STUTTGART, Germany — At its inception, U.S. Africa Command was supposed to be a different kind of military organization, focused less on combat and more on feel-good training missions aimed at preventing conflict rather than engaging in it.
AFRICOM, with a sizable nonmilitary staff and a civilian deputy, even had a different organizational look than other Combatant Commands, dispensing with the traditional command structure in favor of a less militaristic nomenclature. It was all part of the selling of AFRICOM, which in the early days was described by defense officials in language that almost made it sound more like a humanitarian organization.
Nearly five years after becoming fully operational, AFRICOM has evolved into something more lethal as it adapts to threats posed by emerging Islamic militant groups whose presence across swaths of Africa has made the continent a new hot spot for counterterrorism activities.
“AFRICOM’s focus has clearly shifted towards that of a more traditional combatant command,” said Lesley Anne Warner, a research analyst at the CNA Center for Strategic Studies in Virginia.
While building up the capabilities of partner militaries to confront threats remains the core focus of the command, “AFRICOM’s more kinetic missions, such as counterterrorism,” have gained more visibility in recent years, Warner said.
That trend, which intensified under the leadership of retiring Gen. Carter Ham, is likely to continue with AFRICOM’s new commander, Gen. David Rodriguez, a battle-tested officer best known for managing the day-to-day war effort in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011.
AFRICOM, which began operations in October 2008, has seen its profile soar in the past couple of years as it has dealt with unrest across northern Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring. The command, which also has witnessed the rise of al-Qaida-linked militants in places such as Mali and Somalia, has gone from relative obscurity to central player in the military’s counterterrorism efforts.
Just in the past two years, AFRICOM took the lead in a major combat mission in Libya, part of Operation Odyssey Dawn, the initial phase of a seven-month bombing campaign that led to the overthrow of strongman Moammar Gadhafi. It later sent commandos on a daring rescue mission in Somalia, dispatched combat-equipped special operators to central Africa to assist in the hunt for a rebel warlord and beefed up its surveillance capabilities with new drone sites in places such as Niger.
The Bush administration announcement in 2007 that AFRICOM would be looking to establish its base in Africa set off a flurry of criticism across the continent amid concerns about the militarization of foreign policy in Africa. With China investing heavily in the mineral- and oil-rich continent, critics questioned whether the new command represented an attempt by the U.S. to counter China’s influence and ensure access to Africa’s riches.
The backlash eventually prompted AFRICOM to declare that it would not seek a headquarters in Africa. Yet the question about bases being set up there has dogged the command ever since.
AFRICOM’s first commander, Gen. William “Kip” Ward, spent much of the next two years in damage control mode, trying to sell the concept to leery African audiences during his frequent visits to the continent. Ward’s record, however, was tainted when an Inspector General’s probe cited him for traveling in excessive luxury during his tenure. In the end, Ward would be stripped of a star before retirement, but some experts say he made an important contribution to the command.
“The rollout of AFRICOM was quite simply so poorly managed that, even now ... misperceptions about the command’s raison d’être continue to plague its interactions with African governments and peoples,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Atlantic Council. He described this as the result of “a monumental failure” by the U.S. government as a whole.
However, some of that skepticism has begun to subside, according to Pham, who credited Ward with forging military relations with most African countries. “It was no mean achievement, even if it is not given the recognition it deserves,” he said.
During the command’s first two years, AFRICOM officials were effective at emphasizing its softer side, highlighting activities such as medical assistance initiatives and other soft power programs.
The Arab Spring and eventual intervention in Libya changed that, exposing many AFRICOM flaws in the process.
Soon after Ham assumed command in March 2011, he jettisoned AFRICOM’s acronym-free organizational in favor of the standard war planning staff divisions used by other COCOMs.
Rather than calling respective AFRICOM departments names such as “Outreach” or “Logistics,” as it had at the outset as part of an effort to better partner with other agencies, Ham opted for a shift to the military “J-Code” standard of assigning numerical codes to staff assignments. It might have been a small tweak, but it was a signal that AFRICOM was changing.
“What it means is that we’ll speak the same language as the rest of the Department of Defense,” Ham said in May 2011.
AFRICOM’s unique structure and large civilian staff complicated combat operations during the operation in Libya, according to a subsequent analysis by PRISM, a National Defense University security studies journal. “At the onset of the Libyan crisis, USAFRICOM was not manned to plan and conduct large-scale contingency operations,” the report said.
Ham echoed that sentiment during a roundtable talk with Pentagon reporters.
“I don’t think that Africa Command ever really thought of themselves as a command that conducted and led those kinds of operations,” he said in September of 2011, just six months after taking the helm in Stuttgart.
Libya marked a turning point in the maturation of AFRICOM, whose leaders seemed to suddenly speak more bluntly about the command’s primary mission of containing terrorism threats.
Since 2011, AFRICOM also has steadily added firepower. Now, at its disposal is a special purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force that provides a limited crisis-response capability and conducts counterterrorism training on the continent. The U.S. Army also recently dedicated a U.S.-based brigade to AFRICOM missions, the first COCOM to get such a specialized rotational force. Special operations units also have been added, including AFRICOM’s own rapid reaction force known as the Commander’s in-Extremis Force. The September attacks in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, exposed AFRICOM’s lack of crisis-response capability. Long in the planning, AFRICOM’s in-Extremis Force was finally in place a month later.
The Marines, meanwhile, also are developing another MAGTF, this one specially focused on rapid reaction and crisis response in Africa.
AFRICOM’s evolution coincides with the rise of extremist groups in its area of operation, including Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which has established itself in Mali and elsewhere in the region. Meanwhile, there has been no shortage of violence, including the attacks on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, militant strikes on an Algerian gas plant that left scores of westerners dead and a coup in Mali that left a security vacuum exploited by al-Qaida-linked militants to gain a foothold in the country.
An alarming consequence of the Libyan conflict was that weapons left unsecured after Gadhafi’s fall have fallen into the hands of militants, flowing into northern Mali and even all the way to Syria, defense officials have said.
“It’s very clear that in the collapse of the Gadhafi regime, weapons — man-portable air-defense systems, crew-served weapons, individual weapons, explosives — have gone really in two directions,” Ham said during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. “Al-Qaida in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb, other organizations, are significantly better armed now than they were before.”
With extremist groups gaining traction in recent years in parts of Africa, it raises the question: Could AFRICOM have done more to curb the growth of AQIM and other groups?
Opinions vary, but given the complexity of the region and scale of the security challenge, it would be unfair to assign blame to any single agency, experts say.
“In every case, the [rise of militant] groups came into being through local grievances or conflicts, which long predate the establishment of” AFRICOM, Pham said.
Going forward, AFRICOM is likely to zero in on the challenge of containing extremist groups in its area of responsibility, whether that is through training African militaries to lead the fight in Mali or launching drone surveillance flights out of Niger. They will have to do all that as the Pentagon’s budget tightens.
Rather than being “everything to everyone,” AFRICOM will need to focus its efforts on a select group of key countries, Pham said. His advice for Rodriguez: “A few pivotal oases of excellence will have a more beneficial impact than a wide but shallow spreading of resources.”