A U.S. Army captain in Africa waxes philosophical. It's like the old saying, he opines; "give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he'll eat forever."
Is he talking about skills-building, or community empowerment? No: Captain Joseph Cruz goes from channeling the musician Speech from the American hip-hop group Arrested Development back to his military-approved talking points: "the same can be said about military to military training and that's why we do it."
The Delta company soldier is one of 1,800 based in Djibouti at an old French Foreign Legion base, and he is comparing lessons in small naval patrol boat tactics, approaches to counter terrorism operations, and how to use an M-16 rifle, to teaching a man to fish.
It is not just the Djiboutians who are receiving these lessons -- members of the Ethiopian, Ugandan and Kenyan armed forces have also been on "fishing trips" with the U.S. military.
Most Americans have never heard of Djibouti, and fewer can pronounce it correctly, but here -- far from the bombed bridges of Baghdad and the flourishing poppy fields of Afghanistan -- is the third front of the war on terrorism. As Rear Admiral Richard Hunt, the Commander of Combined Joint Taskforce-Horn of Africa (or CJT-HOA, in inimitable military style), explains: "Africa is the new frontier that we need to engage now, or we are going to end up doing it later in a very negative way."
As part of the CJT-HOA these soldiers are also building schools, digging wells and sanitizing slaughterhouses. Their work is delineated by the four Ps and the three Ds: Prevent conflict, promote regional stability, protect coalition interests and prevail against extremism in East Africa and Yemen through diplomacy, development and defense.
Amid the commemorations, tributes, and critiques that cluster around the September 11 anniversary, we should not lose sight of how the war on terrorism is militarizing Africa. With under-tapped oil reserves, vast stretches of ungoverned space, impoverished populations and pandemics of AIDS/HIV and other diseases, Africa is now on Washington's radar screen. The National Security Strategy for the United States, 2006 says: "Africa holds growing geo-strategic importance and is a high priority of this administration." But the most significant way that high priority status is being expressed is through commitments of military aid, training, troops and equipment.
The U.S. base in Djibouti is just one plank in a new platform of military engagement in Africa. There is also the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI), which Congress funded at $500 million over six years in 2005. There are also increased naval maneuvers in West Africa's Gulf of Guinea, and establishment of a P3 Orion aerial surveillance station in Algeria.
And now, as though the Pentagon does not have enough on its plate, President George W. Bush has established United States African Command (AFRICOM) as the newest U.S. military sphere of influence. The command brings together most of the continent (Egypt will remain under CENTCOM) for the first time, and according to President Bush it "will enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth in Africa."
But the administration is mostly trying to define AFRICOM by what it is not:
Theresa Whelan, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, says: "Africa Command is not going to reflect a U.S. intent to engage kinetically in Africa. This is about prevention. This is not about fighting wars." At another point, Whelan also said "This is not about a scramble for the continent."
"We are not at war in Africa. Nor do we expect to be at war in Africa. Our embassies and AFRICOM will work in concert to keep it that way," notes Jendayi Frazer, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa.
Despite these reassurances, many African nations view this move with a healthy dose of skepticism. They are expressing this view by shutting their doors. AFRICOM is temporarily based in Germany, but commanders hope to make the move to the region by fall 2008. The military seems to be favoring a "lily pad" approach of small bases across West Africa and the Horn region so as to not commit significant troops or lend credence to African concerns of a U.S. occupation. But where are these lily pads going to go?
Zambia has said no. In early September, President Levy Mwanawasa said that within the Southern African Development Community (a network of fourteen nations) "none of us is interested" in hosting the command. The South Africa Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota has refused to meet with U.S. General William "Kip" Ward, who will command AFRICOM. Lekota said recently, "Africa has to avoid the presence of foreign forces on her soil."
