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An update on the “third front”

What’s the US Army doing in the Horn of Africa?

Periodically pounding the crap out of Somalia, sure, but the larger story is a bit more complicated.

You get a free pass if you hadn’t noticed that Somalia became the US’s third major front in the “war on terror”. It’s been poorly covered by global media, in part because it’s virtually impossible for American or European reporters to operate in Mogadishu. (That said, Al Jazeera English is covering the story closely, and is probably the best source for stories day to day.) As International Crisis Group’s Colin Thomas-Jensen points out in this interview with On The Media, it’s possible to cover the story from Djbouti or from Somaliland, but most newspapers don’t.

For those of you in need of a quick refresher: Somalia hasn’t had a functioning central government since 1991. There’s been a “transitional federal government”, backed by the UN and other international entities, but it wasn’t able to control the capital until very recently. For much of 2006, Mogadishu was controlled by an alliance of warlords called The Union of Islamic Courts. The UIC managed to pacify Mogadishu, but was criticized by some nations for curtailing civil liberties. Neighboring Ethiopia, which backs the TFG, was worried that the UIC would invade the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and try to create a “greater Somalia.” On Christmas Eve 2006, with US intelligence support and likely support from US Special Forces, Ethiopia invaded Somalia and installed the TFG in Mogadishu.

Unfortunately, as the US (should have) learned in Iraq, taking over a country isn’t the same thing as governing it. Most Somalis hate the Ethiopians, who they’ve fought two wars with – having Ethiopian soliders hold the capital isn’t an option. The AU has provided a small number of troops to secure Mogadishu, but they’re coming under fire from heavily armed warlords.
321,000 refugees have fled Mogadishu since February – these are people fleeing the chaos in the city after the fall of the Union of Islamic Courts, not the invading Ethiopian and US forces. The US, targetting “foreign fighters” and “Al-Qaeda sympathizers”, has launched missle attacks on Somali territory as recently as early June.

I’ve found this situation, especially the US involvement in the situation, very hard to understand as I’ve read about it over the past year. Tom Barnett‘s recent article in Esquire, “The Americans Have Landed“, provides some extremely useful context for people fascinated by the US military’s relationship to sub-Saharan Africa.

Barnett is in an interesting position to report on US military strategy in Africa. For six years, he served as a Professor in the US Navy’s War College and spent a great deal of time briefing senior Pentagon officials on the need for the military to get good at rebuilding nations, not just killing bad guys. His slide deck on transforming the military from a “leviathan” capable of conquering the Russians or the Chinese in a land war to a “sysadmin” capable of quickly pacifying “disconnected” nations and increasing stability, using both traditional forces and groups that work on reconstruction, became a highly influential book, The Pentagon’s New Map. (For more on Barnett and his work, you may find my notes on his talk at Pop!Tech in October 2004 useful, or from last year’s Pop!Tech talk.) There’s a very real sense in which the US military strategy in Africa is one that he’s recommended… which makes it a bit odd to read his report on it.

Barnett argues that the military is trying to do two things simultaneously in the Horn of Africa – pound the crap out of any Al-Qaeda-connected forces in Somalia, and build long-term, trusting relationships with the people of the countries where they have bases, notably Djbouti and northern Kenya. Needless to say, there’s a conflict between these two strategies: “There’s a lot of concern here that the establishment of Africa Command may do more harm than good – the poised hammer that makes everything suddenly look like a nail.”

The portrait Barnett paints of the US military’s efforts in Kenya is a sympathetic one – he shadows Army Captain Steve McKnight, an affable guy who appears to be doing everything right, making hundreds of friends within the local population by acting more like a Peace Corps volunteer than a warrior. But it’s his analysis of the Somali situation and the strategic logic for the military to be in Africa that’s most interesting and provocative:

After being ignored since the beginning of time (save for its slaves and its treasure), Africa just got strategically important enough for us to care about. And the Bush administration’s decision to set up Africa Command is historic, but not for the reasons given or assumed.

There aren’t enough Islamic terrorists in Africa to stand up to a full combatant command. If all we wanted were flies on eyeballs, a small number of special-operations trigger pullers would have sufficed for the forseeable future.

American is going to have an Africa Command for the same reason people buy real estate – it’s a good investment. Too many large, hostile powers surround Central Asia for the radical jihadists to expand there, but Africa? Africa’s the strategic backwater of the world. Nobody cares about Africa except Western celebrities.

So as the Middle East middle-ages over the next three decades and Asia’s infrastructural build-out is completed, only Africa will remain as a source for both youth-driven revolution and cheap labor and commodities. Toss in global warming and you’ve got a recipe for the most deprived becoming the most depraved.

You may wonder why, after two weeks of “Africa rising” blogging here, I’m now quoting a thinker who puts forth lines like “the most deprived becoming the most depraved.” The main reason is that Barnett, due to long engagement with Pentagon thinkers, is a believable source when he gives you insights into US military thinking. If most of non-celebrity America is ignoring Africa, it’s worth noting that the US military is not, if only because they’re projecting some very ugly long-term scenarios where poverty and weak governance leads to a need for military intervention.

