Liberia Doesn't Need AFRICOM
The author was Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, president of Liberia since the beginning of 2006 (and Africa’s first woman president). Her country’s story is that all too familiar one of coups and corruption that, in the Cold War era, U.S. administrations ignored in the quest for countries whose leaders could be bribed to oppose the Soviet Union. Liberia was an early recipient of the Reagan administration’s “low-cost” strategy of using military equipment and training as inducements to win support for U.S. policies.
But there was a potential “problem” of sorts; Liberia throughout the 1980s was ruled by former army Sergeant Samuel K. Doe who seized power in a bloody coup in 1980. Initially popular with the majority of Liberians, Doe also courted Washington and was rewarded as foreign assistance rose from $20 million to $96 million by mid-decade. But Doe’s rule became increasing brutal and his regime more corrupt – just as the end of the Cold War loomed and the U.S. cut back foreign and military aid. Unfortunately for Liberia, Doe’s death at the hands of one of many armed opposition groups did not end the mayhem. By the time the 13 year civil war ended in 2003, an estimated 250,000 Liberians had perished and the country was in complete ruins. With UN and other assistance, over the ensuing 12 months, 100,000 former fighters were demobilized and 28,000 weapons recovered and destroyed.
Given this history, one might think that Liberians would shy away from spending for military re-armament when so much still has to be done in the way of economic redevelopment and rebuilding civil society. Indeed, in her May opinion piece, President Johnson-Sirleaf herself unequivocally states that all the efforts being made to rehabilitate Liberia and reconcile Liberians with each other “will come to naught if the international trade in weapons is not controlled.”
Not so, it appears – at least if one only reads the U.S. State Department’s Internet site. It speaks of the desire to build “a professional, apolitical military” that would be one of the “cornerstones for building a stable and democratic Liberia.” Moreover, “standing up a reformed and professional Armed Forces of Liberia is part of the exit strategy for the U.N. Mission in Liberia.” To this end, in 2005 the U.S. exported nearly $96,000 worth of military equipment and services to Liberia and provided almost $3 million under the Foreign Military Finance program. The 2008 security assistance funding request for Liberia is now up to $16.8 million.
But there is more going on. This October 1, the Pentagon will formally “stand-up” a new unified regional military command: U.S. Africa Command or AFRICOM. For the first year, AFRICOM will be working in parallel with U.S. European Command or EUCOM, the regional command that currently is charged with “overseeing” events in sub-Saharan Africa. At the end of 12 months, AFRICOM will be fully functional. The question is “where.”
So far, none of the countries that have been approached as possible sites for a 1,000 strong forward headquarters have been willing to even entertain the idea. Most have been in the Maghreb – the tier of Muslim countries that comprise the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea from Tunisia to Mauritania. Any among this northern tier would be close to the band of weak or failing states that comprise the so-called Sahel, the area south of the mountains that delineate the Maghreb. East African countries bordering the Red Sea, and Gulf of Aden out into the western Indian Ocean, while willing to train and work with U.S. forces and the UN, have also turned away enquiries seeking space for a regional command headquarters.
Now, the Pentagon has turned its attention to another part of the continent – West Africa. The area in question extends from Cote d’Ivoire south and east around the “hump and then further down the coast. It is not only an active (and potentially expandable) source of petroleum (U.S imports 5% of its daily consumption from Nigeria), the intense violence that breaks out from time to time in the oil fields is the consequence of traditional criminality than terrorism sponsored or directed by groups claiming to be affiliated with Osama bin Laden..
So we are back at Liberia. Only now Johnson-Sirleaf is suggesting that Liberia would be just the place for the new Headquarters on a self-help basis along the line of “the Lord helps those who help themselves.” Yet if Iraq demonstrates anything, it is that in the 21st century, the very presence of U.S. nationals, especially armed soldiers in military uniform or official civilian representatives almost invites violent extremist activities – and does so with little if any regard for the lives of non-Americans who become “collateral damage.”
AFRICOM is to be different, according to the Pentagon, as it will do much more than train, equip, procure, conduct military exercises, and watch for infiltration by extremists and capture or kill any who enter countries cooperating with the U.S. One of AFRICOM’s core missions, on a par with military missions, is to coordinate with other U.S. departments and agencies a long term or “sustainable” development program aimed at lifting Africans out of poverty and war by helping them help themselves.
But if this latter is the goal, why is the Secretary of Defense creating a geographical unified command that will be the focal point instead of the Secretary of State increasing the size of the African desk in Washington, adding more African specialists to USAID both in Washington and on the African continent, and pushing for all non-defense agencies to fully staff all U.S. embassies? Africa is evolving its own standing security forces under the African Union as well as sub-regional peacekeeping organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States or ECOWAS. And while these need equipment and training, that can be done with less controversy and suspicion under the aegis of the UN.
If Washington really wants to change how foreign policy is implemented, it might start by not re-dividing the globe into military fiefdoms. During most of the Cold War, Africa was in turmoil because the two superpowers used it for proxy wars. The Bush administration sees Africa today as one more battleground in the “global war on terror.” Africa has had more than its share of terror in the 20th century thanks to the tons of weaponry poured into the continent’s civil wars. Yet when left to themselves, the countries of West Africa, including Liberia, declared and enforced a moratorium on small arms imports. And it worked.
Liberia doesn’t need more soldiers or the new weapons they will bring. Africa doesn’t need a new U.S. command to watch over it. If Bush wants to rearrange the world, I know a continent that could use help: Antarctica.
After all, as the ice floes melt, someone needs to rescue the penguins.