The U.S. military has left Iraq and will
leave Afghanistan soon. One might assume that this means a lower level of U.S.
military operations overseas. Not so fast. Military operations in Mali and the
connected Algerian hostage crisis have highlighted a major shift in U.S. military
strategy and overseas engagement, especially in our support for security forces
Gradually, through a growing security
assistance program and special operations forces action, U.S. engagement in
Africa is shifting from a focus on governance, health, and development to a
deepening military engagement. And while the Pentagon portrays this expanding
military engagement as a way to empower Africans, it is actually building security
relationships that could backfire, harming our long-term foreign policy
The United States has had military
relationships at a low level in Africa for some time. Before 9/11, these took
the traditional form of educating African military officers in the United States
though the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET), at a
cost of roughly $10 million a year. And the United States has had for decades a
small Foreign Military Financing program, providing equipment, training, and
services to select African militaries at a cost of around $20 million a year. Neither
program has been a centerpiece of U.S. overseas security assistance.
The slide into Africa began in earnest
after the Rwandan genocide and the 1998 embassy bombings. A larger U.S.-funded training
program was started in the 1990s as a peacekeeping initiative, ultimately
morphing into the Bush-era Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI). Through
GPOI, the United States has been providing more training to African militaries,
seeking to enhance their ability to conduct peacekeeping operations. By now,
hundreds of thousands of African soldiers have been trained and are involved in
operations in the Horn of Africa -- and perhaps soon in Mali -- at a cost of
nearly a billion dollars.
A focus on counterterrorism and
counterinsurgency operations has driven this engagement forward, especially in
East Africa. It is not easy to obtain data on how much has been spent on these
efforts, but they include training and arming African counterterrorism forces, increasing
the presence of U.S. Special Operations forces, and developing closer ties with
military operations spreading from North Africa to the central African
countries bordering on the Sahara Desert, and from Djibouti to the Atlantic.
In 2008, this scattered engagement by
the U.S. military was pulled together in the creation of a new U.S. regional
command. Africom was intended to be a new kind of command, one that integrated
military operations with the broader U.S. diplomatic and foreign assistance efforts
This is now the key to the "slide" --
after decades of leaving Africa pretty much alone or engaging through health
and economic assistance, the United States is now seriously involved, but
driven by the mantra American "security." Mixing these messages (development,
health, and security) is proving difficult for the African countries. They have
begun to wonder why the United States has suddenly developed an interest in their
continent. Uneasy African governments resisted the notion that Africom should
actually be based on the continent as the United States wanted, so the
headquarters remains in Stuttgart, Germany.
Well, they might have reason to be
concerned. A growing "security" focus for U.S. engagement in Africa changes
things. So does the growing lead the Pentagon and the Special Operations forces
are taking in that engagement. When security takes the lead, too often,
governance and development step aside. And, while the security focus is
ostensibly intended to strengthen African capacities to provide national and
regional stability, they have the consequence, intended or not, of dragging the
United States into Africa's internal politics, at a potential cost to our long-term
In Mali, for example, the appearance of al
Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has led some in the U.S. military to warn that the
Maghreb (that is, the Northwestern rim of the continent) is becoming a
terrorist haven and to suggest that the U.S. cannot prevent this reality with a
light, indirect military footprint. Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who overthrew
the elected Malian government in 2012, was trained under
In Algeria, the United States has partnered with an authoritarian regime in the
pursuit of counterterrorism operations.
This increasing focus on security
coincides with a broader trend over the past decade towards giving the Pentagon
greater direct authority for security assistance programs overall. Where the
State Department was once in the lead, DOD is now directly responsible, funded
through its own budget, for a growing share of U.S. security assistance, accentuating
the pronounced bias in those programs toward DOD's needs, requirements, and
The largest DOD programs have trained
and equipped the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, at a cost well over $50 billion. They
provide considerable budgetary support to the militaries of Jordan and Pakistan.
By the time the United States left Iraq, the Pentagon was directly responsible
for more than half of total U.S. funding for security assistance worldwide.
African programs are now part of this
pattern. Especially in Africa, DOD has put the label of "Building Partner
Capacity" on its activities. That the programs surely do. But especially in
Africa, these activities support a particular kind of capacity -- counterinsurgency
and counterterrorism operations. These competencies are unhinged, in large
part, from broader U.S. foreign policy objectives in Africa, and provide a sneaky
way of pulling the United States into security relationships that may not serve
our long-run goals for African state building or development.
