Courtesy Reuters

AFRICOM's Libyan Expedition

How War Will Change the Command's Role on the Continent

Until Operation Odyssey Dawn began in Libya on March 19, U.S. Africa Command -- the United States’ newest combatant command, established in October 2008 -- was largely untested. There was reason to worry that AFRICOM, which would lead the operation, was too green, and its mandate too soft, for it to perform up to U.S. standards.

Yet in launching the U.S. intervention in Libya, AFRICOM, led by its commander, General Carter Ham, acquitted itself well. On the first day of the operation, it coordinated the combat operations of 11 American warships and dozens of aircraft, fired 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles, and delivered 45 Joint Direct Attack Munitions to ground targets. By March 23, AFRICOM-led coalition forces had steadily expanded the no-fly zone from northwest Libya and parts of central Libya to the entire coastline. And on March 26, AFRICOM began coordinating operations to destroy armored vehicles, effectively (if not with specific intent) providing close air support to rebel forces. AFRICOM lost only one aircraft -- an F-15 fighter that crashed on March 22 due to a mechanical malfunction -- and suffered no fatalities.

There was, however, political backlash to AFRICOM’s active fighting role in the conflict. Although the three African non-permanent members of the UN Security Council -- Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda -- had acquiesced to UN Resolution 1973, the bill that green-lighted the intervention, the African Union unequivocally opposed it. After the campaign began, the AU even tried to arrange a cease-fire, under which Libyan leader Muammar al Qaddafi would have opened channels for humanitarian aid and undertaken negotiations with the rebels but would also have been allowed to stay in power.

Qaddafi, of course, had been the driving force behind the creation of the AU, in 2002 (an effort he hoped would revitalize his geopolitical relevance). Many African leaders, from relatively enlightened ones such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to incorrigible rogues like Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, could well view Operation Odyssey Dawn as a harbinger of new liberal interventionism in Africa, and AFRICOM as its principal instrument and a potential threat to regime security. Now, especially if NATO and the Obama administration eventually use ground troops to ensure Qaddafi’s ouster, as retired U.S. Army General James M. Dubik suggested it should in an April 25 New York Times op-ed, AFRICOM will have a hard time reestablishing its bona fides with African governments, which were fairly tenuous even before the Libyan intervention.

AFRICOM was created for relatively banal bureaucratic and planning reasons -- to bring U.S. military activities in Africa, which had been inefficiently divided among three existing commands (European Command, Central Command, and Pacific Command), under a single one. But an awkward Pentagon rollout seemed to suggest that it would entail increasing the number of U.S. bases in the region and an intensification of military activity there. In particular, in 2007, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, Ryan Henry, noted that the Command “would involve one small headquarters plus five 'regional integration teams' scattered around the continent,” and that “AFRICOM would work closely with the European Union and NATO.” These remarks planted suspicions among African officials of the United States’ “militarization” and “recolonization” of the continent.

That perception seemed to jibe with the United States’ unabashed interests: ensuring physical and diplomatic access to African oil and gas, containing growing Islamic radicalization, and forestalling terrorist attacks on the United States -- the threat of which loomed larger as al Qaeda established a franchise in North Africa (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and Somalia’s al Qaeda–linked al Shabab became increasingly aggressive.

Until Operation Odyssey Dawn, however, AFRICOM had managed to ease Africa’s fears. The Pentagon located the command’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany -- electing to end increasingly fraught efforts to find a continental headquarters -- and AFRICOM’s biggest sustained military effort had been the benign Africa Partnership Station, a group of U.S. Navy ships dispatched for six months of the year to train African maritime forces. Its kinetic actions were limited to scattered counterterrorism efforts in Somalia. Even U.S. naval measures to thwart proliferation and Somali piracy, Africa’s most conspicuous international security problem in recent years, were assigned to the battle-tested Central Command (CENTCOM).

The command’s sole ground presence in Africa was the 2,000 troop-strong Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in Djibouti, which operated in permissive countries and through multilateral channels, and therefore constituted more of a diplomatic asset than a military one. And much of AFRICOM’s time was spent providing technical and financial support to cooperative governments and helping to coordinate training for the AU’s five regional Africa Standby Brigades -- which are intended eventually to become the continent’s peacekeeping and intervention forces. Though fitful, these efforts have borne fruit. They culminated in a two-week peacekeeping simulation held in October 2010 in Addis Ababa, which involved African security forces, AFRICOM, and European military forces. Retired Nigerian Major General Samaila Iliya, co-director of the exercise, acknowledged the urgent need for the Africa Standby Force and deemed the exercise a success.

Although regaining African countries’ trust will be difficult, it is not impossible. In Africa as in Washington, the intervention in Libya is increasingly interpreted as signifying the Obama administration’s shift from a realist foreign policy to a more idealist and interventionist one. And France’s significant military involvement in Cote D’Ivoire in April, after Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step down from power when he lost re-election triggered a bloody civil war, would tend to bolster African fears of neocolonialism. But influential members of Obama’s foreign-policy team -- including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (and his likely successor, current CIA Director Leon Panetta), national security adviser Thomas Donilon, and deputy national security adviser John Brennan -- still favor a realist approach. The administration should signal through White House and State Department policy statements that future humanitarian intervention is highly contingent on particular diplomatic, military, and humanitarian circumstances, and that the Libyan intervention constitutes neither the beginning of a trend nor a firm precedent. Secretary Gates struck the right tone during an April 8 visit to Iraq, when he said, referring to the broad political support for the Libya intervention, that “it's hard for me to imagine those kinds of circumstances being replicated anyplace else.”

Together with its post-Somalia reluctance to intervene in sub-Saharan Africa, the United States’ firm resistance to any impulse to deploy even military advisers on the ground in Libya may also provide at least partial reassurance to African governments. More broadly, AFRICOM can minimize turbulence in its relationships with them by reverting after the Libya operation to its training and support function -- and executing that better than ever. A larger budget would be required. Ramped up AFRICOM-assisted military exercises and planning programs would communicate a commitment to steady operational partnership. So would funding a long-term self-assessment of AFRICOM’s programs -- something that a recent Government Accountability Office study found that AFRICOM especially needed in order to serve the needs of its African partners. Moving AFRICOM’s headquarters from Germany to Georgia or South Carolina, as the Pentagon has planned, might also reinforce a healthy sense of distance among Africans. In word as well as in deed, the idea should be to cast the Libyan operation not as a mistake but as an exception.

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