8 Mar 2021

Repositioning AFRICOM’s significance to Biden’s Africa policy

Ahmad Askar
8 Mar 2021

Repositioning AFRICOM’s significance to Biden’s Africa policy

Ahmad Askar

In January, the United States of America’s decision to withdraw its 700 troops from Somalia sparked a debate over the US Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) future. The decision was linked to the expected shifts in the US security policy toward Africa under Joe Biden and the challenges the US faces in the region. These developments may lead to either an expansion of AFRICOM’s role and the support provided to it or a decline in its engagement as part of a new strategy to reduce US troops in Africa and the Middle East, pivoting them to east Asia instead.

Organizational and logistical structure

AFRICOM was officially created on February 6, 2007, after the US Congress approval, and became fully operational in October 2008 under Gen. William Ward’s command. Its area of responsibility covers all of Africa except Egypt, which is part of the US Central Command (CENTCOM). [1]

After African countries expressed reservations about an American base on the continent for fear of American interference in their internal affairs and sovereignty, the US decided that AFRICOM would be headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. It is one of the 11 unified combatant commands of the US Department of Defense worldwide and the sixth regional command center after World War II. [2] It is responsible for all US military operations, training, and security cooperation with African countries.

AFRICOM has 2,000 assigned personnel, including civilian, military, federal, and contractor employees. About 1,400 work at the command’s main headquarters in Stuttgart. It also has liaison officers posted at African organizations, including the African Union and the West African States Economic Community (ECOWAS).

In 2018, AFRICOM head Gen. Thomas Waldhauser informed Congress that the US troops’ total strength in Africa is about 7,500 compared to about 6,000 in 2017. Most of these troops operate from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which is used as a staging ground and command center for special operations missions across Africa. [3] This is besides the 700 US troops in Somalia stationed before Operation Octave Quartz and withdrawn in January following President Trump’s decision. [4]

Components​ of AFRICOM: [5]

  • US Army Africa: Operates from Vicenza, Italy, and conducts security engagement with African forces to promote regional security and stability.
  • US Naval Forces Africa: Headquartered in Naples, Italy, its mission is to improve the maritime security capability of African partners.
  • US Air Forces Africa: Located at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and conducts sustained security engagement and operations to promote air safety, security, and development in Africa.
  • US Marine Corps Forces Africa: Located in Stuttgart, Germany, and conducts operations, exercises, training, and security cooperation activities throughout Africa.
  • Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa: Headquartered at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti and performs functions in the region to enhance African nations’ capacity, promote regional security and stability, prevent conflict, and protect US interests in the Horn of Africa.
  • US Special Operations Command Africa: Located in Stuttgart, and aims to build operational capacity, strengthen regional security and capacity initiatives, and eradicate violent extremist organizations in Africa.

AFRICOM and Africa

Africa has been at the center of Washington’s security and military policy over the past two decades, especially following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At the time, the US declared a global war on terror. Former President George W. Bush’s administration decided to rely on a security mechanism that would ensure a long-term US military presence in Africa, reflecting the American interest in the continent.

In light of security challenges posed by the spread of terrorist organizations in Africa over the past years, Washington realized the continent’s strategic importance. To deal closely with vital issues threatening US interests in Africa, Washington decided to engage with Africa by creating AFRICOM. [6]

AFRICOM plays a pivotal part in the US foreign policy objectives in Africa. Its primary mission is to ensure security in the continent, build defense and crisis response capability of African nations, and deter transnational threats. This mission provides military training programs for African militaries. It promotes coordination and cooperation between the Pentagon and African countries to make them more efficient in combating terrorism and achieving security and stability. [7]

Some observers attribute the creation of AFRICOM to the bureaucratic difficulty of coordination and distribution of tasks related to Africa between the US European Command (EUCOM), the Central Command (CENTCOM), and the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). Other goals are related to ensuring security in Africa and securing access to its natural resources and wealth, particularly oil, and containing the growing influence of other major powers such as China, France, and Russia.

AFRICOM has five defined priorities:

  • To engage with African partners to achieve regional security;
  • To counter terrorist threats and organized crime;
  • To ensure a strong Washington influence in the continent;
  • To establish a more enduring presence in strategic parts of the continent; and
  • To protect the American interests in the continent.

