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ISN Security Watch: Questioning AFRICOM’s intentions

As plans move ahead for a US Africa Command, African nations remain cool to the idea amid fears of mission creep and unclear US intentions.

By John C K Daly for ISN Security Watch (02/07/07)

As US plans for an African command (AFRICOM) operations base forge ahead, perceptions that the base’s raison d’etre is to gain control over regional oil assets and counter growing Chinese influence are growing.

While Washington is proffering AFRICOM as a largely benign organization, Africans remain wary, having seen that a US military footprint in Djibouti led to operations such as Somalia, and believe that the Pentagon could not resist intervening to protect US investments in oil producing nations such as Nigeria or Equatorial Guinea if their regimes were toppled.

Unveiled on 6 February this year, AFRICOM is slated to be fully operational by 30 September 2008. In March, a transition team, including approximately 60 staff, led by Navy Rear Admiral Robert Moeller was assembled. This team will form the core of the new command.

Previously, Africa was divided between three US Unified Combatant Commands: European Command (EUCOM), Central Command (CENTCOM) and Pacific Command (PACOM). The new AFRICOM will be responsible for the entire continent, with the exception of Egypt, which will remain under CENTCOM’s responsibility.

AFRICOM’s designated area of responsibility also includes the Atlantic Ocean Cape Verde, the islands of Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome and Principe, as well as the Indian Ocean Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles islands.

The unit will differ from other US military commands in that it will include diplomatic, developmental and economic staffers from the outset. The Pentagon has announced that AFRICOM’s deputy commander position is being reserved for a State Department staffer rather than a military officer, and that half of the command’s 200 employees will not be from the Department of Defense.

As ISN Security Watch reported in February The Defense Department defines AFRICOM’s mission as to promote US strategic objectives by working with African nations and indigenous organizations to help build regional stability and security, with AFRICOM’s military operations primarily focused on deterring aggression and responding to crises.

The creation of a new combatant command requires changes by the president to the Unified Command Plan classified executive document, which defines the underlying organization of US armed forces and is reviewed every two years. The 2006 review recommended the establishment of AFRICOM.

The unit’s founding represents a complete reversal in Pentagon strategic thinking over the last decade. In 1995, the Department of Defense in its US Security Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa stated: “Ultimately we see very little traditional strategic interest in Africa.” The 7 August 1998 al-Qaida terrorist bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya quickly led to the abandonment of this line of thought.

The current US military presence in Africa is about 1,800 troops, mostly at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, established in May 2003 as part of CENTCOM’s Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), which began operating in October 2002. CJTF-HOA’s US military and civilian personnel cover the land and airspace in Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Seychelles, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Yemen, as well as the coastal waters of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

There are also a number of small training teams in such areas as the Sahel and Tamanrasset, Algeria. US troops have also helped train anti-terrorism forces in Algeria, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda among other countries. The US military presence in African waters is also slowly growing, most visibly with recent naval exercises in the Gulf of Guinea designed to protect oil shipments and operations off Somalia to deter piracy.

The Defense Department’s strengthening focus on Africa is epitomized in the increasing revenue directed towards its “Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara (OEF-TS).” The program is designed to support Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria and Morocco in resisting terrorism, with the revenue spent to send US troops to train with host-nation militaries and other missions. OEF-TS received US$5 million in 2005 and US$31 million in 2006, while this year’s funding is US$81.7 million, and is expected to be increased to approximately US$100 million annually for 2008 through 2013, according to EUCOM statistics. OEF-TS is now under AFRICOM’s supervision, along with Joint Task Force Aztec Silence, the combined arms organization assigned to implement OEF-TS’ missions.


The Pentagon reportedly plans to establish another dozen bases in the region; in Algeria, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Ghana, Morocco and Tunisia.

But for now, AFRICOM remains an orphan without an African home, with Algeria and Libya rejecting the idea outright, and Morocco being distinctly cool.

The Transition Team will be housed temporarily at the US Army’s Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart-Mohringen, Germany until the issue can be resolved. AFRICOM initially will be a sub-unified command, subordinate to EUCOM, also based in Stuttgart, with a projected Initial Operational Capability (IOC) by October 2007. As the Defense Department continues to search for a suitable African host country, high among its concerns is providing for the safety and security of an estimated 500 American personnel and their families who will staff the command.

Ryan Henry, principal Defense Department under secretary for policy, first toured Africa in April, visiting six African countries including South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya and Senegal trying to drum up support for the concept. During a second round of visits earlier this month, Henry traveled to Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Djibouti and the African Union, but to little avail.

One of the greatest fears among Africans is that AFRICOM will suffer from mission creep, moving steadily away from its humanitarian aspirations towards a more distinctly interventionist role. Such fears were heightened in January when US forces with AC-130 gunships secretly operating from Ethiopia carried out at least two air strikes in Somalia, targeting suspected al-Qaida members.

