US Africa Command looks to strengthen role in region

The U.S. Africa Command is making changes that show it is taking on a vital role on a volatile continent, a shift etched in stone when it led the early weeks of the Libya military campaign.

Before Libya, the still-young command “never thought of itself as leading [offensive military] operations” said Army Gen. Carter Ham, its commander. 

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The command was established in 2008 and was long thought to be best shaped for training African nations and “building their capacity” to maintain stability. 

But the command’s first leader, Army Gen. William “Kip” Wald, believed the United States would eventually need an AfriCom that could undertake more traditional military operations, and he moved his command in that direction, Ham said. 

Ham has continued that shift, and has made it clear he intends to keep it going by, among other things, adding many more special-operations forces.

In Libya, AfriCom led the opening weeks of the operation, as U.S. and NATO warplanes and cruise missiles pounded Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. Ham said the operation showed that every U.S. military combatant command must be able to conduct “the full spectrum of operations,” which to the Pentagon includes diplomatic talks, humanitarian relief work, training of indigenous troops and combat operations.

The command had to quickly figure out how to do such things as assist with Tomahawk missile strikes from U.S. Navy ships. AfriCom officials had to bring in and manage a range of systems including fighter jets, intelligence and surveillance aircraft and aerial tanker planes.

Giving AfriCom the permanent ability to do “kinetic targeting” was one of the lessons learned. That kind of precise bombing was not something AfriCom previously had been required to do, Ham said. But the command picked it up “pretty quickly,” he said. 

“The question for us now is, how do we sustain that so that if we would have to do this again we start at a higher plateau than we were previously?” he said. 

The AfriCom chief also said he would welcome more special-operations forces to conduct a range of missions, including training African forces.

“The demand for special-operating forces of lots of different flavors is pretty significant in Africa,” Ham said. 

“I’d like more special-operations forces now,” he added bluntly. While incremental increases for now are possible, he said he would not expect larger increases until decisions on troop levels in Afghanistan are finalized. 

Ham was careful to note that U.S. special operators would mainly be conducting training missions — “not conducting operations — that’s for the Africans to do.”

Still, any talk about sustaining the ability to run a conflict as hot as Libya and increasing the number of American commandos in Africa is a shift from the Bush administration’s initial sales pitch.

Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon intelligence official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, acknowledged AfriCom is changing.

“Part of the problem is it was established for political visibility — so its initial public profile was largely political,” Cordesman said.

But AfriCom’s commanders have been forced to make changes due to developments on the ground.

“The world doesn’t exist to respond to a command,” Cordesman said. “Commands exist to respond to the world.”

And since Africa Command was set up, al Qaeda and other extremist groups such as al Shabaab have stepped up their actions in the continent, Cordesman noted.

“The question that must be answered” about an AfriCom with more in-house offensive combat power and expertise is “Will it be useful?” Cordesman said.

“If you already have it in place” when situations such as Libya lead U.S. leaders to determine a military strike is necessary, Cordesman said, “then you’re lessening the burden on the taxpayer — being pennywise and pound-foolish doesn’t get the country anything.”

The stakes for the United States in Africa are high.

For one thing, the United States is more dependent on Africa for oil than the Middle East. 

“America gets approximately 18 percent of all of its hydrocarbon imports and the majority of [other fuel sources] from Africa,” Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs, said Monday during a conference in National Harbor, Md. “Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer, supplies close to 8 percent of all the U.S. imports — a figure that’s equivalent to what we get from Saudi Arabia.”

A majority of the liquefied natural gas used on the East Coast of the United States comes from Africa, which over the next decade is expected to provide 25 percent of the oil and natural gas that the United States imports annually, Carson noted.

America’s top rival, China, has over the past decade established a presence in Africa.

In addition to the Islamic extremist groups operating out of African nations, Carson noted the naval pirates interfering with commercial ships off the continent’s shores.

“What happens in Africa affects the United States and the entire international community,” Carson said. “For all these reasons and more, President Obama has made Africa one of our top foreign-policy priorities.”

The Obama administration’s objective, Carson said, is to fashion an Africa that is “more stable” in 20 years and “more supportive” of the United States.