U.S. military engagement in Africa is not a new phenomenon, but it hasn’t always been a priority. But with the rapid expansion of terrorism across North Africa and the Sahel, the continent is making headlines.
Until 2007, there was no U.S. military structure to address the increasing importance of Africa to U.S. national interests. Instead, the continent was split amongst three existing commands. U.S. European Command (EUCOM) maintained jurisdiction over 90 countries, including 42 countries in Africa. Seven countries in the Horn of Africa were under Central Command’s (CENTCOM) area of operation, and Pacific Command (PACOM) was in charge of four island nations off the eastern coast of Africa.
When Africa Command (AFRICOM) was created on February 6, 2007, President George W. Bush focused the command’s priorities on addressing the regional challenges that are unique to Africa. This included bolstering regional stability, encouraging political pluralism, enhancing the military capabilities of African peacekeepers, promoting development and economic growth, building institutions, and addressing short-term natural disasters and other crises.
Yet, AFRICOM did not come without controversy. As Heritage’s James Carafano describes:
AFRICOM has been a maligned flag. Critics complained its presence presaged a wave of Yankee imperialism, a resource war with China or militarization of American policy toward countries from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sahara.
Much of the skepticism came from Africans themselves, who former Representative Donald M. Payne (D–NJ) described as “cynical about the intentions of the United States.” Indeed, the Bush Administration provided few details on the structure and mission of AFRICOM, and how it would interact with existing U.S. presence in the region.
Nearly six years later, while some of these concerns remain, AFRICOM has served as a crucial footprint on the region to increasing situational awareness so that Washington can identify sensible, practical, and feasible alternatives for addressing U.S. security concerns without direct intervention.
As the continent becomes more of a focal point for U.S. national security, particularly combating terrorism, AFRICOM will inevitably have a large role to play. Therefore, it is crucial that AFRICOM develop the flexibility to address both its original objectives as well as emerging challenges.