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The Pivot to Africa

Circumcision, mosquito killing, and other strange doings of Africom.

"A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa," Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is said to have remarked. For most Americans occupying the now-now-now world of Facebook, this probably feels apt. And until just over a decade ago, Zuckerberg's statement might equally have applied to Pentagon strategists. A 1995 strategy document from the Defense Department was hardly less blunt: "[U]ltimately we see very little traditional strategic interest in Africa."

That began to change in 1998, when U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by al Qaeda, and the 9/11 attacks accelerated the change. If terrorism thrives in failed states and ungoverned spaces, it was time to rethink the U.S. approach to Africa, which boasts more than its fair share of basket-case states. By 2006, Africa had been bumped up to "high priority" in the U.S. National Security Strategy: "our security depends upon partnering with Africans to strengthen fragile and failing states and bring ungoverned areas under … control."

As the Pentagon struggles to adapt to a world in which security threats come from increasingly diffuse sources -- and the role of the military is consequently less and less clear-cut -- Africa has become a key laboratory for experimentation and change.

In 2007, the United States created a new geographic combatant command to cover Africa. Africa Command, or Africom, was in part an effort to rationalize a previously incoherent administrative division of labor, in which responsibility for Africa had been divided among three other commands. But it was also a bold experiment: a new kind of command, designed to reflect the Pentagon's emerging understanding of the more complex security environment.

In 2005, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had signed Directive 3000.05, which declared that "stability operations" would be a core military mission with "priority comparable to combat operations." From its inception, Africom was structured with stability operations, including conflict prevention, in mind. Unlike other combatant commands, Africom was expressly designed to take a "whole-of-government" approach, with senior civilian officials from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other agencies fully integrated into the command's decision-making structure.

This would, in theory, enable conflict prevention in Africa to be addressed holistically, rather than through a traditionally narrow military lens. With its integration of civilian and military power, Africom would not draw sharp or arbitrary distinctions between defense, development, and diplomacy; all three would go hand in hand. And this, President George W. Bush declared, would help "bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth."

The resulting range of Africom's activities might cause heartburn for those committed to viewing U.S. military power strictly through a war-fighting lens. Consider this snapshot of recent activities undertaken by or with the assistance of Africom:

  • Construction of school classrooms in Chad
  • Research on the "Association of Sexual Violence and Human Rights Violations With Physical and Mental Health in Territories of the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo"
  • Cattle vaccination in Uganda, designed to provide healthy cattle to internally displaced civilians returning to their homes
  • Activities to combat drug trafficking through the West Africa Cooperative Security Initiative
  • Construction of closed wells with solar-powered pumps in Senegal
  • Establishment of an East African Malaria Task Force to combat "one of the biggest killers on the continent: the mosquito"
  • Development of a news and information website aimed at local audiences in the Maghreb region, featuring "analysis, interviews and commentary by paid Magharebia correspondents"
  • Construction of a maternal- and pediatric-care ward at a Ugandan hospital
  • Collaboration with Botswana's military to "promote Botswana's national program of education, HIV screening and male circumcision surgeries"
  • Cooperation with the Sierra Leone Maritime Wing and Fisheries Ministry that "result[ed] in the apprehension of an illegally operating fishing vessel"

Most of these activities sound laudable. Few would strike the average American as "military" in nature.

Of course, Africom also conducts or facilitates a wide range of more traditional military activities, including various counterterrorism programs run through Operation Enduring Freedom- -Trans Sahara and a range of efforts to help capture Lord’s Resistance Army leaders in Central and East Africa. In 2011, Africom coordinated its first large-scale military operation when President Obama approved Operation Odyssey Dawn, which aimed to enforce the UN-sanctioned no-fly zone in Libya and eliminate the Libyan government’s ability to threaten civilians.

