April 6, 2009

HARRISONBURG—In his contribution to a symposium in the current issue of Contemporary Security Policy on “The Troubled Rise of AFRICOM,” Dr. J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University argues that United States Africa Command needs to be understood in the context of America’s ongoing security engagement of the African continent.

The discussion by more than a dozen scholars is built around a study, “AFRICOM: Troubled Infancy, Promising Future,” by James J.F. Forest, associate professor and director of terrorism studies at the U.S. Military Academy, and Rebecca Crispin, a major in the U.S. Army Reserve currently serving in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to Dr. Pham, participants included Sandy Africa, Niagale Bagayoko, Eric G. Berman, Stephen F. Burgess, David Hastings Dunn, Dan Henk, Paul Jackson, Guy Lamb, Ken Menkhaus, Laurie Nathan, and Boubacar N’Diaye.

In his essay, “Been There, Doing That: America’s Ongoing Security Engagement in Africa,” Dr. Pham defends the leadership of AFRICOM, noting that its members have “worked assiduously to overcome these inauspicious beginnings [documented by Forest and Crispin], engaging a wide variety of stakeholders to explain their now better-defined mission.” He also observes that “amid all the controversy that the establishment of the new command engendered, one would be excused for mistaking from the arguments adduced by both its critics and its some defenders that American security engagement in Africa was an entirely new phenomenon, rather than one with a history dating back two centuries.” Reviewing several major initiatives – including the Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Program and the Africa Partnership Station – the essay notes that “a vast array of lower-key engagements regularly take place between elements of the American armed forces…and African countries” and that “even with South Africa, whose former defense minister was perhaps the new command’s most vociferous public critic, these security relations continue to be cultivated, the controversies surrounding AFRICOM notwithstanding.” Dr. Pham also mentions State Department-administered efforts supported in part by AFRICOM, including the International Military Education and Training (IMET) and the Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI) programs, before examining the case study of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), currently the command’s largest presence on the continent.

Dr. Pham concludes:

The birth of the new command has not been easy. To some Africans with memories of liberation struggles still fresh in their minds, the idea smacked of a neocolonial effort to dominate the continent anew – a notion not entirely unreasonable given the history of efforts by some erstwhile European imperial powers to continually meddle in the internal affairs of their former colonies as witnessed by France’s nearly three dozen interventions in sub-Saharan Africa. Others question the long-term sustainability of the effort, recalling the cyclic nature of past American engagements. Still others, noting the increased attention paid by American analysts to the role in Africa being played by China, India, and other countries, worry about the possible polarization of the continent in some sort of new scramble between the great powers of the 21st century. All these are, of course, legitimate concerns which American political leaders – including President Barack Obama, whose election was met with genuine enthusiasm across the continent – as well as the commanders of the Africa Command need to forthrightly address. However, given the long history of the American security engagements on the continent and the continuing receptivity of many African states to those initiatives, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that AFRICOM will eventually find the welcome and acceptance that has thus far eluded it.

One of the oldest peer-reviewed journals in international conflict and security, Contemporary Security Policy promotes theoretically-based research on policy problems of armed violence, peace building and conflict resolution. Since it first appeared in 1980, the periodical’s editors have carved out for it a unique place as a meeting ground for research at the nexus of security and policy.

To read Dr. Pham’s article, click here.