about government spending.

First, the iron law of public finance states that money is fungible: Debt relief goes into the same government account that rains money on good and bad uses alike. Debt relief enables governments to spend more on weapons, for example. Debt relief clients such as Angola, Ethiopia, and Rwanda all have heavy military spending (although some are promising to make cuts). To assess whether debt relief increases health and education spending, one must ask what such spending would have been in the absence of debt relief -- a difficult question. However, if governments didn't spend the original loans on helping the poor, it's a stretch to expect them to devote new fiscal resources toward helping the poor.

Second, such claims assume that the central government knows where its money is going. A recent IMF and World Bank study found that only two out of 25 debt relief recipients will have satisfactory capacity to track where government spending goes within a year. At the national level, an additional study found that only 13 percent of central government grants for nonsalary education spending in Uganda (another recipient of debt relief) actually made it to the local schools that were the intended beneficiaries.

Finally, the very idea that the proceeds of debt relief should be spent on health and education contains a logical flaw. If debt relief proceeds are spent on social programs rather than used to pay down the debt, then the debt burden will remain just as crushing as it was before. A government can't use the same money twice -- first to pay down foreign debt and second to expand health and education services for the poor. This magic could only work if health and education spending boosted economic growth and thus generated future tax revenues to service the debt. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that higher health and education spending is associated with faster economic growth.

"Debt Relief Will Empower Poor Countries to Make Their Own Choices"

Not really. Pro-debt relief advocacy groups face a paradox: On one hand, they want debt relief to reach the poor; on the other, they don't want rich nations telling poor countries what to do. "For debt relief to work, let the conditions be set by civil society in our countries, not by big world institutions using it as a political tool," argued Kennedy Tumutegyereize of the Uganda Debt Network. Unfortunately, debt relief advocates can't have it both ways. Civil society remains weak in most highly indebted poor countries, so it would be hard to ensure that debt relief will truly benefit the poor unless there are conditions on the debt relief package.

Attempting to square this circle, the World Bank and IMF have made a lot of noise about consulting civil society while at the same time dictating incredibly detailed conditions on debt relief. The result is unlikely to please anyone. Debt relief under the World Bank and IMF's current hipc initiative, for example, requires that countries prepare Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. The World Bank's online handbook advising countries on how to prepare such documents runs well over 1,000 pages and covers such varied topics as macroeconomics, gender, the environment, water management, mining, and information technology. It would be hard for even the most skilled policymakers in the advanced economies to follow such complex (no matter how salutary) advice, much less a government in a poor country suffering from scarcity of qualified managers. In reality, this morass of requirements emerged as the multilateral financial institutions sought to hit on all the politically correct themes while at the same time trying hard to make the money reach the poor. If the conditions don't work -- and of course they won't -- the World Bank and IMF can simply fault the countries for not following their advice.

"Debt Relief Hurts Big Banks"

Wrong. During the 1970s and early 1980s, large commercial banks and official creditors based in rich nations provided substantial loans at market interest rates to countries such as Ivory Coast and Kenya. However, they pulled out of these markets in the second half of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s. In fact, from 1988 to 1997, such lenders received more in payments on old loans than they disbursed in new lending to high-debt poor countries. The multilateral development banks and bilateral lenders took their place, offering low-interest credit to poor nations. It's easy to understand why the commercial and official creditors pulled out. Not only did domestic economic mismanagement make high-debt poor countries less attractive candidates for potential loans, but with debt relief proposals in the air as early as 1979, few creditors wished to risk new lending under the threat that multilateral agencies would later decree loan forgiveness.

The IMF and World Bank announced the HIPC initiative of partial and conditional forgiveness of multilateral loans for 41 poor countries in September 1996. By the time the debt relief actually reached the HIPCs in the late 1990s, the commercial banks and high-interest official creditors were long gone and what was being forgiven were mainly "concessional" loans -- i.e., loans with subsidized interest rates and long repayment periods. So really, debt relief takes money away from the international lending community that makes concessional loans to the poorest nations, potentially hurting other equally poor but not highly indebted nations if foreign aid resources are finite (as, of course, they are). Indeed, a large share of the world's poor live in India and China. Neither nation, however, is eligible for debt relief.

"Debt Relief Boosts Foreign Investment in Poor Nations"

A leap of faith. It is true that forgiving old debt makes the borrowers more able to service new debt, which in theory could make them attractive to lenders. Nevertheless, the commercial and official lenders who offer financing at market interest rates will not want to come back to most HIPCs any time soon. These lenders understand all too well the principle of moral hazard: Debt relief encourages borrowers to take on an excessive amount of new loans expecting that they too will be forgiven. Commercial banks obviously don't want to get caught with forgiven loans. And even the most charitable official lenders don't want to sign their own death warrants by getting stuck with forgiven debt. Both commercial and official lenders may want to redirect their resources to safer countries where debt relief is not on the table. Indeed, in 1991, the 47 least developed countries took in 5 percent of the total foreign direct investment (FDI) that flowed to the developing world; by 2000 their portion had dropped to only 2.5 percent. (Over the same period, the portion of global FDI captured by all developing nations dropped as well, from 22.3 to 15.9 percent.) Even capital flows to now lightly indebted "safe" countries might suffer from the perception that their debts also may be forgiven at some point. Ultimately, only the arms of multilateral development banks that provide soft loans -- with little or no interest and very long repayment periods -- are going to keep lending to HIPCs, and only then under very stringent conditions.

"Debt Relief Will Promote Economic Reform"

Don't hold your breath. During the last two decades, the multilateral financial institutions granted "structural adjustment" loans to developing nations, with the understanding that governments in poor countries would cut their fiscal deficits and enact reforms -- including privatization of state-owned enterprises and trade liberalization -- that would promote economic growth. The World Bank and IMF made 1,055 separate adjustment loans to 119 poor countries from 1980 to 1999. Had such lending succeeded, poor countries would have experienced more rapid growth, which in turn would have permitted them to service their foreign debts more easily. Thirty-six poor countries received 10 or more adjustment loans in the 1980s and 1990s, and their average percentage growth of per capita income during those two decades was a grand total of zero. Moreover, such loans failed to produce meaningful reforms, and developing countries now cite this failure as justification for debt relief. Yet why should anyone expect that conditions on debt forgiveness would be any more effective in changing government policies and behavior than conditions on the original loans?

Partial and conditional debt forgiveness is a fait accompli. Expanding it to full and unconditional debt forgiveness -- as some groups now advocate -- would simply transfer more resources from poor countries that have used aid effectively to those that have wasted it in the past. The challenge for civil society, the World Bank, IMF, and other agencies is to ensure that conditional debt forgiveness really does lead to government reforms that enhance the prospects of poor countries.

How can we promote economic reform in the poorest nations without repeating past failures? The lesson of structural adjustment programs is that reforms imposed from the outside don't change behavior. Indeed, they only succeed in creating an easy scapegoat: Insincere governments can simply blame their woes on the World Bank and IMF's "harsh" adjustment programs while not doing anything to fundamentally change economic incentives and ignite economic growth. It would be better for the international financial institutions to simply offer advice to governments that ask for it and wait for individual countries to come forward with homegrown reform programs, financing only the most promising ones and disengaging from the rest. This approach has worked in promoting economic reform in countries such as China, India, and Uganda. Rushing through debt forgiveness and imposing complex reforms from the outside is as doomed to failure as earlier rounds of debt relief and adjustment loans.