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Suspicions over AFRICOM voiced at hearing

Some witnesses called it the militarization of U.S. foreign relations. “Domineering” was how another described it.

Before Congress began its summer recess this week, it got an earful during two hearings about the skepticism toward the budding U.S. Africa Command.

The command is scheduled on Oct. 1 to start managing some military activities on the continent such as soldier training and humanitarian support.

While Defense and State department officials tout their togetherness within AFRICOM, others worry that the military, by going humanitarian, is stepping out of its lane and onto toes.

“Skeptics here in the United States, and in Africa and elsewhere abroad, will continue to raise tough issues that will have to be answered more effectively than has been the case up to now,” said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa Program for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

During the Aug. 1-2 hearings, some of tough issues raised included:

  • How come Congress wasn’t consulted on this? Or Africans, for that matter?
  • What if China, which now sells weapons to African nations and buys their oil, wants to set up its own Africa Command?
  • Why do the Defense Department and White House think that Africans are interested in furthering “U.S. interests” on their continent?

So far, AFRICOM has advertised itself as a more peaceable way for the military to do business. It plans to bring in staff from the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.

“[AFRICOM] is a manifestation of how [the Defense Department] is innovating to transform its ability, institutionally, to meet the challenges of the new global security environment,” according to Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs.

But will the military-charity roles play in Pretoria?

“I would argue that any overt indications of synergy between military and developmental initiatives will seriously undermine the credibility and acceptance of the latter, particularly in those states with large Muslim populations,” according to Kurt Shillinger, head of the Security and Terrorism in Africa project at the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs.

Shillinger, for now, considers AFRICOM to be a smart and overdue reform. He noted that the continent is shifting, if slowly, toward democracy and good governance, with regions working together to integrate and stabilize, goals compatible with AFRICOM’s.

As examples of the military and charity working together, Michael E. Hess, an assistant administrator with USAID, pointed to relief efforts for the 2004 Asian tsunami and 2005 Pakistan earthquake, when the military and USAID delivered supplies together while evacuating victims.

Two Congress members who felt they were belatedly brought into the fold had their say.

“I read about the administration’s plans to establish a new command in the newspaper,” said Rep. Donald M. Payne, D-N.J., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, during a hearing on AFRICOM last Thursday.

“There has been no consultation with this committee about the establishment or structure of the command. The few briefings that we have had — which by the way are not consultations — have not been particularly informative.”

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., former chairman and now ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned that the military should not create a humanitarian-sounding command before consulting the humanitarians.

Diplomats throughout Africa, as well, should advise the military on how its actions on the continent might rub Africans the right and wrong ways, Lugar said.

“To what extent are the State Department and USAID involved in planning for the proposed new command?” Lugar asked.

“It is important to have the civilian agencies weigh in, especially when making the strategic decision as to whether the value of creating such a command outweighs the potentially negative impact.”


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