Diplomatic Issues: A US Marine demonstrates the proper way to detain a rioter March 19 during a non-lethal weapons tactics course in Takoradi, Ghana. Experts worry that potential US troop rotations to Africa might become entangled with forces or governments connected to human rights abuses. (1st Lt. James Stenger/US Marine Corps)
WASHINGTON — When US Secretary of State John Kerry made a whirlwind tour of several African allies last week, security and stability issues were at the top of his agenda.
His visits to the heads of state in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo; and Luanda, Angola, coincided with a sharp ramp-up in US military presence in key spots on the vast continent, which has seen not only increased jihadist activity but several internal conflicts that have spilled over borders. There’s also the fallout from the Arab Spring revolts.
While Kerry discusses these weighty issues in the capital cities, thousands of US military personnel are dispersing across the continent to train and advise local forces to battle jihadists. Islamist fighters are returning from their battlegrounds and seeking to blend local grievances with their cause.
Some experts wonder whether simply training indigenous troops without other societal reforms is a viable strategy for the US.
On any given day, there are 5,000 to 8,000 US military personnel on the ground in Africa, participating in an increasing number of exercises with partners across the continent. The size and nature of the push can be seen through the experience of Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Raymond Fox, commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force, who said that when he took his current job in July 2012, there were about 150 Marines on the ground in Africa. Today, he estimates there are about 2,000.
“We have to get used to operating in Africa, and they have to get used to us,” Fox told a Washington-area defense conference on April 9.
“We want Marines to be as familiar with Africa as they are with Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “I don’t want the first time they see that place to be when they’re going in there for real. So we’re going to deliver a path where Africa sees more of us and we see more of Africa.”
Part of the reason for the increased activity is the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, allowing the Corps and the US Army to focus on other missions. Another contributing factor is the September 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The Army has since established its East Africa Response Force. The Marines have fielded an Africa-focused special purpose air-ground task force, a unit equipped with MV-22s Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and aerial refueling planes stationed in Moron, Spain.
The Marines have flown the Ospreys as far south as Senegal for training events, but “we need to move [farther] south,” Fox said.
It only makes sense he added, “assuming that Africa is important to the US and assuming there are going to be stability problems in Africa, that we slowly start operating in places like Senegal and maybe go a little farther south.”
Both Army and Marine leaders have repeatedly emphasized that they don’t do anything in Africa or anywhere else without first coordinating with the US State Department and its local country teams. But their focus on training with as many local forces as possible, in as many locations as possible, has nevertheless raised some eyebrows.
The big issue is human rights. Any military-to-military engagement must pass through congressional vetting that assures the local unit in question has not participated in human rights abuses. Yet the US is partnering with governments such as Nigeria, Uganda and elsewhere with poor histories of respecting human rights.
So respecting the rule of law “associates us with those governments, and that’s something that we should be extremely cognizant of,” said John Campbell, a retired Foreign Service officer with the State Department with multiple high-level postings in Africa.
“When you talk about [US Africa Command] involvement in the training of African militaries that are part of regimes guilty not only of profound human rights abuses, but also characterized by gross misgovernance and alienation from the people that they’re supposed to govern, that’s got consequences,” Campbell said.
While there are “legitimate security concerns, which [Africa Command] has to address, my fundamental problem with all of this is that I see the jihadist activity as directly related to failures of governance and corruption, and we end up being associated with them,” he said.
The Pentagon argues that helping to reform the military and law enforcement sectors in these countries will have a follow-on effect elsewhere.
“DoD plays principally in peace and security, but will have a role to play in the other pillars as well,” said Amanda Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs.
As terrorist groups and criminal gangs increasingly make common cause to help fund their activities, they “exploit ungoverned and undergoverned territory on the continent and in its surrounding waters,” she added. “The potential for rapidly developing threats, particularly in fragile states, including violent public protests and terrorist attacks, could pose acute challenges to US interests.”
But how to protect those interests can be a matter of interpretation. One former State Department official who asked not to be identified conceded that “the dynamic between state, defense and the ambassador in the field is very complex, and when you have defense being the 800-pound gorilla in terms of the funding that it can provide for a variety of different activities, it may be more difficult [for the country team] to say ‘no’ than what one might think.” ■