In 2019, AFRICOM revised its campaign plan, emphasizing six priorities:

(1) To strengthen partner networks;

(2) To enhance partner capability;

(3) To develop security in Somalia;

(4) To contain instability in Libya;

(5) To support partners in the Sahel and the Lake Chad region; and

(6) To set the theater to facilitate AFRICOM’s day-to-day activities, crisis response, and contingency operations. [8]

AFRICOM supports security and military programs and operations it sponsors in East Africa to enhance African countries’ security capability and strengthen their military combat capability in the face of security challenges, such as [9]

  • Operation Observant Compass – As part of this program, the US military advises and assists missions to enable African militaries to counter the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army.
  • Exercise Cutlass Express – This is an East African maritime exercise focusing on counter-piracy, counter-narcotics, and illegal fishing. It facilitates information-sharing and coordinated cooperation among international navies.
  • ACOTA program – This program allows military trainers and advisors to empower Africa Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) operations.
  • Exercise Africa Endeavor – This is a communications exercise focusing on interoperability and information-sharing among African partners to develop command, control, communication tactics, techniques, and procedures that the African Union can use to support peacekeeping operations.

AFRICOM includes the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, a dynamic operational headquarters effectively countering extremist organizations in East Africa. It was established in Djibouti in 2002 and works with countries of the region, coalition forces, and international organizations to support partner nation military operations in East Africa in fighting terrorism, including by providing military training. [10]

Biden’s Africa strategy

Although the issue of terrorism in Africa has not received enough importance in Biden’s election campaign, [11] the gravity of challenges facing the US in Africa, in general, and East Africa, may force his administration to pay more attention to terrorism and security. The US administration faces many challenges in Africa, including China and Russia’s growing influence in the continent and securing the flow of oil and strategic resources from Africa.

The rising activities of some terrorist organizations in the region have raised fears in Washington that Al-Qaeda offshoot, Al-Shabab, could attack the US military base in Djibouti as it stuck the Simba base at Manda Bay in Kenya in 2020. The group leader, Abu Ubaida, called for attacks against Americans wherever they are, bringing back to mind Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war against the US in 1996. [12]

In addition to these challenges, Iran’s activities in Africa also threaten American and Western interests. In February 2021, Ethiopian authorities arrested 15 people accused of attacking the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Addis Ababa. According to The New York Times, the attempt may have been part of Iran’s larger plot to target Israeli, American, and Emirati embassies in Africa as revenge for the assassination of former Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. [13]

These challenges provide a strong drive for the Biden administration to strengthen the role of AFRICOM to protect and advance the US interests in Africa. Statements by US military officials indicate that AFRICOM will remain in the region. AFRICOM Commander, Gen. Stephen Townsend, said that troops are not withdrawing from Africa and are still committed to supporting African partners in building a more secure future. More importantly, they are still capable of targeting Al-Shabab. AFRICOM spokesman Christopher Karns said that troops withdrawn from Somalia would be redeployed elsewhere in East Africa to continue their tasks as before. He said that the US would retain the capability to conduct counterterrorism operations in Somalia and the region. [14]

Further, the backgrounds of some of Biden’s top aids suggest their preference for military intervention in Africa to combat terrorism. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is inclined to display a tough line against China. He strongly supported former President Barak Obama’s administration in taking measures against Syria, and called former President Trump to support military action in Libya. [15]

The future of AFRICOM in East Africa

The future of AFRICOM in East Africa depends on the Biden administration’s position toward counterterrorism in the continent, which is not yet explicitly clear. However, military officials’ statements and some future projects for AFRICOM in East Africa suggest that it will continue to support African nations and conduct military operations against terrorist organizations.

The American pullout will limit AFRICOM’s operations against Al-Shabab and prevent it from tracking the group’s activities. Also, the absence of combat-ready troops to deal with escalating terrorist activities in East Africa may allow Al-Shabab to expand in Somalia and elsewhere in neighboring countries. It may also enable ISIS to increase its activities in the region and threaten international and US interests in East Africa. Moreover, Washington does not want to leave a security gap that China and Russia could utilize. The US expansion of its counterterrorism operations would strengthen Biden’s efforts to restore his country’s leading global role and further reassure its African and European allies.

Washington is well aware of East Africa’s importance as a region where major powers compete for influence. China seeks to maximize its economic interest and expand its military presence in the region through its military base in Djibouti. In contrast, Russia aims to find a foothold there through military cooperation agreements and arms deals, all of which threatens US influence and strategic interests in Africa.