But, some countries are viewing AFRICOM as an opportunity. The United States has already secured access agreements with Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Gabon and Namibia. And the United States' close ally Liberia has aggressively promoted of the Command. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf penned a widely cited and circulated op-ed for AllAfrica.Com that hyped the Command as an opportunity for African nations. She has lobbied hard for AFRICOM to come to Liberia. The United States is also looking at Sao Tome and Principe, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia as possible locations.
In case none of these options work out, the Navy has a novel (and very expensive) idea to forgo land completely and house AFRICOM on a high-tech joint command and control ship that would circumnavigate the region.
Even as these discussions continue, some African nations are receiving significant increases in military aid and weapons sales; most of these increases have gone to oil-rich nations and compliant states where the U.S. military seeks a strategic toehold. The Center for Defense Information recently completed "U.S. Arms Exports and Military Assistance in the "Global War on Terror;" an analysis of increases in military aid since September 11, 2001. The report compares the military aid and weapons sales in the five-year leading up to 2001 and the five years since.
For example: since September 11, Kenya, which the State Department describes as a "frontline state" in the war on terrorism, has received eight times more military aid than in the preceding five years.
Djibouti, which has opened its territory to U.S. forces, received forty times more military aid, and an eightfold increase in the value of weapons transfers.
Oil-rich Algeria, where the surveillance equipment is based, has received ten times more aid and a warm embrace from Washington.
Nigeria, the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States, is slated to receive $1.35 million in Foreign Military Financing for 2008 despite persistent human rights abuses.
Mali is described as an "active partner in the war against terrorism" by the State Department and is a good example of a little military aid going a long way. The desert nation is slated to receive just $250,000 in International Military Education and Training (IMET funding) and no Foreign Military Financing in 2008. But, Mali participates in both the Regional Defense Counter Terrorism Fellowship Program and the Anti-terrorism Assistance program, receiving additional funding through these programs. Aid comes in other forms too. Just this week, a U.S. C-130 military transport plane dropped food aid to Malian soldiers as they pursued armed members of the Tuareg ethnic group. This sort of assistance is not documented or quantified in any ledger or report but -- if repeated regularly -- could significantly increase the Malian military's capabilities.
U.S. arms sales to Ethiopia, which has one of Africa's largest armies, have roughly doubled and military aid has increased two and a half times. But the nation has not received military Humvees since 2002, when it used them against its own people. During protests following the May 2002 elections, the Ethiopian military fired on crowds from the Humvees, killing 85 people. The U.S. sold the Humvees to Ethiopia for counter-terrorism operations. Will the other military assistance Ethiopia receives be similarly abused?
It is always heartening (and non-threatening) to hear soldiers speaking of their mission in altruistic terms. "The hope is to prevent another Iraq or Afghanistan by giving back," says John Harris, commander Command Senior Enlisted Leader of CJT-HOA. But, the soldiers are not there to make friends. The base had been used twice to launch incursions into Somalia (without the permission or even knowledge of the Djiboutian government).
Richard Lugar (R-IN), one of the wise men in the Senate, commented during an AFRICOM hearing that the Pentagon enjoys far greater resources than the State Department. He observed, "This imbalance within our own structure will be reflected in AFRICOM initially -- hopefully not perpetually." There is no indication that humanitarian investments will outpace military contributions any time soon -- especially when the justification for aid remains the war on terrorism.
The Congressional Research Service's latest accounting of the Global War on Terrorism, of which AFRICOM would be a part, puts the cost at $611 billion since 2001, not including additional recent requests of $147 billion and another $50 billion.
For less than that $808 billion spent in the last six years, we could provide universal primary education, reduce infant mortality by two thirds and provide universal access to potable water and not just for the United States, but also for the world. These Millennium Development Goals have languished with sporadic investment and big promises, while military solutions to problems are funded robustly.
Reexamining this imbalance seems like a crucial first step. And the battle for African hearts and minds will not be won if it's clear that it is being waged more for the sake of U.S. strategic interests than African needs.
FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate at the Arms and Security Project of the New America Foundation.