April 26, 2007

HARRISONBURG—In his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, calls for using the establishment of the unified combatant command for Africa (AFRICOM) as an opportunity for the United States military to develop naval counterinsurgency and other new military capacities.

According to Dr. Pham, “much of the discussion these past few months has focused on the need for AFRICOM to be different from the existing regional commands, transforming itself into a platform which integrates, in addition to the U.S. military’s unmatched ‘hard power’ capabilities, the diplomatic resources, development assistance, humanitarian relief, and other instruments of America’s ‘soft power.’” Now, however, “at least as much time and energy as have been dedicated to considering AFRICOM’s non-military, civil society engagement needs to also be allocated to considering what new military capacities need to be developed if the new entity to achieve its desired strategic effects” since “while Africa offers many opportunities found nowhere else, it also presents certain challenges for which, frankly speaking, the United States has not previously needed to cultivate the adequate capacities to successfully confront.

Citing a recently published study on al-Qaeda’s maritime threat by a researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Dr. Pham notes:

While it is not inconceivable that the attack will come on the high seas given the relative proliferation of anti-ship missile technology…it is also unlikely that any actor, state or non-state, will seriously challenge the U.S. Navy’s dominance of the ‘blue waters’ for some time to come. The Navy has also made progress towards assuring its command of the coastal waters as well with the development of its ‘littoral combat ship’ (LCS) next generation surface vessels which are designed with operational flexibility to execute focused missions in the “green waters” close to shore. However, it is unlikely that many naval engagements which AFRICOM will undertake will necessarily involve much of either of these two capacities. Rather, the likeliest challenge which AFRICOM’s naval component will be called upon to tackle will be in the “brown waters” of delta and other riverine environments.

Dr. Pham argues that despite “the special reconnaissance and direct action capabilities of a Navy SEAL team or the projects—both ‘hearts-and-minds’ and directly military-related—which Seabee units have and will undertake in the African theatre, one is at a loss as to what the Navy may bring to bear in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in places like the Niger Delta where the tactical experience and operational skills of units like Army’s Special Forces have rather limited applicability and where the firepower of the ‘blue’ and ‘green’ water naval forces is largely irrelevant.” Consequently, he suggests that “what might be needed is a new naval COIN force that can provide both security training and assistance to allies in the region while at the same time being operationally capable of undertaking counterterrorism missions of its own in the small African conflicts which may well prove to be the new front in America’s global war on terrorism,” and concludes that “the inauguration of AFRICOM…represents a unique opportunity not only to engage a heretofore largely neglected but geostrategically important region, but also an occasion to creatively cultivate some of the new capacities which will ensure our forces ultimately triumph in our ‘long war’ of the 21 st century.”

To read the full text of Dr. Pham’s article, “New Fronts Call for New Capacities,” click here.