US President Barack Obama (front C) joins other leaders during the family photo at the US-Africa Leaders Summit, at the State Department in Washington DC, USA, 06 August 2014. The US-Africa Leaders Summit brings almost fifty African heads of state and government to meet on a variety of issues including food security, civil rights, women's issues and economic development. (Michael Reynolds/EPA)
David Ignatius
Opinion writer August 7

President Obama touted this week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit as “an extraordinary event.” That may sound like hype, but the gathering featured some innovative new ideas to prevent terrorism and lawlessness from spreading in Africa as it has in the Middle East.

Obama announced two new programs that will help African nations combat internal disorder and the drift toward violent extremism. One is a partnership to assist countries in building rapid-deployment forces that can intervene when crises happen on the continent. The second will help endangered nations develop better security and governance to fight al-Qaeda affiliates and other threats to stability.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

These programs begin to flesh out the counterterrorism strategy that Obama announced in May in a speech at West Point. The idea was for a network of U.S.-backed security partnerships stretching from Morocco to Pakistan, with America filling the gaps with “direct action” in places like Syria and Libya where governance has collapsed. It sounded good, but details about implementation were vague, and in some cases (such as Syria) half-baked.

The new Africa initiatives will try to avoid past U.S. mistakes. They recognize that the U.S. military should be training partners and allies, rather than doing the fighting. They link economic development and the rule of law to the anti-terrorism fight. They focus on the most capable partners first. And they open the way for mobilizing the United Nations, the African Union and other multinational organizations.

Reading the proposals, I found myself wishing the United States could turn back the clock 20 years and try similar approaches in the Middle East and South Asia. It’s too late for that, obviously, but here’s a chance to avoid repeating old errors in combating new terrorism threats in a rapidly modernizing, turbulent Africa.

Under Obama’s proposed African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership (dubbed “A-Prep”), the United States will support six partners that already have competent militaries — Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. These countries will share $110 million annually over the next three to five years. The money will finance better training and equipment, and the kind of “enablers” (such as transportation and logistics) that allow the United States — uniquely among the world’s militaries — to move quickly into crisis zones.

The peacekeeping challenges in Africa are immense. Countries where the United States is supporting U.N. or African Union peacekeeping missions include the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan and Darfur. The peacekeepers are often outgunned and disorganized, and the conflict zones are recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda and its affiliates and spinoffs.

Obama’s second new Africa program, the Security Governance Initiative, will provide $65 million in the first year for assistance to six countries where extremists seek to destabilize the governments: Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Tunisia. These are the front-line states in combating the growth of al-Qaeda. The aid will go partly to local security services and partly to promote democratic governance, the rule of law and economic development. This isn’t much money for such ambitious goals, and the administration should request more.

One thing the United States learned in Afghanistan was that insurgents feed on a lack of law enforcement and simple justice. So it’s good that the security initiative imagines, as a model, “strengthening a Ministry of Justice’s and Director of Public Prosecution’s ability to lead a government-wide effort against terrorism and other transnational crimes, provide oversight and accountability, and ensure effective and accountable corrections management.” A case study for Africa planners is the Rule of Law Field Force, an innovative but underfunded U.S. program in Afghanistan.

A danger of the Africa initiatives is that the United States will view the continent’s complex problems through the sometimes distorting lens of counterterrorism. A strong military and security service that enables economic development, as in Rwanda, can also veer perilously close to authoritarianism. Perhaps recognizing the dangers of militarization, the policy papers issued by the White House this week made little mention of any role for the Pentagon’s regional command, known as Africom. And it’s notable that the new Security Governance Initiative will be based at the State Department, not Defense — which makes sense as long as State has the resources and expeditionary spirit to make it work.

The African leaders’ summit celebrated the opportunities ahead for the continent. But in the afterglow, officials shouldn’t forget that some of the biggest and most promising nations — such as Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana — are targeted by extremists.

Read more from David Ignatius’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.