by Garth Celliers

"New" US policy is not all that new

The hunt for al-Qaeda still dominates.

Barack Obama
Obama main.jpg
The “new” United State (US) foreign policy for sub-Saharan Africa recently announced by president Barack Obama turns out to be not all that new. The hunt for al-Qaeda still dominates. As is the case elsewhere in the world, there is a growing belief that US foreign policy is dominated by the military. 
There are four key components in the new foreign policy strategy towards sub-Saharan Africa released by the Obama administration:

Strengthen democratic institutions;
Spur economic growth, trade and investment;
Advance peace and security; and
Promote opportunity and development.

There is, however, a growing belief that the foreign policy of the US is dominated by the military, in this instance personified by Africom (Africa Command) since its inception in 2007.

Weight was added to this view by an article in the Washington Post on14 June 2012 under the heading US expands secret intelligence operations in Africa. It details US military activities in the continent and the focus that is placed on hunting down terrorist organisations especially al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-linked organisations.

It was also recently announced that the US will soon deploy a brigade of about 3 000 troops and likely more for duty “across the continent” of Africa.

Increasingly critics agree that, “the Obama regime has turned the African continent into a battleground, where Africom is the principle interlocutor with the region’s governments and peoples”. 

Obama criticised

Under Obama, critics say, Africom has pushed aside the State Department as the primary institution of US policy and power in sub-Saharan Africa.

This creeping US military involvement carries risks. Some State Department officials have expressed reservations about the militarisation of US foreign policy on the continent. They have argued that most terrorist cells in Africa are pursuing local aims, not global ones, and do not present a direct threat to the US.

They are cautioning against a possible backlash, referring to what is happening across the Red Sea, where an escalating campaign of US drone strikes in Yemen is angering locals and generating sympathy for an al-Qaeda franchise there.

Africom’s policy

In addition to conducting year-round military manoeuvres, 14 military exercises are planned for 2012. In nearly every nation on the continent, excluding only Eritrea and Zimbabwe, Africom now handles much of what was formerly the responsibility of the State Department and other US agencies. This includes food distribution, medical aid and fighting malaria – still one of the biggest killers in Africa.

General Carter F. Ham, Africom’s commanding officer, recently explained its strategic priorities, and in the process reaffirmed the military aims, as:

Countering terrorism and violent extremist organisations;
Countering piracy and illicit trafficking;
Partnering to strengthen defence capabilities; and
Preparing for and responding to crises.
To this Ham added that “countering the threats posed by al-Qaeda affiliates in East and Northwest Africa remains my number one priority".

"In line with this new strategic guidance, we've prioritised our efforts, focusing on the greatest threats to America, Americans and American interests," he further explained.

Since the formation of Africom, the US military has always been very careful to conceal the real intentions which is putting in place a military command focussing strictly on Africa to protect and secure those raw materials, including oil, important to the US and to scare off possible adversaries, mainly China.

The spin put to Africans has always been to emphasise the assistance and aid the American military can and want to lend to Africa to help the continent become a better and safer place for its inhabitants.
In a recent testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee General Ham hinted at a change in strategy and a more direct approach in future.

He explained that Africom typically conducts relatively small-scale, non-offensive missions focused on strengthening the defence capabilities of African militaries. He then went on to say: “But there is an expectation that we must be able to do the full range of military activities. It is probably not going to be very often where Africa Command goes to the more kinetic, the more offensive operations in Africa but nonetheless, we have to be ready to do that if the president requires that of us."

Going overboard

There is already a perception that the US is going overboard in the pursuit of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups in Africa.

Questions are being asked about links drawn between al-Qaeda and fundamentalist groups from Somalia in East Africa (al-Shabaab) and Boko Haram in Nigeria to different radical Islamist movements in the Sahel. The Sahel is the semi-desert strip between the North African desert and the Central African jungles, stretching from the Atlantic to Somalia.

Many experts agree that the links are not as clear and straightforward as portrayed by the US military and Africom, starting with the Bush Administration’s War on Terror after 9/11 and continued by the Obama Administration.

“In our approach to counterterrorism, we will continue to be guided by the President’s affirmation in the National Security Strategy that he bears no greater responsibility than ensuring the safety and security of the American people. Consistent with the National Strategy for Counterterrorism, we will concentrate our efforts on disrupting, dismantling, and eventually defeating al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents in Africa to ensure the security of our citizens and our partners,” an Obama spokesperson said recently.

Coming at a price

As one commentator concludes: “In Africa, more than any place in the world, US foreign policy wears a uniform – which should leave little doubt as to Washington’s objectives in the region: Africa is to be dominated by military means.”

Put differently: “To bring the so-called war on terror to every corner of the continent and ensure that US corporate interests get favourable treatment from African governments.”

Garth Celliers
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