Monday, 1 October 2007

US Africom: pros and cons

America is trying to increase its presence in Africa, expanding plans recently for an African command (no African nation has yet offered to serve as the base country for this command). In one sense, this is a further extension of American economic interests; in another, it builds on some of the good work the US is doing in Africa, apart from supplying aid. The bad side is a sort of neo-imperialism and self-interested policing, the good side of this Africom has its strengths too.

The Pentagon says Africom will allow the US to have a more integrated and effective approach to the continent.

This is a significant re-ordering of the US military, and an increased interest that can be explained in three words - oil, terrorism and instability.

As the article also states, the United States gets around one-tenth of its oil from the African continent. We have seen China increasingly make friends in the region, utilizing soft power and economic ties in a diplomatic feat that will surely prove worth the energy investment.

Where stability cannot be kept with existing forces, the already-overextended American military will step in to protect its own interests? I can see how that might not ring well with African leaders.

In Djibouti, Kenya, and other nations, the US military is working on programs to help the civilians there, which kills two birds with one stone (Africa Command), if all goes well. Programs like that help the American image and fend of support for terror as well as helping people in a humanitarian sense. There is plenty of controversy over American military bases in African nations, and perhaps it verges on imperial hegemony. But even though it can hurt the US's image and make it seem more like a militaristic, imperial power the operations seem to quell some terrorism while aiding the local population, thus lowering the chance of public support for groups like Al Qaeda. As long as the local government agrees and the US helps the people there, the pros seem to outweigh the cons.

The effort to, say, build schools and irrigation systems in East Africa (and elsewhere) is one positive military effort that deserves much more coverage in the press. Not as propaganda or pro-American patriotic support pieces, but as an expose of how the United States really is working in some places to make the world a better and more secure place. That darn civil war in Iraq is such a news hog. Humanitarian work, gaining the hearts and minds of civilians, should be a higher priority in the fight against terrorism than brute, imperial-like military force.

Somalia has been a disaster. Supporting terrorists to fight other terrorists isn't a good idea; nor is funding a government that is exacting genocide (although America has now severed ties with Sudan); or breaking international restrictions to fund a failed fight against terrorists and Islamic radicals. But building schools for the poor and uneducated, especially those who may fall susceptible to Islamic extremists? Win for the humanitarians, win for national security and wider stability. But will Africom meet the same fate due to lack of public support as other American operations? Good PR is of the essence, as are positive actions.

Happy first of October.

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