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The US Africa Command

Colonel Arvind Dutta was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 12, 2008

    Africa is no longer a distant region that can be ignored by the United States. As articulated in the US National Security Strategy, the need to expand and ensure America's access to energy resources, prevent the spread of terrorism in weak states, and address transnational health and environmental concerns has transformed Africa from a strategically remote part of the world into a priority region for US economic, political, and military interests. President George Bush’s February 2008 visit to some African states and the more recent visit to the continent by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice amply underscore US intent. America as such has become increasingly involved in Africa since the end of the Cold War, with over 20 US military operations between 1990 and 2000 and another 10 since 2000.

    The US Department of Defence currently divides responsibility for Africa among three combatant commands - European Command, Pacific Command and Central Command. Realising the need to engage Africa with greater uniformity and rationality, President Bush announced a decision to establish AFRICOM in February 2006, which is slated to be fully operationalised by October 1, 2008.

    Strategic Motivation

    AFRICOM is more than just an administrative change within the US Department of Defence (DOD). It responds to Africa's increased geopolitical importance to US interests, ranging from counter-terrorism and retarding the spread of HIV-AIDS to securing natural resources and responding to the growing Chinese influence in the continent.

    Countering Terrorism. From the US perspective, the inability or unwillingness of some fragile states to govern spaces within their borders could result in the creation of safe havens for terrorist outfits. AFRICOM will oversee current US counterterrorist programmes in Africa such as Operation Enduring Freedom, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), and the Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI).

    Securing Natural Resources. Like many other countries, America too is deeply interested in securing access to Africa's natural resources, especially, energy sources. Central Intelligence Agency estimates suggest that Africa may supply as much as 25 per cent of American energy requirements by 2015. Already by 2006, sub-Saharan African oil constituted approximately 18 per cent of all US imports (about 1.8 million barrels per day). By comparison, Persian Gulf imports were at 21 per cent (2.2 million barrels per day). Further, AFRICOM may become increasingly involved in the maritime security of the Gulf of Guinea, where the potential for deep-water drilling is high.

    Containing Armed Conflict and Humanitarian Crises. Stemming armed conflict and mitigating humanitarian catastrophes also remain important US objectives. The direct and indirect costs of instability are high in terms of human suffering and economic, social, and political retardation. Although Africa is afflicted by fewer serious armed conflicts today than it was a decade ago, a majority of United Nations peacekeeping operations are being conducted there. Here it is highlighted that India has participated in all UN led peacekeeping operations in Africa.

    Retarding the Spread of HIV/AlDS. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death in Africa, and controlling its global spread remains a critical concern for the United States. According to the United Nations, nearly 25 million Africans were HIV-positive in 2006, representing 63 per cent of infected persons worldwide. The rate of infection in some African security forces is believed to be high (between 40 and 60 per cent in the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo), raising concerns that these forces may be unable to deploy when needed and may even be vectors for the spread of the disease.

    Reducing International Crime. International crime in Africa is also of serious concern to US, especially narcotics trade. West Africa and Guinea-Bissau, have become the newest centres for drugs trafficking. African trade in contraband such as narcotics, small arms, and human beings is also a continuing global concern.

    Responding to Growing Chinese Influence. The United States is seriously concerned about the expanding influence of the People's Republic of China's (PRC) in Africa. The continent is quickly emerging as a competitive battlefield in what some US defence analysts are describing as a proxy economic cold war with China, especially in the quest for resources.

    Building Partner Capacity. AFRICOM is a three-pronged defence, diplomatic and economic effort designed to enable US government elements to work in concert with African partners without a shared command structure. Through AFRICOM, the US Department of Defence aims to seek a more stable environment for political and economic growth in Africa. In line with this goal, AFRICOM is pioneering a bold new method of military engagement focused on war prevention, interagency cooperation, and development rather than on traditional war fighting.

