The U.S. military has left Iraq and will leave Afghanistan soon. One might assume that this means a lower level of U.S. military operations overseas. Not so fast. Military operations in Mali and the connected Algerian hostage crisis have highlighted a major shift in U.S. military strategy and overseas engagement, especially in our support for security forces in Africa.
Gradually, through a growing security assistance program and special operations forces action, U.S. engagement in Africa is shifting from a focus on governance, health, and development to a deepening military engagement. And while the Pentagon portrays this expanding military engagement as a way to empower Africans, it is actually building security relationships that could backfire, harming our long-term foreign policy interests.
The United States has had military relationships at a low level in Africa for some time. Before 9/11, these took the traditional form of educating African military officers in the United States though the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET), at a cost of roughly $10 million a year. And the United States has had for decades a small Foreign Military Financing program, providing equipment, training, and services to select African militaries at a cost of around $20 million a year. Neither program has been a centerpiece of U.S. overseas security assistance.
The slide into Africa began in earnest after the Rwandan genocide and the 1998 embassy bombings. A larger U.S.-funded training program was started in the 1990s as a peacekeeping initiative, ultimately morphing into the Bush-era Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI). Through GPOI, the United States has been providing more training to African militaries, seeking to enhance their ability to conduct peacekeeping operations. By now, hundreds of thousands of African soldiers have been trained and are involved in operations in the Horn of Africa -- and perhaps soon in Mali -- at a cost of nearly a billion dollars.
A focus on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations has driven this engagement forward, especially in East Africa. It is not easy to obtain data on how much has been spent on these efforts, but they include training and arming African counterterrorism forces, increasing the presence of U.S. Special Operations forces, and developing closer ties with military operations spreading from North Africa to the central African countries bordering on the Sahara Desert, and from Djibouti to the Atlantic.
In 2008, this scattered engagement by the U.S. military was pulled together in the creation of a new U.S. regional command. Africom was intended to be a new kind of command, one that integrated military operations with the broader U.S. diplomatic and foreign assistance efforts in Africa.
This is now the key to the "slide" -- after decades of leaving Africa pretty much alone or engaging through health and economic assistance, the United States is now seriously involved, but driven by the mantra American "security." Mixing these messages (development, health, and security) is proving difficult for the African countries. They have begun to wonder why the United States has suddenly developed an interest in their continent. Uneasy African governments resisted the notion that Africom should actually be based on the continent as the United States wanted, so the headquarters remains in Stuttgart, Germany.
Well, they might have reason to be concerned. A growing "security" focus for U.S. engagement in Africa changes things. So does the growing lead the Pentagon and the Special Operations forces are taking in that engagement. When security takes the lead, too often, governance and development step aside. And, while the security focus is ostensibly intended to strengthen African capacities to provide national and regional stability, they have the consequence, intended or not, of dragging the United States into Africa's internal politics, at a potential cost to our long-term interests.