Whether Africom represents a viable new model for the future of the U.S. military naturally depends on your point of view. To some, the Africom approach is downright dangerous. Military traditionalists are apt to view it with suspicion -- as a dangerous slide away from the military's core competencies and the very apotheosis of "mission creep." Many civilian observers are equally skeptical, viewing Africom as further evidence of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy -- and of the devaluing and evisceration of civilian capacity. "The Pentagon is muscling in everywhere," complained former State Department official Thomas Schweich in a Washington Post op-ed: "[W]hy exactly do we need a military command [in Africa] running civilian reconstruction, if not to usurp the efforts led by well-respected U.S. embassies and aid officials?"

Such views are understandable but shortsighted. The Pentagon is right to see poverty, underdevelopment, disease, repression, human rights abuses, and conflict as likely drivers of future security threats to the United States. And if the Defense Department's job is to protect the United States, that mission must surely include preventing threats.

In some imaginary utopia, the military might work hand in hand with capable, well-resourced civilian agencies, neatly dividing up roles and leaving the "civilian" tasks to the civilians. But that's not the world we live in. Yes, the civilian sector has been eviscerated by two decades of underresourcing and has consequently struggled to attract and retain personnel with key skills. But given today's political climate, this situation is unlikely to change -- at least not in the foreseeable future. Congress shows zero interest in substantially boosting the foreign affairs budget. That's a crying shame, but it is what it is.

Inevitably, this means that the Defense Department will have to step into the breach. How could it responsibly refrain? As a State Department inspector general's report commented in 2009, Africom's role was "resented and challenged" by the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs, but the military was essentially "stepping into a void created by a lack of resources for traditional development" and other "civilian" tasks.

More importantly, the lines between "civilian" and "military" tasks have never been as clear as we like to pretend, and today they're blurrier than ever. Instead of wasting time in a fruitless effort to draw imaginary lines between civilian and military roles, the United States should focus instead on doing what needs to be done -- and doing it responsibly, transparently, and well.

That's where the country has been falling badly short. Africom has been justly criticized for failing to live up to its lofty goals. A clumsy early rollout also left Africom struggling to allay African suspicions that the United States intended to "recolonize" Africa, and for a variety of reasons (shortage of qualified and interested personnel, inadequate career incentives, a slow-moving personnel system), many civilian slots within Africom were never filled. Those that were filled weren't always put to good use, and Africom continues to struggle to coordinate its efforts with civilian agencies.

The Defense Department is a relative amateur when it comes to development and related activities, and often it shows. Lack of cultural awareness has plagued programming: The distribution of used clothes in Djibouti during Ramadan offended Muslim sensibilities, for instance, and Africom has also been criticized for failing to take local clan relationships into account when distributing assistance.

Poor management is also a serious problem. Africom's first commander, General William “Kip” Ward, is currently under investigation for alleged misuse of funds. A 2011 Government Accountability Office report on DOD humanitarian activities found systemic management and accountability problems across the Defense Department, concluding grimly that, while there have been some improvements over the years, "DOD does not have complete information on the full range of humanitarian assistance projects it conducts.… DOD does not know … when a project is going to be implemented, when it is in progress, or when and if it has been completed.… DOD does not know how much it has spent.… DOD is not consistently evaluating its projects, and therefore it cannot determine whether its humanitarian assistance efforts are meeting their intended goals, having positive effects, or represent an efficient use of resources."

These problems are not unique to Africom. As other combatant commands have similarly expanded their activities into traditionally civilian domains, they have struggled with similar problems and criticism.

In a sense, we currently inhabit the worst of all possible worlds: The military is increasingly taking on traditionally civilian jobs but doing them clumsily and often halfheartedly, without investing fully in developing the skills necessary for success. Meanwhile, civilian agencies mostly just grumble from the sidelines, waiting for that happy day when Congress gets serious about rebuilding civilian capacity. (I think Samuel Beckett wrote a play about that.) And few people, inside or outside the Pentagon, are taking seriously the need to think in new ways about what "whole-of-government" or a holistic approach to security might truly mean.

The blurring of civilian and military roles is inevitable, but the failure to grapple effectively with this blurring of roles is not. To address threats (and seize opportunities) in this globalized, blurry, chaotic world, we will need to develop new competencies, flexible new structures, and creative new accountability mechanisms. Most critically, we'll need to let go of our comfortable old assumptions about roles and missions.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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