Christopher Thompson, Newstatesman, 14 June 2007
Within a decade, the US will be heavily dependent on African oil. Little wonder the Pentagon is preparing a strategy for the region.
The Pentagon is to reorganise its military command structure in response to growing fears that the United States is seriously ill-equipped to fight the war against terrorism in Africa. It is a dramatic move, and an admission that the US must reshape its whole military policy if it is to maintain control of Africa for the duration of what Donald Rumsfeld has called “the long war”. Suddenly the world’s most neglected continent is assuming an increasing global importance as the international oil industry begins to exploit more and more of the west coast of Africa’s abundant reserves.
The Pentagon at present has five geographic Unified Combatant Commands around the world, and responsibility for Africa is awkwardly divided among three of these. Most of Africa – a batch of 43 countries – falls under the European Command (Eucom), with the remainder divided between the Pacific Command and Central Command (which also runs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Now the Pentagon – under the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the defence department – is working on formal proposals for a unified military command for the continent under the name “Africom”.
This significant shift in US relations with Africa comes in the face of myriad threats: fierce economic competition from Asia; increasing resource nationalism in Russia and South America; and instability in the Middle East that threatens to spill over into Africa.
The Pentagon hopes to finalise Africom’s structure, location and budget this year. The expectation is that it can break free from Eucom and become operative by mid-2008.
“The break from Europe will occur before 30 September 2008,” Professor Peter Pham, a US adviser on Africa to the Pentagon told the New Statesman. “The independent command should be up and running by this time next year.”
A Pentagon source says the new command, which was originally given the green light by the controversial former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is likely to be led by William “Kip” Ward, the US army’s only four-star African-American general. In 2005, Ward was appointed the US security envoy to the Middle East and he is reportedly close to President George W Bush. He also has boots-on-the-ground experience in Africa: he was a commander during Bill Clinton’s ill-fated mission in Somalia in 1993 and he served as a military representative in Egypt in 1998. Ward is now the deputy head of Eucom.
America’s new Africa strategy reflects its key priorities in the Middle East: oil and counter-terrorism. Currently, the US has in place the loosely defined Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative, incorporating an offshoot of Operation Enduring Freedom that is intended to keep terrorist networks out of the vast, unguarded Sahel. But the lack of a coherent and unified policy on Africa is, according to some observers, hampering America’s efforts in the Middle East. US military sources estimate that up to a quarter of all foreign fighters in Iraq are from Africa, mostly from Algeria and Morocco.
Moreover, there is increasing alarm within the US defence establishment at the creeping “radicalisation” of Africa’s Muslims, helped along by the export of hardline, Wahhabi-style clerics from the Arabian peninsula.