In recent testimony to the United States’ House Armed Services Committee, the soon-to-be-replaced commanding officer, General Carter Ham, was upbeat about the accomplishments and the future of the US Africa Command (Africom), now in its fifth year of existence. But most African states, including South Africa, are still sceptical about Africom’s real purpose and are questioning its motives.
Africom, Gen. Ham claimed, is bringing “markedly increased” capabilities to its mission of defending US interests and developing regional militaries in Africa.
He explained that Africom focuses on five major areas: countering violent extremist organisations; strengthening maritime security and countering illicit trafficking; strengthening defence capabilities; maintaining strategic posture; and preparing for and responding to crises.
Countering terrorism, he said, is Africom’s highest priority and will remain so for some time.
Gen. Ham’s explanation has been reiterated by his successor. “Countering violent extremist groups” will be the “first priority” of Africom, said Gen. David Rodriguez, until most recently the day-to-day commander of US forces in Afghanistan.
“A major challenge is effectively countering violent extremist organisations, especially the growth of Mali as an al-Qaeda safe haven in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gen. Rodriguez does concede, however, that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram “have not specifically targeted the United States”.
Instead, they have “carried out attacks on Western interests and engaged in kidnapping”, he said and warned they would be an “even larger threat” if they “deepen their collaboration”.
Confirming a continuation of current policy, Gen. Rodriguez indicated that “training” foreign militaries would be the primary tool by which Africom operates. But, as a result of drastic cuts in US Defence spending, the approach will require some adaptation. “What the budget constraints are going to cause us to do,” he said, “is to take a much sharper prioritisation to our military-to-military engagements in Africa. There are some exercises and other training opportunities that we have been doing in past years which, frankly, will probably fall by the wayside.”
The general African-held view is that Africom’s paramount objective is to serve and protect American interests, particularly unrestricted access to natural resources including oil.
US demand for imported energy may, however, become less important if latest reports are true that the US is on the brink of tapping into its own huge shale gas reserves, set to change its dependence on external resources radically. And, as new gas fields are discovered across the globe (East Africa and the eastern Mediterranean are among the more recent new discoveries), there are alternative sources to the traditionally volatile Gulf of Guinea and Middle East.
More controversial, but denied by the US, is the allegation that Africom was set up specifically to thwart any Chinese inroads into Africa.
Gen. Ham refuted such suggestions, restating that Africom's general objective is to protect US interests in Africa and not compete with other countries that have taken military interest in the continent, such as China.
"We are competing for economic position and influence, but I don't see competition in a military way. I wouldn't see it as adversarial relations; it's more economic and diplomatic relations," he said.
The presence of US troops stationed and operating from African soil has always been a contentious issue and the US has been at pains to explain that it will respect the wishes of African countries in this regard.
Djibouti remains the only base in Africa with a significant US military presence.
This, however, has not prevented most African militaries from participating in and benefiting from military exercises with the US. In fiscal 2012 alone, the US was scheduled to participate in roughly 350 military-to-military ‘engagements’ and training exercises across Africa, including South Africa – one of Africom’s fiercest critics.
Gen. Ham nevertheless admitted that while Africom appears to have a good relationship with east and west African countries, southern Africa is the region where Africom had the least success. The US government is yet to successfully change the hostile attitude that some Southern African Development Community countries have against Africom, particular South Africa.
"There remains a high degree of scepticism within South Africa," Gen. Ham said. "And we, too, believe in an African solution for Africa, but we think we can help. When invited by governments, we think we can work together well."
The outgoing Africom commander added, however, that the organisation respects South Africa's position on the presence of US forces on the continent.
He said that although the US has "not officially" succeeded in changing South Africa's attitude, Africom has "a good relationship" with the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).
As recognition of the healthy military-to-military relationship between Africom and the SANDF, the official homepage of the US Army recently reported on a visit in February by SANDF officers in preparation for “Shared Accord 13”, a joint peacekeeping and humanitarian exercise scheduled for July.
SANDF days of dominance numbered?
Africom regards the SANDF as one of its key strategic partners in Africa because of its capability and South Africa's influence in Africa, but time will tell if and when the US may start looking elsewhere in the region for partners as the military ability of the SANDF comes more under scrutiny.
Some media reports are suggesting that the days of South Africa’s military domination in the region may be numbered. Military specialists are warning that an inadequate defence budget and ageing weaponry are eroding South Africa’s military superiority.
Equally worrisome is Angola, with its own regional aspirations, which has just surpassed South Africa as the country in sub-Sahara Africa with the biggest defence budget; in the last two months, on at least two occasions, an Africom delegation visited Angola to identify possible areas for increasing military co-operation.
The recent setback in the Central African Republic (CAR), when South African troops deployed to prop up the regime of President Francois Bozizé – under the guise of helping to keep the peace – were attacked and killed by rebels branding them as mercenaries, is a further blow to the image of the SANDF.
It should not come as a surprise if the new leadership at Africom starts paying less attention to the SANDF as the best-choice ally in southern Africa, and begins looking at other options.