Voice

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

National Security

Fog of War

How can we talk about the military if we can't define what it is?

Just what exactly is the military?

On one level, this question has an obvious answer. "The military" is "the armed forces," which in this country essentially means the active duty Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, together with their respective reserves and the National Guard. (Yes, yes, under certain circumstances the Coast Guard could be considered part of the military, and then there's the Merchant Marine, and the Public Health Service, and even a bunch of uniformed officers with commissions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- did you know that? -- but let's keep it simple for now.)

Sticking with the obvious, if we know who's in the military, then presumably we know what the military is: the military is what it does. In other words, military functions are those functions performed by members of the military.

This is a nice tautology. (That's why they pay columnists the big bucks!) Granted, it's not very enlightening, since military personnel do a whole lot of not-very-military-ish things at Uncle Sam's behest, but more on this in a moment.

Okay: maybe it's more useful to define the military as a specialized, hierarchically structured organization that's legally authorized to use lethal force to protect the state and advance its interests. This dovetails with our commonsense assumption about what our military is: it's an organization that fights wars. It's a group of people bearing weapons -- whether swords, rifles or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles -- who use those weapons to deter, disable, capture, or kill those who threaten U.S. security interests.

Superficially, this seems like a more helpful and precise way to define the military. But is it really? After all, the vast majority of military personnel don't "fight." Instead, they serve in a myriad of headquarters, logistics, administrative, and support positions: they cook, play in bands, draft memos, file papers, fix computers, write articles for the base newspaper, drive trucks, do archival research, analyze signals data, investigate crimes, build roads, and so on, rather than serving in combat roles.

True, truck drivers and file clerks can drive over IEDs or fall prey to insurgent ambushes. The same is true for civilian government employees, journalists, aid workers, and children walking to school in the morning. Here in the United States, 9/11 reminded us that violence can also come to airline passengers and Wall Street secretaries. But though the distinction between the frontline and the rear has eroded, being targeted and fighting back isn't the same as serving in a combat role.

Military analysts refer to the ratio of combat versus non-combat troops as the "tooth to tail" ratio (T3R, if you want to get really wonky). In 2007, the Army's Combat Studies Institute published a fascinating study by John McGrath, who found that the U.S. military's tooth-to-tail ratio has declined substantially over the last century.

During World War I, for instance, the United States initially fielded about twice as many combat troops as support troops, for a 2-to-1 tooth-to-tail ratio. By 1945, as World War II wound down, that had changed; only about 40 percent of troops in the European theater were combat troops, while the rest were headquarters, administrative, logistics, and support troops of varying kinds (giving a T3R of roughly 2-to-3). By 1953 -- in Korea -- the tooth-to-tail ration was 1-to-3. By the 1991 Gulf War, it was even lower: McGrath estimates it as 1-to-3.3. During the Iraq War, the ratio of combat to non-combat troops deployed ticked up slightly, but primarily as a function of the increased use of civilian contractors.

McGrath -- himself a retired Army Reserve officer -- concludes that "combat elements have progressively declined as a proportion of the total force since 1945." And "[A]s the percentage of combat troops deployed declines, it raises the question of whether such a deployment is, in fact, a military deployment at all, or some other type of operation."

That's a vital question.

Go back to my initial query: just what is the military? If it's defined formalistically, it's the Army, Navy, and so on. If it's defined functionally, it's a lot less clear.

Let's complicate matters some more. McGrath's important study defined combat troops not by whether troops actually engaged in combat, but by rather by job description: thus, for instance, he counts as combat troops all "company size and above units of infantry, armor, cavalry, field artillery, air defense, artillery, attack and assault aviation, and combat engineers...special operations forces" and so on.

But in Iraq and Afghanistan, those combat troops spent a great deal of their time engaged in activities far removed from combat. They engaged the enemy when needed (the high casualty rates for troops in combat-related military occupational specialties make this painfully clear), but also found themselves doing everything from building schools to encouraging women's participation in economic activity.

The stated rationale for such seemingly not-very-militaryish activities was clear: to "win" in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States needed to win the hearts and minds of the population. As Lieutenant General William Caldwell put it in a 2008 Military Review article, "The future is not one of major battles and engagements fought by armies on battlefields devoid of population... victory will be measured in far different terms than the wars of our past. The allegiance, trust, and confidence of populations will be the final arbiters of success."

Counterinsurgency -- all the rage just a few years ago -- seems to have officially fallen out of fashion today, but there's no reason to think that our combat troops won't continue to engage in non-traditional multi-tasking in the decades to come. The military will always need the capacity to shoot people and blow stuff up. But in a world in which critical threats to U.S. national security may come from airline passengers armed only with boxcutters, from cyberspace or from a virus deliberately transmitted, it's inevitable -- and necessary -- that our troops will spend more and more time on activities that don't much resemble traditional forms of combat. They'll control drones from hundreds or thousands of miles away; they'll engage in "offensive actions in cyberspace"; they'll engage in covert and clandestine activities more traditionally viewed as the sphere of intelligence agencies.

Complicating matters even more, the decline in the military's tooth-to-tail ratio has been paralleled by a rise in civilian organizations (public and private) engaging in what look suspiciously like traditional military activities. The CIA has gone kinetic, for instance, with paramilitary forces that engage in direct action, often working hand in hand with military special operations forces. And for-profit private military companies increasingly place civilian contractors in jobs that resemble combat positions in all but name.

All this leads me to echo McGrath's question: When is a military deployment not a military deployment? Or: when does a military stop being a military? Is there some minimum quantum of traditional "combat" that makes a military "military," as opposed to something else, something we have yet to imagine or define?

There aren't just academic questions. Whether (and how much) the civilian-military gap matters depends greatly on how we categorize what the military is doing. In fact, much of what we think we know about how to run our military -- how to sustain it and constrain it, how to divvy up roles and missions, funding and authorities between the military and other entities -- depends on our ability to know what it is that we mean when use the term "the military."

If "the military" increasingly performs civilian functions, for instance, then maybe it doesn't matter that much if the State Department has fewer resources -- maybe our focus should just be on ensuring that the military performs those formerly civilian functions well. Conversely, if civilian entities such as the CIA perform "military" functions, then maybe we need to rethink how we hold the CIA accountable for its activities, which are far less transparent than those of the military. More generally, how do we make sense of civil-military relations -- and civilian control of the military -- when the boundaries between the "civilian" and "military" categories are grow ever more blurry?

In a recent guest post on Tom Ricks' blog, Mackubin Thomas Owens wrote, "The line between military and civilian is not impermeable. Success in national security requires that civilians have an ongoing say in military affairs," while "the military has to be at the policy and strategy table" as well.

That's wise advice. But if we can't define "military affairs" with any clarity, or reliably distinguish it from "policy" or "strategy," can we act on it?

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