An increasing US focus on Africa — but is it a 'pivot'?
A force reconnaissance Marine goes over threat detection methods with a group of Ugandan soldiers. Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12 sent a small team of Marines into Uganda in February to train Ugandan forces for the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia and the hunt for the Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa.
Stars and Stripes
STUTTGART, Germany— Is the U.S. “pivoting” toward Africa?
The U.S. commando raids earlier this month in Somalia and Libya have some pundits floating the idea that the U.S. could be in the early stages of a strategic swing toward Africa. The idea has already been hash-tagged on Twitter as a kind of counterpoint to the much touted U.S. strategic shift to Asia.
With misrule and weak governance casting an arc of instability across a large swath of Africa, the region at times seems almost front and center as U.S policymakers fret over the range of threats from home-grown terrorist groups in Somalia, Nigeria, and the Maghreb that have loose ties to al-Qaida and increasingly seem to be developing ties with each other.
The U.S. has responded with a surge of Africa-focused military activity. In addition to training African militaries at the forefront of counter-terrorism efforts, the U.S. recently launched two southern Europe-based Marine Air Ground Task Forces focused on crisis response, which have been put on alert multiple times in the past few months In addition, there’s a growing constellation of small U.S. drone outposts: In Niger, bordering troublespots Libya and Mali, in Ethiopia, a gateway to Somalia, and a larger military base of operations at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, strategically placed on the Gulf of Aden.
Going forward, the U.S. and its Africa Command appear well positioned to press ahead with counter-terrorism efforts. It’s the culmination of a near decade-long, laser-like focus on security threats emanating from Africa. Those efforts picked up steam since the formation of AFRICOM in 2007.
Yet some experts caution that such attention has skewed how Africa is viewed, resulting in an overly militarized outlook that sees an Islamic militant threat and little else. The risk, experts warn, is that isolated regional threats get conflated into something bigger.
“I don’t see a pivot,” said John Campbell, a former ambassador to Nigeria and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think what it does represent is a militarization of policy towards Africa. And it’s just sort of happening willy-nilly.”
The Obama administration’s so-called Asia pivot is spurred by the rise of China as a heavyweight on the world stage, and the nuclear threat from North Korea, as well as massive business markets. There are no such overriding threats, nor stable economic interests in Africa, experts say, and there is little indication that the U.S. is laying the groundwork for taking advantage of the resources Africa does have to offer in the near future, anaylsts say.
“The focus is very narrow,” Campbell said.“Part of the problem is a remarkable lack of sophistication about what is going on in Africa and that in turn affects things like the reduction in diplomatic staff and the closure of consulates over the years.”
When AFRICOM was first launched, critics at the time worried that it was a signal of a militarizing foreign policy toward the continent. Some of those fears have been realized as U.S. policy increasingly gets viewed through a military lens, Campbell said.
While groups such as al-Shabab in Somalia and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb have not demonstrated a capacity to launch attacks beyond the continent, they can target Western interests in Africa, as demonstrated by the dramatic and deadly attack last month by al-Shabab militants on an upscale shopping mall in the Kenyan capital, frequented by foreigners.
Military commanders, including retired Gen. Carter Ham, a former head of AFRICOM, have raised concerns about the potential for various regional terrorist groups to link up and their aspirations to strike beyond Africa. Increasingly, U.S. policymakers are talking about terrorists in Africa posing a direct threat to the United States. That was the justification for the twin operations Oct. 5, when special forces grabbed Abu Anas al-Libi, suspected of playing a role in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, in the Libyan capital and an aborted mission to capture a senior al-Shabab leader from a coastal town in Somalia.
However, critics argue that viewing all regional groups as posing a common, universal threat is misguided.
“There seems to be an inability or a reluctance to acknowledge that the terrorism is not coordinated or uniform, but rather reflects the individual circumstances of where it takes place,” Campbell said.
Steve McDonald, a former foreign service officer who now serves as an Africa program director at the Wilson International Center for Scholars, says the U.S. should be investing more effort in developing trade partnerships and economic incentives for engaging in Africa, where investments lag when compared to other parts of the world. Such efforts would help bring about more security over the long-term, he said.
“I don’t really see any kind of pivot to Africa,” McDonald said. “My mantra is that while we have our global trade initiatives with Europe and Asia, we still don’t have any mechanism like that in Africa. You have to pay attention to the terrorism piece, but that seems to be the only bell we hear, and when it rings, suddenly we’re engaged.”
While the U.S. has ramped up its military activities in Africa, the overall footprint still remains small when compared to its overseas presence in Asia and Europe. For example, the U.S. troop presence on the entire continent of Africa is roughly equal to the 5,000 or so troops stationed in the tiny garrison town of Baumholder, Germany. There is room to grow in Africa, as signaled by the recent rise of drone outposts and Africa-focused U.S. Marine and Army units that rotate around Africa.
But for now, the U.S. formula in Africa appears set: More U.S. military training of regional militaries fighting extremists in places like Somalia and Mali; occasional U.S.-led strikes against high-level terror operatives and a steady stream of drone surveillance. That mode of operation will likely ebb and flow as threats materialize and fade.
The hard economic realities across much of Africa, more than anything else, could explain why there is no more expansive U.S. pivot on the near horizon. While many African economies are growing, the scale of those markets is small when compared to traditional trade partners in Europe, Asia and even Latin America.
“Africa is still a hard sell,” said McDonald. “The American businessman is very conservative and very risk averse.”
Still, numerous other nations are hard-charging into Africa. China’s quest for resources in Africa has been well documented. Brazil and India also have emerged as large players. Even Turkey has gotten into the game, with its flagship airline operating flights into war-ravaged Somalia.
That has prompted some to ponder whether the U.S. is missing out in the scramble for footing in a rising Africa.
Campbell says while many African nations are on the upswing, the opportunities shouldn’t be overstated.
“Africa as a whole amounts to only two percent of world trade. There’s not a huge incentive for getting involved,” Campbell said. “I hear people saying we’re missing the boat in Africa. It tends to imply there’s this great big boat to be missed.”
So, don’t look for a pivot toward Africa anytime soon, McDonald said. “I think it’s going to take a generation,” he said. “It will probably take 20 years before people start to look at Africa as even a normal place” for doing business.”