*A corrupted and puppet* President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti, right, welcomed United States Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, at the Presidential Palace in Ambouli, Djibouti, in April. Credit Pool photo by Jonathan Ernst
MUA MISSION, Malawi — If ever there was an example of American and African military bonhomie, it was at a recent summit meeting here over glasses of South African Pinotage and expectations of Pentagon largess.
Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, vice chief of staff of the United States Army, gave the African generals advice from his days in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Maj. Gen. Joseph P. Harrington, the head of United States Army Africa, gave a shout-out to the West African military leaders who helped prod the former Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, out of office after he lost his bid for re-election last year. Lt. Gen. Robert Kariuki Kibochi, the commander of the Kenyan Army, got understanding nods from the Americans when he made clear how much blood African peacekeepers put on the line.
But even here, among men who have been given every reason to expect that they will be receiving more money from the Trump administration, there is unease that the additional American heft may come at a steep price. Pentagon officials are themselves concerned that shifting to a military-heavy presence in Africa will hurt American interests in the long term by failing to stimulate development. An absence of schools and jobs, they say, creates more openings for militant groups.
“We have statements out of Washington about significant reductions in foreign aid,” Gen. Griffin Phiri, the commander of the Malawi Defense Forces, said in an interview during the African Land Forces Summit, a conference of 126 American Army officers and service members and their counterparts from 40 African nations. “What I can tell you is that experience has shown us that diplomacy and security must come together.” He bemoaned “mixed messages” coming out of Washington.
Actually, the message is not so mixed, foreign policy experts say. If Congress passes Mr. Trump’s proposed Pentagon budget for the 2018 fiscal year — it calls for an additional $52 billion on top of the current $575 billion base budget — the United States will spend more money on military affairs in Africa but reduce humanitarian and development assistance across the continent. The Trump budget proposes cutting aid to Africa to $5.2 billion in the 2018 fiscal year from $8 billion now, a stark drop. Even some of the money still in the Trump proposal would shift to security areas from humanitarian and development, foreign policy experts say.
“We are radically narrowing the definition of why and how Africa matters to U.S. national interests,” said J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Gone are the days, he said, when human rights, development, economic growth and humanitarian relief dominated the American agenda on the continent.
The Pentagon has not yet specified how much money will go to African militaries, but officials say there will be more of it for training programs, joint exercises and counterterrorism efforts. There may also be more funding for Camp Lemonnier, the American base in Djibouti, where visitors are greeted with a video of American and East African troops parachuting out of planes and rolling on the dirt together, to the screaming howls of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.”
The Trump administration has proposed slashing programs that buy antiretroviral drugs for people who are infected with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, by at least $1.1 billion — nearly a fifth of their current funding. Researchers say the cuts could lead to the deaths of at least one million people in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. Over all, Mr. Trump’s budget submission would reduce State Department funding by roughly a third and cut foreign assistance by about 29 percent.
Mr. Trump’s proposal would also move away from traditional development assistance programs in favor of so-called Economic Support Funds, short-term investments based on national security calculations.
The White House has yet to nominate someone for the post of assistant secretary of state for African affairs — the top administration envoy to the continent. Mr. Trump has made only a handful of calls to African leaders since taking office, and the National Security Council still doesn’t have a director for African affairs.
Mr. Trump’s secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, reinforced the view on the continent that the Trump administration puts a low priority on diplomacy when in April he backed out of a planned meeting with the chairman of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, at the last minute. The aborted meeting, first reported by Foreign Policy magazine, left the chairman fuming.
In addition, two big think tanks, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the United States Institute of Peace, are facing the complete elimination of federal funding for their Africa programs under Mr. Trump’s proposed budget.
And yet over at the Pentagon, it is a different story. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wasn’t on the job three months before he took his first trip to the continent, arriving in Djibouti on a bright Sunday in April for meetings with President Ismail Omar Guelleh. In Chad in March, American Special Forces were conducting training exercises with service members from 20 African countries.
Last month, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, was in Tripoli, Libya, in the first high-level visit by an American official since the 2012 attacks on the American Consulate in Benghazi. General Waldhauser huddled with Fayez Serraj, the leader of Libya’s new government of national accord, as the Defense Department — now the lead agency for diplomacy in Africa — wrestled with the idea of how to reach a political solution to the chaos in Libya.
And at the African Land Forces Summit in Malawi, held over two days in May, the American military spent $1.2 million flying in and housing African military leaders. The Americans hired buses to take the African commanders to their hotels and brought in National Guard and reserve officers from all over the United States to chat with their counterparts.
The American military leaders are among the first to sound alarms about the proposed cuts in humanitarian funding, worrying that the reductions could put in place conditions that lead to more conflict, which might then mean more military intervention.
In testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee this month, a long list of retired American military officers, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Adm. Michael Mullen, said foreign aid cuts hurt the Pentagon. “We are part of a long history of U.S. military leaders who have noted how much more cost-effective it is to prevent a conflict than to end one,” the officers wrote.
Or as Mr. Mattis told Congress in 2013, when he was a general overseeing American military operations in the Middle East as head of United States Central Command, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.’’
Military leaders today echo Mr. Mattis’s sentiment.
“We recognize the limits of military power, and how important it is to leverage all elements and capabilities that our interagency and nongovernmental organizations bring to bear in Africa and around the world,” General Harrington told the opening session of the conference in Malawi.
Gen. Carter Ham, a former commander of Africa Command, said in an interview that cuts in foreign aid would lead to the need for more increases in military spending. “Insecurity in Africa, which adversely affects the United States, stems in my view from loss of hope,” he said.
He offered an example: “If you’re a young Muslim man in northeastern Nigeria, and you look at your government and say, my prospects for a job are pretty slim, there’s no education or health care, and then suddenly some guy comes along and offers me money, prestige, a gun and a girl, a purpose, that becomes attractive,” he said, referring to the many young men who have been coaxed into joining the militant group Boko Haram.
On the closing day of the African Land Forces Summit, the assembled African generals listened intently as one American diplomat posed a central question.
“How do we operate in an environment when we are willing to send peacekeepers,” asked Alexander M. Laskaris, a State Department official with Africa Command, “but we’re not willing to take the steps necessary to make peace?”
Correction: June 25, 2017
An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect rank for Joseph P. Harrington, the head of United States Army Africa. He is a major general, not a brigadier general.