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J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.

Strategic Interests. A U.S. Security Agenda in Africa – Part II
World Defense Review columnist
16 Nov 06

Peter Pham

Since its inception, this column has been dedicated to the proposition that that Sub-Saharan Africa which, even in the best of times, has historically been treated as something of a stepchild by inside-the-Beltway policymakers, is actually more now more vital to U.S. strategic interests than almost any region of the world other than the Middle East. And, Africa will only become even more significant in the coming years as no less a source than the National Intelligence Council predicts that, within less than a decade, we will be importing more of our hydrocarbons from the Gulf of Guinea than from the entire Middle East.

Yet, despite this important datum, we have yet to begin developing the type of comprehensive strategic approach to the continent that its pivotal position vis-à-vis our national security and power demand.

As a modest contribution to this end and in the hope of stimulating some discussion as the 110th Congress transitions into office, with last week's column, I began briefly surveying what I regard as the "Top 10" priorities for a U.S. security agenda in Africa. As I noted, any number of other issues, security and otherwise, affecting Africa could have been included in an agenda, but I purposely decided to limit my list to the ten security-related issues that are most likely to require the immediate attention of the U.S. government over the course of the next year. In addition to the five issues covered last week – the Islamist radicals in Somalia, the future of Nigeria, the genocide in Darfur, the restoration of normality to Côte d'Ivoire, and Chinese expansion throughout Africa – other pressing concerns include:

Preparing for the Transition in Guinea (and Elsewhere)

As I have previously reported, Guinea, which supplies North America with nearly 50 percent of its bauxite (the ore which contributes the primary ingredient for the production of aluminum), faces a grave crisis, possibly even civil war, with the impending death of its ailing longtime strongman, General Lansana Conté, who has been in power since 1984. Similar situations prevail in other resource-rich African states with long-tenured rulers, including the Gabon's Omar Bongo (38 years), Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (27 years), Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe (26 years), and Cameroon's Paul Biya (24 years). As Africa becomes increasingly more important to American interests even as our "hard power" resources are increasingly stretched, U.S. policy needs to shift to privileging a modest amount of preventative engagement over far costlier operations to pick up the pieces after regime collapse.

Developing Maritime Capacity

As I have argued in this column, when one looks at risk – that is, threat, vulnerability, and cost – nowhere is the risk, both to U.S. economic and security interests and those of African states, greater than in the waters of the Gulf of Guinea from whence flow an ever-growing proportion of America's hydrocarbons. Congress and the President need to make adequate budgetary provision for increased naval engagement with and capacity-building – both blue-water and brown-water – of our partners on the continent, on its eastern littoral as well as the western coast.

Preventing Terrorist Flows from the Middle East and Checking the Rise of Militant Islamism across the Continent

The rise of militant Islamism is not a challenge that will be met in one year or even ten; it is a concern that requires constant attention as well as constant support for the long term initiatives that alone check the rise of radicalism – and this means that Congress must maintain the funding commitment year in and year out. As this column has noted, while Islam is, in many respects, an "African religion" that has interwoven itself into the continent's social fabric, the generally pacific, syncretistic variety of the faith is being swept aside by a militant Islamism imported from the Middle East that is not only transforming local societies, but also threatening to turn an increasingly significant region into an environment hospitable to extremist violence (as the bizarre Maitatsine episode in Nigeria demonstrated), with consequences reverberate far beyond the continent.

Closely connected to concerns about the rise of militant Islamist ideologies in Africa are the flows of actual terrorists

This column previously documented the Middle East links to Africa's conflicts, al-Qaeda's strategy of shifting operations to Africa, and Hezbollah's network on the continent, among other connections. These facts notwithstanding, for a variety of reasons, many U.S. diplomatic and intelligence officials persist in minimizing links between challenges faced in Africa and America's war on terror, largely centered on the Middle East. As a result, counterterrorism resources for Africa have been modest at best despite the fact that the conditions which favor the emergence and success of terrorist groups elsewhere – corruption, lack of government control, little understood "informal networks," etc. – are present in abundance in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Helping Rebuild Liberia

While Liberia is one of the smallest African states and, after the rape of its natural resources by competing warlords during its two civil wars, boasts no significant strategic assets, it nonetheless has longstanding historical and affective ties with the U.S. These links are well-known in Africa, arguably better known there than on this side of the Atlantic. In fact, many African leaders gage U.S. commitment to and staying power in Africa by what America does or does not do in Liberia: our credibility across the continent is directly linked to our involvement in Liberia. As the first anniversary of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's inauguration approaches, the honeymoon period is over. Now is the time for America to give sustained support to that Liberia's efforts on a host of issues, including infrastructure reconstruction, security sector reform, constitutional renewal, and accountability for past abuses (not just for former president Charles Taylor, but also other offenders – some of whom are members of the current Liberian government – as well as his foreign sponsors, including, as this column has argued, Libya's Mu'ammar Qadhafi).

Laying the Foundations for Long Term Military Engagement

As Africa becomes progressively viewed in a strategic perspective by Americans and the U.S. strengthens its security commitments across the continent, it becomes increasingly apparent that a new architecture is needed for the engagement. A unified combatant command for this area of responsibility makes greater sense than the current set-up whereby most of Africa falls under the aegis of the U.S. military's European Command (EUCOM), with the balance coming under the operational control of Central Command (CENTCOM) and, to some extent, the Pacific Command (PACOM). A single Africa command would help the U.S. military focus better focus and coordinate its efforts to deny sanctuary to militants who might otherwise find African havens in the same way that al-Qaeda cultivated bases in Sudan and Afghanistan in the 1990s as well as develop regional military-to-military relationships through ongoing educational programs like the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program as well as capacity building multilateral initiatives like the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI). These programs pay a rich dividend not just in the actual protection of critical infrastructure, but also political good will. Furthermore, a unified command for Africa would be better positioned to respond quickly to the type of complex transnational crises that are likely to continue to crop up on the continent. However, a new command cannot be built overnight; the foundations for this significant transformation must be prepared by our political leadership in Washington beginning now.

In short, what is needed in Africa is a sustained, long-term strategic engagement – diplomatic and developmental as well as military and security – that anchors Sub-Saharan Africa firmly in America's orbit before terrorists or others establish footholds. Fortunately, albeit not without irony, the relative neglect to date of Africa in U.S. strategic considerations has also left policy in this area relatively unscathed by the bitter partisan battles which have marked most foreign policy discourse these last few years. In fact, legislative advocates for Africa have regularly bridged the partisan divide during the 109th Congress. Hence if the administration and the leadership of the incoming Congress want to demonstrate that they can work together on foreign policy, Africa might be a good starting point. While it is would probably be overly optimistic to expect that last week's bipartisan post-election bonhomie will survive the winter in a city like Washington, it should at least be hoped that the U.S. security agenda in Africa might nonetheless be advanced in the interests of both Americans and Africans.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over one hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005). I
n addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.


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