There are several indications that AFRICOM will continue its war on terror in East Africa. It was evident in Africom Commander Gen. Stephen J. Townsend’s statement before the US Senate, saying a secure and stable Africa remains an enduring American interest. The National Defense Authorization Act 2021 calls for greater support to AFRICOM. Moreover, Congress approved the addition of $38.5 million to the Pentagon’s request for $239 million for the center in 2021. [16]

Since 2020, AFRICOM has also been pushing to expand its bases in the region. In September 2020, The New York Times reported that the command is pressing for new authorities to carry out armed drone strikes targeting Al-Shabab in eastern Kenya, potentially expanding the war zone across the border in the Horn of Africa. [17] AFRICOM numbers show the command conducted 50 airstrikes against ISIS-Somalia and Al-Shabaab in 2020, 63 airstrikes in 2019, 47 in 2018, and 35 in 2017, [18] reflecting its persistence in fighting terrorist organizations in the Horn of Africa, especially after the Pentagon announced improved plans for fighting Al-Shabab on November 25, 2020. [19]

AFRICOM continues to provide mission training for militaries in East Africa, such as Somalia’s ‘Lightning Brigade,’ which will last until 2027. [20] Somalia’s Danab special forces consist of 1,000 troops, and AFRICOM aims to expand it to 3,000. Danab units are now operational in four Somalian states, and they conducted 80 percent of the Somali national army’s operations in the fourth quarter of 2020 against Al-Shabab. [21] This underscores AFRICOM’s critical role in addressing Somalia and the Horn of Africa’s security threats.

AFRICOM also plans renovations and upgrades of American bases in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel between 2021 and 2025. AFRICOM’s internal documents, released in October 2018 and published by the Mail & Guardian, discuss the 12 projects for American bases in Kenya, Djibouti, and Niger. These constructions are estimated to cost $330 million, most of which have been earmarked for seven projects in Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti over the next four years. [22] The documents also note that Washington’s use of Chabelley Airfield in Somalia will continue until May 2024, with an option to extend for 10 years. Also, about $34 million is planned to be spent on renovating the US outpost in Manda Bay, Kenya, and improving the facilities to accommodate 325 personnel. [23]

Activities and movements of AFRICOM’s officials in the region indicate its growing presence and role. Gen. Stephen Townsend visited some countries, such as Somalia, Kenya, and Djibouti, several times. During his last visit to Kenya in December 2020, he promised to offer security assistance by professionalizing the Kenyan military forces, increasing its counterterrorism and border security capabilities, besides increasing peacekeeping capabilities and maritime security. [24]

Following that visit by Gen. Townsend, the US Naval ship USS Hershel arrived at the Kenyan port of Mombasa on February 8, 2021, to support US troop deployment on the east African coast. This move confirmed the US commitment to Kenya and Africa’s security and stability and demonstrated the growing strategic partnerships and US commitment to African countries through interoperability training in maritime security and safety. [25]

AFRICOM director of intelligence, Heidi Berg, visited Sudan on January 27, 2021, to hold a series of meetings with Sudanese officials to foster cooperative engagement and expand the partnership on several issues, including terrorism. Sudan seems to be a staging point for Biden’s policy toward Africa to undercut the Chinese and Russian influence, expanding massively in recent years. Things also changed after Russia struck a deal with Sudan in 2020 to establish a naval base at Port Sudan on the Red Sea, allowing the country to station up to 300 personnel there. Before this, Russia and Sudan concluded a security and military cooperation agreement in 2019 for seven years allowing Russian warships and warplanes to use Sudanese airports and seaports. [26]

These indications come within an unsettled regional context of the Horn of Africa, which has witnessed numerous challenges in recent times, some of which are as follows:

  • The ongoing conflict in the Ethiopian region of Tigray and its global and regional impact, particularly the worsening humanitarian crisis and increasing displaced and refugees fleeing to neighboring countries.
  • The heightening Sudan-Ethiopia dispute over the border area of Al-Fashaqa has the potential to develop into a military confrontation.
  • The deadlock has continued on the Renaissance Dam crisis between Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia. The three parties have failed to reach a binding agreement, with Addis Ababa insisting on completing the second stage of filling the dam in June 2021.
  • Somali Al-Shabab’s terrorist activities have spread into neighboring countries, such as Kenya. This blurs the Somali security and political scene, seeing intense polarization between political rivals due to disagreement on holding the next general elections.
  • The severance of diplomatic relations between Kenya and Somalia in December 2020 adds more tumult to an already shaky situation in the Horn of Africa.

These unsettled regional circumstances pose a severe threat to US strategic interests in the region. It necessitates a strengthened US role to create a stable regional environment and end existing tensions. The situation also demands preventing ambitious international powers, such as China, Russia, and Turkey, from seizing the opportunity to fill the security gap at the expense of the American influence in the region.

Washington will remain committed to its security responsibilities toward East Africa and Somalia, including preserving regional security, continued surveillance, intense pressure on Al-Shabab, and promoting mutual interests with regional partners. Given the rising security and strategic challenges in East Africa, the region’s AFRICOM mission is unlikely to end anytime soon.

