Terrorism Watch

AFRICOM at 10: Training partners is still the focus, but the fight has grown

STUTTGART, Germany — When former President George W. Bush announced the formation of U.S. Africa Command in 2007, the idea was that it would be a new, friendlier American military face: a combatant command focused more on partnerships than fighting.

“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,” Theresa Whelan, then-assistant defense secretary for African affairs, said during the command’s October 2007 start-up.

But 10 years later, AFRICOM has turned into something more like a mini-U.S. Central Command than the low-intensity, soft-power oriented Southern Command — the early model for military efforts in Africa.

The flurry of recent high-profile, hard-power measures in parts of Africa, where five servicemembers have been killed in combat in the past six months, raises questions about AFRICOM’s role as the Pentagon’s soft touch.

“I think there are things that have changed in the command, and more importantly there are things that have changed in Africa,” said Joseph Mason, AFRICOM’s command historian, reflecting on how AFRICOM has evolved over 10 years.

During the past year, AFRICOM has launched 500 airstrikes against militants in Libya and conducted more than a dozen precision attacks on extremists in Somalia, where a Navy SEAL was killed in May.

The deaths last week of four U.S. soldiers, ambushed in a sprawling but obscure swath of territory in Niger, highlights how the AFRICOM mission has intensified since the early days.

At the outset, critics and skeptics of the Pentagon’s plan to set up a headquarters solely focused on Africa warned of the dangers of a militarization of foreign policy there. Much of the early concerns, often voiced by officials on the African continent and development organizations, resulted in widespread speculation that the U.S. would move large numbers of troops to the continent to set up a new headquarters.

Compared to other regions, the military footprint in Africa remains hard to quantify because forces rotate in and out of the continent on missions. At any given time, several thousand troops operate in Africa, according to publicly released estimates.

To counter such concerns, U.S. officials during AFRICOM’s early days talked up its unique structure, which includes a staff that is almost half civilian. It also contains numerous slots for officials from other government agencies in the command structure and touts a civilian deputy to the four-star chief.

AFRICOM’s focus on “African solutions to African problems” meant the U.S. was there to help militaries in their quest to professionalize and become more effective in providing security.

“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,” Jendayi Frazer, former assistant secretary of state for Africa, said in 2007.

The effort to soften and almost demilitarize the command’s image was reflected by AFRICOM not using traditional J-code nomenclature, a system that divides command responsibilities using cryptic military acronyms. “I think it was sold that way, and there was a genuineness to that,” Mason said.

Unchanged missions

While combat operations have surged over the past 12 months, AFRICOM officials still emphasize that the essence of its missions remains unchanged — training local militaries to handle their own security concerns. Most of the original structure is still intact even as AFRICOM adapts to a new threat environment, Mason said.

AFRICOM now conducts scores of annual training events on the continent, which can range from large-scale multinational exercises to small-unit efforts focused on improving tactics. Each year, AFRICOM conducts about 3,500 exercises and training programs, according to AFRICOM boss Gen. Thomas Waldhauser.

Since 2007, “AFRICOM has made great strides … maturing into an organization viewed by many today as ‘value added’ to the challenges we face,” said Waldhauser during a recent speech to Africa policy analysts.

AFRICOM’s focus, he said, continues to be “by, with and through” African partners.

But conditions on the ground have become more fraught in Africa, and U.S. policy has changed in response, showcasing more willingness to take lethal measures as AFRICOM aligns with fragile governments in Libya and Somalia to conduct airstrikes and occasional raids.

In 2014, then-President Barack Obama set up a $5 billion counterterrorism fund for efforts in Africa, which set the groundwork for more robust operations. President Donald Trump has granted expanded authorities to AFRICOM to make decisions on when to conduct strikes in Somalia.

While open talk of combat operations was an institutional taboo at AFRICOM’s outset, AFRICOM now publicizes many of its operations, releasing tallies of strikes.

“The threats have evolved and U.S. government policy has evolved,” Mason said.

A gradual evolution

Around 2010, traditional military J codes were put in place to line up with other combatant commands, a small but notable step as AFRICOM matured.

In 2011, the Arab Spring brought chaos to Libya. AFRICOM conducted its first major combat mission there, leading the initial wave of airstrikes that helped overthrow Moammar Gadhafi. After-action reviews of the operation, however, exposed that AFRICOM wasn’t structured to lead in a crisis. Numerous reforms were made, including the establishment of a new joint operations center at AFRICOM’s Kelley Barracks headquarters in Stuttgart.

Efforts to assemble a more agile headquarters were on display when AFRICOM helped coordinate the U.S. response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia, which involved the mobilization of about 2,800 U.S. troops, Mason said.

In 2012, the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, highlighted other holes in the command, which didn’t have forces in close enough proximity to conduct rescue operations on a diplomatic facility targeted by militants. In response, AFRICOM has set up small outposts scattered around the continent, where troops can be mobilized and rotated during a crisis. Today, there are about a dozen such facilities, including two in Niger, where the U.S. has about 800 troops, according to AFRICOM.

Meanwhile, during the past year, the resurgence of al-Shabab in Somalia and signs of the Islamic State in Libya have been AFRICOM’s primary focus. In Libya, a U.S. air campaign conducted over several months late last year helped local forces push militants out of a key stronghold in Sirte. AFRICOM officials continue to monitor the region and have promised more strikes will be carried out as needed.

“Our mission statement describes our three main tasks: to build defense capabilities, respond to crisis, and deter and defeat transnational threats,” Waldhauser said. “As you might expect, the last of these, to deter and defeat transnational threats, is something we focus a good deal of our attention on.”

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