    The absence of a unified command for Africa hitherto had a number of adverse implications. One, Africa was never uppermost in priority for any unified command. Two, the three-part division of responsibility denied effective unity of command and compounded coordination challenges. Three, the DOD could not develop the desired number of dedicated African experts. And four, in the absence of a single accountable Combatant force commander, the right perspectives of Africa could not be adequately projected for formulation of an effective African security policy.

    Area of Responsibility

    The territory of the command would consist of the entire African continent except for Egypt, as well as islands related to the continent, including the Atlantic Ocean islands of Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea and São Tomé and Príncipe, and the Indian Ocean islands of Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles. It would cover most of Africa, which was till now under the European Command (US EUROCOM), it will have East Africa transferred to it from the US Central Command (US CENTCOM), and have the islands of Madagascar and Mauritius assigned to it from the Pacific Command (USPACOM). Egypt would remain under the direct responsibility of US CENTCOM due its linkages with the Middle East.


    A Distinct Unified Command. AFRICOM is envisioned to be a distinct unified command with the sole responsibility for Africa. A four-star general (General William E. Ward) has been nominated to command it. He is also expected to play a key role in raising the military's strategic awareness of the continent. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are also forming small component commands to address their specific needs in Africa.

    Headquarters (HQ) Location. For the time being, the headquarters have been located in Stuttgart, Germany, pending availability of a suitable location on the African continent.

    Full Operationalisation. The AFRICOM is envisaged to become fully operational on October 1, 2008 and the HQ is likely to be home to about 1,300 personnel of the Defence Department.


    Despite DOD's determined efforts to headquar¬ter AFRICOM in Africa, it has not been successful in its efforts so far. Regional players like Nigeria and South Africa as well as other countries like Morocco, Algeria, and Libya, do not seem to be willing to base AFRICOM forces on their territory. Member states of regional organisa¬tions such as the 14-country Southern African Develop¬ment Community (SADC) have also agreed not to host AFRICOM, and there are discussions within the 16-country ECOWAS to do the same.

    African Perceptions

    Many African observers are apprehensive about US intentions, especially because of the use of the word 'command'. In Africa the leading view is that AFRICOM is a US instrument to secure better access to the continent’s natural resources, ebb China's growing influence on the continent, and establish forward bases to pursue its war against terror. There is also an increased concern that future developmental efforts in Africa may get perceived through the Pentagon's prism.

    However, some African perceptions of AFRICOM are positive. Liberia, for instance, has articulated the view that AFRICOM should be seen for what it is: recognition of the growing importance of Africa to US national security interests, as well as recognition that long-term African security lies in empowering African partners to develop a healthy security environment through good governance, building security capacity, and developing good civil-military relations. Washington hopes that all African countries will eventually share this perspective.


    Necessity of Safeguarding US Interests. The US decision to establish AFRICOM has apparently been taken based on the changing global security environment and the changing role of Africa in that global security environment. Africa also seems to be emerging as a "key operational area" for the US military.

    Capacity Building of African States to Enhance Regional Stability. Considering the relatively larger diplomatic and aid component of AFRICOM vis-à-vis other US regional commands around the world, the Africa Command does not reflect US intent to engage kinetically in Africa.

    Likely Efficacy. The shift of strategic focus from combat to non¬-combat missions will necessitate AFRICOM not only to work on challenging requirements of interagency cooperation and coordination, but also on synergising DOD capabilities with those of the State Department and other civilian orga¬nisations. In the backdrop of the recent turmoil in Kenya, the importance of AFRICOM is becoming more and more evident.

    India and AFRICOM

    Keeping in view India’s historic linkages as well as economic and security interests in Africa, New Delhi should plan to expand its military-to-military relations with AFRICOM once it is fully operationalised. In addition, given Indian linkages with African countries as well as involvement in peacekeeping missions in Africa, New Delhi, if approached, could facilitate the securing of a suitable base for Headquarters AFRICOM in the continent.