U.S. Army smart power

The U.S. Army broke new ground and won hearts and minds with its U.S. Africa Command.

I absolutely love Charlie Rose. For those of you who know who I am talking about, enough said. For those who do not, he is a political and social journalist and commentator who hosts a nightly talk show of the same name on PBS.

I try to catch his program almost every weekday night as I find most of his guests intriguing and the format of the program quite stimulating compared to the increasingly mindless drivel of the likes of “Dancing with the Stars” or whatever is or is not happening with Britney Spears.

So the other night I settled in to watch Rose and one of his guests was four-star Gen. William “Kip” Ward, Commander of U.S. Africa Command.

Suggested and initially implemented by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Africa Command is a hybrid of the U.S. Army, state department and quazi-governmental agencies like USAID that look to construct “soft” and “smart” power solutions for a myriad of Africa’s problems.

Whether the issue is related to academic instruction, AIDS education, economic opportunity and expansion, mass starvation, an epidemic of malaria or helping various African countries organize and train their military personnel, this revamped type of hegemonic power is said to be tailor made for “American partners in Africa constructed from their requests and with their consent and assistance.”

The U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, will run a single command post that will answer to the Pentagon on U.S. Military relations with 53 countries on the continent with some 1, 500 U.S. troops already in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia on “anti-terror” operations in the Horn of Africa.

In September of 2007, the U.S. Senate confirmed Ward, the U.S. military’s only serving African-American four-star general, as AFRICOM’s first commander, and a delegation of senior U.S. officials traveled to Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa to help explain and clarify the concept specifically to these African nations and generally to other governments which compose the African Union.

Some skeptics of the U.S. policy have intimated that due to China’s growing economic and political ties with Africa, especially in the area of oil production and sales, this current pentagon initiative is nothing more than the strategic rehashing of old Cold War maneuvers in the never-ending international chess game for global influence and power.

Nicole Lee, who heads TransAfrica Forum – the leading African American group focusing on U.S. foreign policy on African states, said, “This is nothing short of a sovereignty and resource grab, nothing could be further from the truth than U.S. claims that strengthening its military presence on African soil will lead to greater peace and security on the continent.” Lee also went on to say, “This new Bush administration plan is an expansion of a policy that has brought destruction and terror to the Middle East.”

However, supporters see the setting up of this particular type of command with its unique makeup as something that is long overdue – not only to protect oil supplies to the United States and further counter terrorism, but also to check China’s growing influence.

According to J. Peter Pham, a security analyst and director of the Nelson Institute of International and Public Affairs, “Beyond the security concern and resource concerns, Africa is an arena for intense diplomatic competition where other states have ambitions, like China.”

“Significant opportunities” were envisioned and articulated in a 1990 national security review of U.S. policy in Africa, but a 1993 U.S. military intervention in Somalia was problematic and the Rwandan genocide a year later (in which nearly a million people were killed) left those previously optimistic strategies in shambles, forcing a “rethink” on a course of action in Africa.

Undeterred and to their credit the Clinton administration instituted an African crisis response program aimed at improving the capacity of African nations abilities to intervene in conflicts that broke out on the continent without requiring direct U.S. military troop engagements.

Since the terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, curbing the influence of militant Islamic groups in Africa has become one of the U.S. government’s major military objectives.

Additionally, the United States feared that areas of the Sahara Desert linking North Africa with West Africa could become fertile terrorist ground.

Consequently, a concerted effort has been made by the United States in recent years, mainly by contributing $500 million to the Trans-Sahel Counterterrorism Initiative, to boost the military training and capability of West African countries to deal with regional conflicts and potential terrorist attacks.

Some analysts consider the biggest worry to the United States to be the security of the oil supply. “Currently, sub-Saharan reserves account for more than 15 percent of the U.S. oil supply, and are expected to rise to 25 percent in less than 10 years,” according to the U.S. National Intelligence Council.

Other African analysts fear that an increased U.S. presence in the continent will simply serve to protect and defend regimes with questionable human rights records that are optimum for U.S. interests, as was the case during the Cold War.

While African nations slipped further and further into chaos and abject poverty, African leaders were raiding their countries’ national treasuries and treating them like their own little piggy banks.

According to Peter Egom, a research fellow at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, “U.S. military and security designs in Africa can only last if it will help bring about prosperity in the continent and not prop up corrupt and oppressive regimes.”

In responding to Rose’s question of perhaps why he was chosen to head this new command at this time, and if his being an African-American uniquely qualified him for this command, Ward replied, “I am an American who is concerned with the continued stability and prosperity of not only my country, but our African partners on the continent.”

“Through my 36 year military career, my education at Morgan State (BA, political science), Penn State (MA, political science), military training in the Infantry, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the Army War College, in addition to my tours of duty in Korea, Egypt, Somalia, Bosnia, Israel and two tours in Germany. I feel this country has helped to uniquely qualify and prepare me to serve in this capacity.”

Paul Hamilton welcomes comments at [email protected].