If there is one good foreign policy decision Congress has made over any other in the past 20 years, it is arguably its investment in building up the U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM. All but shutting down AFRICOM, which the Trump administration is considering, would be one of the worst decisions it could make this year, although it’s a crowded field. Which is why it was heartening when reports surfaced this week that those mooted Pentagon plans are meeting with strong headwinds in Congress. As always with the Trump White House, it’s anyone’s guess whether logic will ultimately prevail or what surprise will come next.
Even as rumors swirled of looming Pentagon cuts to AFRICOM, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Addis Ababa this week during a three-country tour of Africa, was giddily touting to African leaders the benefits of doing business with America, while warning of a dark, authoritarian future for those countries that do business with Russia and China instead. Only a few weeks ago, the Trump administration imposed a new visa ban on citizens from Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa and its largest economy, as well as Tanzania, Sudan and Eritrea. One hand takes, one gives and yet another takes away again—it’s no wonder Beijing and Moscow make for such attractive partners for so many leaders in Africa. While Pompeo promised “true liberation” and real opportunities for cooperation, some in the audience in Ethiopia’s capital had to be thinking, Is he for real?
While Trump’s chief defender in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, denied he told Defense Secretary Mark Esper that he would make his life “hell” if the Pentagon tried to zero out AFRICOM, the fact that shrinking the only viable means of keeping an ear to the ground in hotspots like the Sahel and West Africa is even on the table speaks volumes about the disarray, yet again, in Trump’s foreign policy. It took Congress a decade and several hundred million dollars to stand up and sustain a dedicated combatant command headquarters focused on Africa, and it took nearly a decade more for the roughly 1,500 American personnel who staff it to establish real operational value. The question now as the Pentagon conducts the last leg of its “zero-based budgeting review” over the next month is whether the lack of a coherent national security policy on Africa blows wider American grand strategy entirely off course.
There are many good reasons to be skeptical about the value of extending a U.S. military mission born in 2007 amid the fever dream that was the Global War on Terror. The deadly ambush on U.S. Special Forces in Niger in 2017, and more recently the al-Shabab attack on a Kenyan airfield that left three Americans dead in January, all bring to mind vivid reminders of the 2012 Benghazi attacks and the many failings of U.S. foreign policy across the continent. Yet, even in this emerging era of American restraint and disaffection with endless wars, it is critical that Congress keeps AFRICOM going, because this small and able operation is likely to be a value-add and then some for a long time to come.
Regardless of who ends up in the White House come next January, a credible American defense strategy needs to meet the world where it is and where it is going next. By the end of this century, Africa will be home to nearly half the world’s working-age population. By 2050, the continent’s population is expected to double, according to the OECD, and it will have the largest concentration of megacities in the world, eventually outranking Asia by some estimates. Mineral-rich and saturated in rare earth commodities that are ironically critical for the world’s growing green economy, Africa is likely to move to the center of future geopolitical struggles between the U.S. and its chief global rivals, Russia and China.
AFRICOM is the main means of collecting intelligence on how Russia and China are positioned in one of the fastest-growing regions in the world.
To be clear, U.S. military resources are not and should not be the be-all and end-all in Africa. If anything, the big lesson learned from crises like the Ebola outbreak in 2014, when AFRICOM provided critical support to Liberia and other West African countries, is that the U.S. needs to be more forward-leaning and innovative in its crisis-response on the continent. The help from AFRICOM was timely and likely welcome, of course, but as some have pointed out, the militarization of aid can pose real risks not only for stability but for the long-term viability of U.S. security assistance.
At the same time, if history is any guide, sustained American investment in Africa’s burgeoning economies and long-term trade partnerships will likely be accompanied by some level of expansion in the realm of military cooperation. The smart move would be to double down on policies and tools that help America’s African partners promote real security sector reform and more robust anti-corruption measures that boost the power of civilian agencies embedded in AFRICOM. Instead of clipping AFRICOM’s wings, the Trump administration would do well to invest more heavily in beefing up the Treasury Department’s ability to track illicit networks tied to the extraction of natural resources across Africa. Many of those networks are directly tied to Chinese and Russian state enterprises, so it’s a win-win from a strategic perspective.
Anyone who has ever spent any time at the Pentagon knows that there is no dearth of good idea fairies haunting the halls of the “E-Ring,” the building’s outer ring that houses the most senior officers and their planning staffs. But whoever is lining up behind the idea of killing the main means of collecting intelligence on how Russia and China are positioned in one of the fastest-growing regions in the world probably should redirect their energies. As I’ve repeatedly noted in this column and as has been reported elsewhere, the threat from Russia in Africa should be particularly concerning for those daydreaming about the miniscule sums dedicated to sustaining AFRICOM.
For now, it’s good to know that despite the zombie-like thrall that has overtaken the Republican-dominated Senate, at least some Trump allies are prepared to push back against a foreign policy apparatus gone haywire. Still, that might not be enough to save the United States from another shift toward permanent drift under Trump.
*Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.