In the “frequently asked questions” section of its website, AFRICOM is clearly concerned about perceptions increasingly common in Africa that its purpose might be to gain control over regional oil assets and counter growing Chinese influence. One query asks: “Is this an effort by the United States to gain access to natural resources (e.g. petroleum)? Is this in response to Chinese activities in Africa?” AFRICOM’s reply: “No.”

Henry told reporters that AFRICOM’s purpose was not to wage war, but “to work in concert with our African partners for a more stable environment in which political and economic growth can take place,” adding that another formal round of talks on AFRICOM would take place with representatives from the UK, France and other European countries sometime in the fall.

Henry’s earnestness is somewhat undercut by EUCOM commander General Bantz Craddock, who last month told journalists in Washington, “You look at West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea, it becomes more focused because of the energy situation,” with the result that protecting energy assets “obviously is out in front.”

Africans have also increasingly come to criticize AFRICOM. Michele Ruiters of Johannesburg’s Business Day magazine wrote in a February op-ed piece that “It is necessary for Africans to oppose the expansion of US military power in Africa.[…] AFRICOM would destabilize an already fragile continent and region, which would be forced to engage with US interests on military terms,” Ruiters wrote.

Commentaries in South Africa and Kenya have opined that AFRICOM was less about fostering African prosperity than it was an attempt to counter China’s growing presence while securing access to African energy resources.

On 8 February, Kenya’s The Nation wryly noted in an editorial that “Ironically, AFRICOM was announced as Chinese President Hu Jintao was touring eight African nations to negotiate deals that will enable China to secure oil flows from Africa.”

A 12 April editorial in Zambia’s The Post daily newspaper was even more blunt, alleging that AFRICOM was “aimed at influencing, threatening and warding off any competitors by using force,” a direct reference to China’s growing presence in Africa.

Mission creep fears

Many Africans fear that the nexus of energy, poverty and terrorism may swiftly push AFRICOM beyond its stated humanitarian objectives. The rising violence in Nigeria’s Delta region may well be the rock upon which AFRICOM’s humanitarian focus founders.

Since the insurgency began there in 2004, when protesting armed youths of the oil and gas region took to the creeks, violence has caused a sharp upturn in global world energy prices, with Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation sources in Port Harcourt claiming off the record that Nigeria’s oil production has been reduced by nearly 40 percent because of militant activity (other sources say 25 percent).

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has dismissed AFRICOM, saying it smacks of typical American braggadocio “which has no place in the realism of living in today’s world.”

MEND militants have already succeeded in shutting off approximately 711,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Nigeria’s daily output of 2.5 million bpd, nearly 25 percent of the country’s exports. If a combination of militant attacks and general strikes completely paralyzed Nigerian production, it would seem rather unlikely that US military forces would sit by idly as oil shipments from America’s third largest oil importer ground to a halt.

And oil is hardly the continent’s sole export of interest to the Pentagon. US military sources estimate that up to a quarter of all foreign fighters in Iraq are from Africa, primarily from Algeria and Morocco. Such a connection makes it further unlikely that the Pentagon would stand by passively digging wells and building schools while passing up the chance of eliminating hard-core terrorists.

The lure of African oil

World attention must necessarily increasingly focus on African energy reserves, underlined by massive recent oil discoveries in Ghana (which is currently discussing hosting a US military base), Equatorial Guinea and Angola, all countries of rising US interest. Western oil giants including American companies ExxonMobil and Chevron, France’s Total and Britain’s BP and Royal Dutch Shell plan to invest tens of billions of dollars in sub-Saharan Africa over the next several years.

The US currently consumes about 20 million bpd. Last year 22 percent of US crude imports came from Africa, in comparison with only 15 percent in 2004; the rate now slightly exceeds US imports from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Over the last five years US oil imports from Africa have nearly doubled. The National Intelligence Council projects that African oil imports will account for 25 percent of total US imports by 2015, primarily from Gulf of Guinea countries, Nigeria and Angola. Other estimates place the percentage as high as 35 percent for the same period. Between 2004 and 2007, African oil production climbed from seven million barrels per day (bpd) to 9.5 million bpd, and a US Department of Energy study estimates that African oil production will rise 91 percent between 2002 and 2025. In March, Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer, overtook Saudi Arabia as the third largest oil exporter to the US.

The region’s surging oil production is occurring amid rising social tension, most notably in Nigeria. West Africa remains the most poverty stricken region in the world, with 23 West African nations sitting on the bottom of the UN human development index on poverty despite rising energy revenues.

Despite its rising prominence in US energy imports, Nigeria’s continuing instability has had a marked impact on global prices. World oil rates rose above US$60 per barrel in April 2007 after Nigeria held elections widely dismissed as fraudulent and again in May 2007 after attacks on pipelines in the Niger Delta.

Despite such fluctuations, increasing focus on African energy reserves is inevitable. In his 2006 State of the Union address, President George W Bush announced his intention “to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.” It is difficult to see how such a goal could be achieved without a massive increase in African oil imports.


Dr John C K Daly is a Washington DC-based consultant and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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