Conclusion

Overall, AFRICOM remains an essential instrument of US policy toward Africa, in light of the developments taking place in the region, the increasing international competition over the continent, and many international actors, such as China and Russia, which are strong US rivals. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing global economic downturn, indications suggest that AFRICOM will continue to carry out its mission in East Africa, particularly combating terrorist groups and supporting partner nations’ military capabilities.

References:

[1] Al-Sayyid Khalid Al-Tazani, “US Military Deployment in Africa: Motives and Stakes,” Centre for Arab Unity Studies. [in Arabic]. https://bit.ly/2NXiu6Y

[2] Ibid.

[3] Katie Bo Williams, From Small Wars to Great Power, Trump’s Africa Reset Could Change US Military’s Role, Defense One, 12/12/2018: https://bit.ly/3dAlb9b

[4] James Mc Donnell, Cooperation, Competition, or Both? Options for US Land Forces vis-à-vis Chinese Interests in Africa, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. Washington, June 2020: https://bit.ly/3bvpvnK

[5] United States Africa Command, about the command: https://bit.ly/3sSUNMd

[6] Al-Sayyid Khalid Al-Tazani, op. cit.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The United States – from counter-terrorism to great power competition in Africa? FOI Memo 6817, Project No. A11904, August 2019.

[9] United States Africa Command (US AFRICOM), devex: https://bit.ly/3qWfUwu

[10] AFRICOM, Action on Armed Violence, 7/12/2015: https://bit.ly/3aLivDO

[11] “Biden: War in Yemen has to end … and we will support Saudi Arabia in defending its security”, CNN Arabic, February 4, 2021. [in Arabic]. https://cnn.it/3aRNT3N

[12] Eric Schmitt and Abdi Latif Dahir, Al Qaeda Branch in Somalia Threatens Americans in East Africa — and Even the U.S, The New York Times, 21/3/2020: https://nyti.ms/37CABGn

[13] Tzvi Joffre, Iran attempted to target embassies in Africa in revenge attacks – report, The Jerusalem Post, 15/2/2021: https://bit.ly/2ZKBacQ

[14] Robert Burns and Howard Altman, Trump orders most American troops to leave Somalia. AFRICOM says they are redeploying elsewhere in region, Military Times, 4/12/2020: https://bit.ly/2ZDvzoJ

[15] Nihal Ahmad Al-Sayyid, “Reshuffling the cards .. will US security policy toward Africa change during Biden era,” Al Mesbar Studies & Research Center, February 22, 2021. [in Arabic]. https://bit.ly/3sG2rtx

[16] John Vandiver, AFRICOM set for budget boost; says troops pulled out of Somalia will stay in East Africa, Stars and Stripes, 7/12/2020. https://www.stripes.com/news/africa/africom-set-for-budget-boost-says-troops-pulled-out-of-somalia-will-stay-in-east-africa-1.654441

[17] Eric Schmitt and Charlie Savage, US Military Seeks Authority to Expand Counterterrorism Drone War to Kenya, The New York Times, 15/9/2020: https://nyti.ms/3sjMwRq

[18] Kyle Rempfer, US forces pack up in Somalia for elsewhere in east Africa, Army Times, 21/12/2020: https://bit.ly/3pDOMRG

[19] “Congress approves an increase in AFRICOM budget to fight terrorism in Africa,” AFRIGATENEWS, December 13, 2020. [in Arabic]. https://bit.ly/3koXNgA

[20] Diana Stancy Corell, AFRICOM predicts mission training Somalia’s ‘Lightning Brigade’ will last until 2027, Military Times, 17/3/2020: https://bit.ly/2ZHyz3m

[21] Cara Anna, ‘Why now?’ Dismay as US considers troop pullout from Somalia, Military Times, 26/11/2020: https://bit.ly/3skdxUQ

[22] Pentagon to Expand Its Infrastructure in Africa, New Africa Daily, 15/5/2020: https://bit.ly/3aI9onu

[23] Nick Turse, Exclusive: The US military’s plans to cement its network of African bases, Mail& Guardian, 1/5/2020: https://bit.ly/3pPMsan

[24] Anthony Kitimo, East Africa: US Naval Ship to Boost Safety in the Region, All Africa, 16/2/2021: https://bit.ly/2P8gzx1

[25] Why US Naval ship docked 1,000KM from Uganda, Nile Post, 12/2/2021: https://bit.ly/2MlLmW8

[26] Amani Al-Taweel, “Biden’s messages to Africa,” Masr 360 website, February 10, 2021. [in Arabic]. https://bit.ly/3koFzvq

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