By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 08/02/07):
This week’s decision by the US to create a new Pentagon command covering Africa, known as Africom, has a certain unlovely military logic. Like Roman emperors of old, Washington’s centurions already arbitrarily divide much of the world into Middle Eastern, European and Pacific domains. Now it is Africa’s turn, although whether Africans will welcome (or were consulted) about this latest geo-strategic power play seems doubtful.
Practical more than imperial considerations dictated the White House move. With Gulf of Guinea countries including Nigeria and Angola projected to provide one quarter of US oil imports within a decade, with growing Islamist terrorism worries in the Sahel and Horn of Africa regions, and with China prowling for resources and markets, the US plainly feels a second wind of change is blowing, necessitating increased presence and leverage.
Africom’s advent also follows a pattern of perhaps unparalleled military expansion under President George Bush, not all of which is explained by the 9/11 trauma. The American military-industrial complex that so troubled Dwight Eisenhower in 1961 has morphed into a boom business with truly global reach. It makes China’s business-oriented People’s Liberation Army look like a corner store.The Pentagon’s total budget requests for fiscal year ending September 2008 have swollen to $716.5bn (£365bn). That is more than double Clinton-era spending. In contrast, Russia will spend $31bn on defence this year and China, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an estimated $87bn. With Mr Bush as head of the police academy, the US is becoming, de facto, the self-appointed global policeman it said it never wanted to be.
In Africa as elsewhere, this could have the unintended effect of creating US-secured regions that are safe for rival countries to do business in – and exploit. Beijing, for example, has cause to be thankful. Sino-African trade, boosted again by the grand continental progress of President Hu Jintao this week, has risen from about $3bn in 1995 to $55.5bn last year, according to the independent Power and Interest News Report (PINR). And Chinese political cooperation is also growing, not only with “rogue regimes” such as Sudan and Zimbabwe but with more mainstream governments, potentially undercutting US-promoted governance standards.
“One of the main reasons that the African Development Bank agreed to hold its next meeting in Shanghai was that the member states would like to learn more about how China has achieved its rapid economic growth while maintaining a corrupt and non-representative political system,” said PINR analyst Adam Wolfe. Yet many of these same countries are potential beneficiaries of Washington’s proposed security umbrella.
At the same time, the limits on what the new command will actually do there are arguably too strict. Africom will advance “our common goals of peace, security, development, health, education, democracy and economic growth,” Mr Bush said this week. But officials say that will not involve the stationing of extra combat troops. Nor will it mean US soldiers reinforcing badly stretched UN and African Union peacekeeping forces in Congo, Somalia or Darfur.
In practice much of Africom’s work is likely to involve oversight of already extensive, US-funded African capacity-building programmes, including good governance-related assistance schemes and training of security forces. In many ways it may be modelled on the Horn of Africa Taskforce set up in Djibouti after 9/11. Like smaller US military units working temporarily in countries such as Rwanda, Botswana and Liberia, the taskforce undertakes a laudable range of humanitarian and infrastructure projects including, recently, the collation of Somali folk tales.
But like Africom, the Djibouti base’s raison d’etre remains American security and counter-terrorism, as seen in its training of Ethiopian troops and its air and sea support for the recent Ethiopian intervention in Somalia against Islamist militants. By coordinating and expanding similar operations, such as US special forces in Algeria and the 10-country “Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership”, Africom marks the official arrival of America’s “global war on terror” on the African continent. It is a wonder they took so long.