AFRICOM future unclear under Obama
November 16, 2008
STUTTGART, Germany — In the streets, there were celebrations.
From his father’s native land of Kenya, to Botswana and South Africa, many Africans seemed to welcome the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president as if he were one of their own.
Those are some of the same places where many Africans have been leery of the United States and its heightened strategic interest in the continent, exemplified by its new military command, the U.S. Africa Command. In Africa, apprehension abounds about what America seeks to accomplish with AFRICOM. That it’s all about oil and military domination are among the suspicions.
Now, with the election of a black president, could some of those perceptions shift? Could the good will from Obama’s election rub off on the military? And will a new administration mean new missions for AFRICOM in hot spots, such as Darfur?
Some longtime Africa watchers and political figures suggest that an Obama administration could be something of a game changer in the region.
"There has been wariness about AFRICOM and that it’s just a form of pre-emption," said Tony Leon, a member of the South African parliament and a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
"But Obama makes it more difficult to hold on to some old prejudices. Severed from [President George W.] Bush, AFRICOM presents a more positive picture. I think Obama is a page turner. It’s a new dynamic."
AFRICOM, which stood up Oct. 1 as a unified combatant command, brings all Defense Department programs on the continent under one umbrella. Missions range from anti-terrorism programs in the Horn of Africa to maritime security initiatives and military-to-military training exercises in numerous countries.
From the start, its commander Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward, has insisted that AFRICOM’s objective is to prevent conflicts before they start through closer partnerships with African nations.
Still, questions about hidden motives persist.
Francis Kornegay, a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, South Africa, said he sees some of the initial skepticism starting to subside, due in part to AFRICOM’s relentless effort to explain itself and, perhaps, to Obama’s election.
"I get the sense that the AFRICOM controversy — and maybe this also has something to do with Obama coming in — I have the sense that the controversy in Africa is probably dying down," Kornegay said. "First of all, it’s been explained ad infinitum. The fact that it is now a fait accompli and that it is in Germany and may be taken to the U.S., there doesn’t seem to be much more of a debate."
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates elected to postpone until 2012 a decision about potentially relocating the command’s headquarters from Stuttgart to the States. Since the command was launched, Africans had been concerned that the headquarters might be moved to the continent.
Meanwhile, it’s too early to say whether a new administration will bring more U.S. focus to places such as the Congo or Darfur, Kornegay said. "You have to read between the lines."
Obama has given some indications about what to expect.
"When genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening somewhere around the world and we stand idly by, that diminishes us," Obama said during the second presidential debate. "And so I do believe that we have to consider it as part of our interests, our national interests, in intervening where possible."
As a specific example, Obama pointed to Darfur, a region in western Sudan where hundreds of thousands have been killed in ethnic conflict.
"We could be providing logistical support, setting up a no-fly zone at relatively little cost to us, but we can only do it if we can help mobilize the international community and lead. And that’s what I intend to do when I’m president," he said.
Kornegay says the success of any type of intervention depends on approach.
"It’s that kind of more-activist action that might raise some hackles. But if it’s part of a security dialogue with the African Union then that would be different," he said.
"It’s all about how it is approached. If it’s not done unilaterally, then it’s quite possible it will have a better hearing. Clearly, there is much more that needs to be done in Darfur, the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and the Somalia region."
Anthony Gambino, a former U.S. Agency for International Development mission director for the Congo and the author of a recent Council on Foreign Relations-commissioned study on the country, says the conflict there must be addressed by the international community.
The Congo, where fighting between government soldiers and rebel fighters continues to intensify, threatens to turn into a regional conflict that could involve many nations. "We don’t have a wider war yet, but we are on the brink," Gambino said.
What all of that could mean for AFRICOM remains to be seen.
As Ward said earlier this year about potential interventions in Africa: "Those aren’t my decisions. If I’m asked by a policy maker for military advice, then I clearly render that, but the decision to get involved or not get involved are not decisions that I make. Those are decisions that are made by the State Department or the president."