The command’s main mission is to build the security capacity of partner nations throughout the continent, Vicki Huddleston, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, said in a recent interview. The command also works with the African Union and other regional alliances.
“All this folds into the administration’s commitment to democracy, overall stability and to working with Africans as partners,” said Huddleston, who has extensive experience in Africa, having served in Mali, Ethiopia and Madagascar.
On the threat side, the command works with African nations on common security challenges, which she said “are generally coming from nonstate actors.”
The two areas of most concern are the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region, the east-west band that stretches along the southern border of the Sahara desert, Huddleston said.
Al-Qaida is operating in Somalia and in Algeria. Somalia is a classic failed state, and the piracy along its coast is only one manifestation of that. Al-Qaida is operating in the country, and indications are that Somali members may try to export terrorism from the area, she said.
In the Sahel, al-Qaida in the Maghrab is believed to be responsible for thousands of deaths in Algeria. The group moves between that country and safe havens in ungoverned parts of the Sahel, she said.
But Africom is about more than just countering threats, Huddleston said. The command works with the United Nations and the African Union in Sudan and Darfur by providing logistics and transportation to peacekeepers in the region.
“You can’t have secure environments — for democracy, education, health, development, or for opportunities for individuals — if you have failed or failing states,” Huddleston said. “We need to assist states as they try to build out of conflict.”
Liberia is a prime example, she said. The West African nation is recovering from a brutal civil war. Africom experts are in Liberia to help train the military, not just on combat skills, but also on human rights and the meaning of having civilian control of the military, Huddleston said.
“This also includes working with their civilian leaders so they understand how they should relate to the military — what they should do, how they should do it, and how they can control and give political guidance to their military,” she said.
Accomplishing the command’s mission requires a joint effort with the State Department, which trains police and needs more resources in countries recovering from civil war, Huddleston said. “It really calls on the State Department and [Defense Department] to work together in a particularly integrated fashion through the National Security Council, and we’re doing that,” she said.
Southern Africa — with the exception of Zimbabwe — is a bright spot on the continent, Huddleston said. South Africa’s military and police are respected and professional. Angola is doing well as are other nations in the region, she said. The command’s work with these countries involves professional development and exchange programs.
The command has placed more resources on the continent. “I see more military personnel doing more things and more different things than four years ago,” Huddleston said. “I think that it is sometimes difficult given the priorities — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq — but there are more resources than were there under the three commands that formerly had responsibility for the region.”
The command’s priority is building relationships with the governments of the continent, as well as nurturing regional relationships.
Many of Africa’s problems are regional. The AIDS/HIV epidemic knows no boundaries. Drug and human trafficking are transnational scourges and will require cooperation among a number of different nations to erase. Terror groups will operate where and when they can, Huddleston said.
But Africa is improving, she said. “Two-thirds of the states in Africa are making progress,” she said. “That means one-third isn’t making progress, and that’s what we concentrate on.”
The command had a rough go of it on the continent when plans for the command were first announced. Huddleston thinks much of that criticism has blown over. “African nations are coming around in regard to Africom,” she said.
The nations appreciate the civil-military teams that help local governments dig wells, hold clinics and build infrastructure. “I felt a strong buy-in from the leaders in Africa,” she said. “I still think there is a hesitancy about the command’s motive in some areas.”
President Barack Obama addressed some of that hesitancy during a visit to Ghana last month. “Our Africa Command is focused not on establishing a foothold on the continent, but on confronting common challenges to advance the security of Africa, America and the world,” he said.
The command allows the Defense Department to pay more attention and deliver more aid to the continent, and leaders are seeing this, Huddleston said.
“What I would like to see next is that we could work closely within the regions,” she said. Peacekeeping forces are needed throughout the continent and regional brigades are particularly effective. The Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, provided peacekeepers in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, for example.
A goal of the African Union is to build-up these regional brigades, Huddleston said. “If you look at Africa, the first responders to these crises are these regional brigades –- ECOWAS in West Africa, the regional units in Somalia,” she said. “I believe that’s a harder piece. I think we have to do more and better particularly when we look at the issue strategically.”
The United States would like to see more security cooperation with foreign partners — Britain, France, Spain and the European Union. “We also need to work more closely with the United Nations,” she said.
The Africom partnership looks to make improvements that are in the strategic interests of Africa and the United States. “They reflect our national security priorities: threats, genocide, failed states and illicit activities,” she said. “On the other side are prevention activities, and we must provide for those and fulfill the three Ds of U.S. policy in Africa: development, democracy and defense.”