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Into Africa Without a Map

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By David Ignatius
Sunday, January 6, 2008

Last week's tribal violence in Kenya reminds us of the severe social and political problems facing Africa. But is greater involvement by the U.S. military the answer to these African challenges?

The growing U.S. military role in Africa isn't a hypothetical issue. In one of the sleeper events of 2007, the Pentagon established a new command for the continent, known as AFRICOM. The organization has a commander, Gen. William "Kip" Ward, but it doesn't yet have a plan for where it will be based or even a clear statement of its role. Right now, it's a headquarters in search of a mission.

Pentagon officials have offered idealistic but vague explanations of what the new command is supposed to do. "We want to prevent problems from becoming crises, and crises from becoming catastrophes," said Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant defense secretary for African affairs. Ward said in an interview two months ago with PBS's Charlie Rose, "We have in our national interest that Africa is a stable continent. That's what's in it for us."

Nobody would argue the need for assisting Africa, especially after the gruesome ethnic killings that left more than 300 Kenyans dead. But how should that assistance be provided? Is the U.S. military the right instrument for the nation-building effort that AFRICOM apparently envisions? Should American soldiers coordinate the digging of wells, the vaccination of animals and other development projects that will come under AFRICOM's umbrella? Will a larger U.S. military presence check terrorism and instability on the continent, or will it instead become a new magnet for anti-Americanism?

The chaos in Kenya should prompt a serious discussion, better late than never, of these issues. AFRICOM's mission isn't well understood, either in America or Africa. Two leading African nations -- Nigeria and South Africa -- have expressed strong reservations about the greater U.S. military role on the continent. And surely the American experience in Iraq should prompt closer scrutiny of military projects with bold ideals but fuzzy details.

The African command began as a project of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who believed that the military wasn't well prepared for the kind of stabilization operations it would face in the post-Sept. 11 world. The command was formally established Oct. 1, with a temporary headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany -- and the goal of establishing a forward base in Africa by this coming Oct. 1.

But problems surfaced immediately. The first was the $5 billion cost of setting up the forward headquarters, a steep price for a military strapped by Iraq and Afghanistan. A second problem was where to put the headquarters. Liberia was eager to play host, but Pentagon officials believed that West Africa would be too far from the continent's big security challenges. For now, the Pentagon will probably finesse the headquarters issue by starting with several smaller regional centers -- perhaps in Botswana, Liberia and Rwanda -- that combine military and civilian operations.

The new command has had bipartisan political backing -- who could question the idea of taking Africa more seriously? But behind the scenes, some senior Pentagon officials have been skeptical. "The depth of support is pretty shallow, frankly, and that's a real hazard. There's a danger that everything will be done on the cheap," says Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The real puzzle with AFRICOM is understanding its purpose. Some advocates propose pragmatic strategic goals, from containing China's influence in Africa to countering terrorism to protecting African oil supplies. But the official rationale is much less specific -- in Ward's formulation, "bringing stability to the continent." Some Africans worry that these generalities mask a deeper goal of establishing what amounts to American neocolonialism.

What would AFRICOM be doing now in Kenya, say, if it were up and running? Would it intervene to halt the violence between Kikuyus and Luos that exploded last week? Would it work with nongovernmental and relief organizations? Would it operate jointly with the Kenyan military to restore order? Ward says that he does not "envision kinetic operations for United States forces," but what happens if Kenya spirals toward Rwanda-level genocide?

The U.S. military is so powerful -- so blessed with money and logistical skill and leadership -- that it's easy to make it the default answer to problems that are otherwise in the "too hard" category. That's my worry about AFRICOM. Its nation-building goal sounds noble, but so did European imperialism of 150 years ago to its proponents. Before America sends its soldiers marching off to save Africa, we need more discussion about what this mission is all about.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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