The major problem is context. Focusing
on our security interests in Africa risks ignoring the need for stronger, more
capable, more responsive civilian governance and economic development. While
DOD likes to argue that security comes first, before governance and
development, the risk of militarizing our engagement in Africa is that it will
end the development of fledgling accountable governance in Africa (and
elsewhere) and increase hostility toward the United States.
Much as Iraq and Afghanistan reproduced
the sad lessons of Vietnam, our slide into Africa risks becoming a sequel to a
film we have already seen. Two decades of repression and "disappearances" in
Latin America followed from a U.S. security and covert assistance program in
the 1960s that focused on our fascination with and fear of insurgents and
communists -- at the cost of democracy and warm and fuzzy feelings about
America. Cloaked in the mantra of "Building Partner Capacity," here we go
again, this time in Africa.
And we are headed there just as we are
learning of deep flaws in our security assistance programs. On January 7, the
International Security Advisory Board to the State Department, chaired by
former Secretary of Defense William Perry, described U.S. security assistance
There is,...so far as this Board has been
able to determine, no comprehensive definition of what "security capacity"
means in this context, nor an overall strategy for determining how much to
spend and how it should be allocated. Nor is there a coherent system for making
those decisions or for evaluating the effectiveness of the program being
And, while the Government Accountability Office concluded last
year that the risks of unintended consequences, perverse incentives, and moral
hazards from U.S. security assistance programs were considered in some of the
planning processes, it produced no evidence either that they were actually taken
into consideration, or that such consideration led to any decisions not to
undertake a security assistance effort in a specific country.
I observed these problems firsthand when
I oversaw these programs at the Office of Management and Budget in the 1990s.
U.S. security assistance programs, in Africa or elsewhere, have never been embedded
in a strategic design or reviewed in the context of our overall engagement with
a country or a region (unless considering any opposition activity in any
country as an agent of the Soviet Union constitutes sensible strategy); they
have never undergone a systematic evaluation for effectiveness; and they have
been increasingly driven by the narrow military or quasi-military objectives of
the Defense Department.
There are a lot of critical things to
say about U.S. security assistance. Many of them I said in a Stimson Center
report I co-authored with Becky Williams two years ago, A New Way Forward: Rebalancing Security Assistance
Programs and Authorities.
The fundamental problem, bolstered by
the Perry report, is that the U.S. plans its security assistance programs in a
strategy and policy void and, with a focus on "security" but not "governance,"
they are largely implemented to meet the bureaucratic, regional, and program
priorities of the Defense Department, in this case, Africom. The choice of
countries, programs, and individuals to receive support in Africa is driven
largely by the military -- the regional combatant commander, the military
services, and DOD policy officials. While the State Department has input into
these decisions, State simply lacks the staff and the interest to overcome the "security"
orientation to these programs.
U.S. security assistance, especially
after Iraq and Afghanistan, does put "security" first and "governance" second,
which is characteristic of these Africa programs. Sounds like a Tea Party
projection of the U.S. constitution overseas. The downside is that by putting
security first but having little or no strategy to help African countries
develop effective governance, too many of them will end up insecure in another
way: hostage to a strongly developed military-paramilitary-gendarme-police
force which is the only effective form of political power. As the Perry report
said in its subdued way: "In many countries, whether intended or not, the U.S.
is choosing sides in the partner nation's political process when it provides
assistance to security forces."
Algeria and Mali, and the
desperate-looking, one-dimensional focus on terrorists in the Maghreb, combined
with the expanding appetite of U.S. Special Operators, suggest that we are
entering another generation of misguided efforts to strengthen militaries and
their security cousins at the expense of governance capacity and economic
development in Africa. Each new "partner" with whom we are "building capacity"
draws us more deeply into the internal politics of these countries, becoming a commitment,
first with money and equipment, then training, then co-operation, then implicit
Africa can and should do better. And,
lest we slide down that slippery slope to military commitments in fragile
states, we should do better as well. There is no doubt that bad guys operate in
the Sahel. It is less clear that they threaten our interests. The context for
our engagement should be responsive and accountable governance, conflict
prevention, conflict resolution, and development -- none of which is a core
skill in the military, as well-intentioned as they may be. If the supported
country feels a need for a security dimension in its approach to these three
critical tasks, then, and only then, should the State Department oversee the
introduction of support for security forces, under the authority of a
I fear we are getting this wrong, and
may live to rue the day we see the outcome of this un-strategic, un-evaluated
set of programs.
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images