What’s most interesting in Barnett’s article is watching him confront the challenge of implementing his vision for military transformation. To carry out the functions Barnett believes the military – in cooperation with aid agencies, diplomats and humanitarians – should engage in to strengthen nations, the military needs the trust and cooperation of the communities it operates in. But the fact that the military base houses a special operations unit – guys whose job it is to show up and kill bad guys – goes a long way towards raising local suspicion. And interventions like Somalia – all killing, no building, and carried out with as much secrecy as possible – go a long way towards eroding the sorts of relationships Barnett believes are so important to build.

11 thoughts on “An update on the “third front””

  1. You make some very interesting points, Ethan. I would add that I do not believe it is coincidental that the U.S.’s renewed interest in Africa comes just as China begins to massively invest, and otherwise expand its sphere of influence, there. You hit on what I think has to be the key question for American policymakers (and American citizens, I would hope!) in the coming decade: will Africa Command and its satellite efforts be about building long-term, mutually-beneficial relationships (in which case it better have a strong State Department component, as well as a strong military one), or will it be about asking African countries to “host” our troops as we proceed unilaterally in a manner that only benefits (or, I should say, “potentially benefits,” as we have seen how these kind of actions can backfire and end up benefitting no one) American interests? As the Clash would say …. the future is unwritten.

  2. Has Barnett mentioned at all the question of how AIDS/HIV in Africa affects the viability of local militaries on the continent? RAND did some work on this a few years back and raised some interesting questions with regard to how African militaries collapsing under the effects of the pandemic could in turn affect U.S. national security.

  3. One positive point is that AFRICOM will be largely civilian representatives of State, Justice, Commerce, etc.

    As to the point of how AIDS affects the effectiveness of militaries, a good article for that is Stefan Elbe’s “HIV/AIDS and the Changing Landscape of War in Africa” in the Fall 2002 issue of “International Security.”

  4. Good to see that we are on the same wavelength in tracking the development of the new U.S. military joint command for Africa (AFRICOM), albeit we probably bitterly disagree on whether it is a good development for Africa (& the U.S.A.) or not.

    I did a bit of research on this subject after scanning the Esquire magazine piece on June 18th and came across an interesting document from the U.S. Army War College that explains in detail what brought this new military command into being. Barnett’s piece for Esqure magazine in contrast was like reading a cheap dimestore novel (no offense meant, it’s just the way that the Esquire article came across for me). Perhaps I need to read it again now that you have presented this guy’s credentials as an experienced advisor to the Pentagon on defense strategies and foreign expedition military ops.

    Some excellent resources on AFRICOM can be found at the South African CSIS Africa Policy Forum and the Council on Foreign Relations websites. Here are the details in case you and your readers are interested:

    CSIS Africa Policy Forum (South Africa)
    AFRICOM: The U.S. Military Consolidates Its Efforts

    Council on Foreign Relations
    The Pentagon’s New Africa Command by Stephanie Hanson
    May 3, 2007

    CFR Podcast: Interview with AFRICOM transition team commander Rear Admiral Robert T. Moeller and U.S. State Department ambassador Robert G. Loftis
    The New ‘Africa Command’ by Michael Moran
    Feb 09, 2007

    U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute – Key Strategic Issues List
    African Command: The Newest Combatant Command by Lt. Col. Paul P. Cale

    Semper Fi, Marine! You are an ex-Marine, aren’t you?

  5. BRE, you do me an undeserved honor in mistaking me for a former Marine. The limit of my service to our country has been in helping USAID spend our tax dollars – I’ve not served in our armed forces, though I have nothing but respect for those who have.

    I agree that Barnett’s piece in Esquire can come off sounding overly dramatic – that’s his tone, and Esquire is emphasizing that aspect of his writing, I’m sure. But he’s a very influential thinker with a great deal of pull within the Pentagon. I was at a DoD event about two years ago, filled with senior officers, and every attendee had been given a copy of Barnett’s first book.

    (And for my readers who wonder what the hell I was doing at a DoD event, one of the positives of the American military establishment is that they frequently invite long-haired left-wingers like me to unclassified events to share our opinions on issues like African security…)

    Looking forward to reading the sources you suggest on AFRICOM. I suspect our disagreement is less bitter than you think. I quite like the approach of combining diplomatic, aid and military presence in transition countries – I just worry that in situations like Somalia we are putting the wrong foot forward and getting into bed with the wrong partners.

    As always, thanks for reading and engaging, Bill.

  6. I was just kidding about you being an ex-Marine as you well know, but it is nice that you showed respect for the rich history and high ideals of the Corps. Unfortunately not every member of our armed forces have been able to live up to the high ideals and standards that each branch has set for itself. I served in the U.S. military years ago (Air Force) toward the end of a terrible and unjust war in Southeast Asia.

    It’s good to hear that the DoD is paying close attention to what we are trying to do here in “the Sphere” and inviting our fearless leaders to conferences and seminars. The Pentagon needs to listen-up and carefully think about what people around the world are saying and writing as some of these voices will surely be a great help for the U.S. Armed Forces “to get it right” in future assignments around the globe, especially in Africa.

    I’d much rather see an American G.I. carrying a pick and shovel to help people rebuild than to see him or her carrying a weapon to kill. Any true professional soldier would feel the same way. Guaranteed!

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