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Africa: AFRICOM and U.S. policy
NewsNotes, January-February 2010

The Obama administration apparently will continue the militarized approach to Africa of the past two U.S. administrations. Based on a careful study of FY 2010 budget requests for the Departments of State and Defense, Daniel Volman, director of the African Security Research Project and a specialist on U.S. military policy in Africa and African security, has concluded that President Obama has decided to follow the AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command) path “to ensure that America can satisfy its continuing addiction to oil and to deal with the threat posed by al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups.” Alternatively, the United States could partner “with the people of Africa and other countries that have a stake on the continent (including China) to promote sustainable economic development, democracy and human rights in Africa and a global energy order based on the use of clean, safe and renewable resources.”

A 2009 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on AFRICOM points in the same direction: “In recent years, analysts and U.S. policymakers have noted Africa’s growing strategic importance to U.S. interests. Among those interests are the increasing importance of Africa’s natural resources, particularly energy resources, and mounting concern over violent extremist activities and other potential threats posed by uncontrolled spaces, such as piracy and illicit trafficking. In addition, there is ongoing concern for Africa’s many humanitarian crises, armed conflicts, and more general challenges, such as the devastating effect of HIV/AIDS… As envisioned by the Department of Defense (DOD), AFRICOM aims to promote U.S. strategic objectives by working with African states and regional organizations to help strengthen regional stability and security through improved security capability and military professionalization. If directed by national command authorities, its military operations would aim to deter aggression and respond to crises.

“The 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa, and more recent attacks, have highlighted the threat of terrorism to U.S. interests on the continent. Political instability and civil wars have created vast ungoverned spaces, areas in which some experts allege that terrorist groups may train and operate. Instability also heightens human suffering and retards economic development, which may in turn threaten U.S. economic interests. Africa’s exports of crude oil to the United States are now roughly equal to those of the Middle East, further emphasizing the continent’s strategic importance.” The CRS report provides a broad overview of U.S. strategic interests in Africa and the role of U.S. military efforts on the continent.

According to Volman, many analysts believe that terrorism does not constitute a significant threat to U.S. national security interests and that it would be far more effective to treat terrorism as a crime, reducing the threat of terrorism by employing traditional law enforcement techniques. (This was the reaction by the Bush administration to convicted “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in 2002, and is the response by the Obama administration to the attempted attack by Umar Abdulmutallab on the flight landing in Detroit on Christmas Day.)

Additionally, Volman writes, “President Obama understands the danger of relying upon the importation of a vital resource from unstable countries ruled by repressive, undemocratic regimes and the necessity of reducing America’s reliance on the use of oil and other non-renewable sources of energy. But, for understandable reasons, he has concluded that there is simply very little that he can do to achieve this goal during the limited time that he will be in office. He knows that it will take at least several decades to make the radical changes that will be necessary to develop alternative sources of energy, particularly to fuel cars and other means of transportation (if this is even technically feasible).”

Furthermore, public support for the Obama presidency is tied to his ability to provide a reliable and relatively cheap supply of petroleum based energy for U.S. consumption. In the event of a substantial disruption in the supply of oil from Nigeria or any other major African supplier, there will be enormous political pressure “to employ the only instrument that he has at his disposal – U.S. military forces - to try to keep Africa’s oil flowing.”

In May 2008, the Army Training and Doctrine Command, the Special Operations Command, and the Joint Forces Command conducted a war game scenario for Nigeria set in the hypothetical year 2013, which was, according to Volman, “designed to test the ability of the United States to respond to a crisis in Nigeria in which the Nigerian government fragments and rival factions within the Nigerian military begin fighting for control of the Niger Delta, creating so much violence and chaos that it would be impossible to continue oil production. The participants concluded that there was little the United States could do to bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict and that, in the end, they would probably be ordered to send up to 20,000 American troops into the Niger Delta in what the participants clearly recognized would be a futile attempt to get the oil flowing again.”

The Resist AFRICOM Campaign is comprised of concerned U.S. and Africa-based organizations and individuals opposed to AFRICOM. The campaign will continue to “press the Obama administration to abandon its plan for AFRICOM and to pursue a policy toward Africa based on a genuine partnership with the people of Africa, international cooperation, democracy, human rights and sustainable economic development.” (Volman)

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