"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."