Africa on the brain in the Pentagon

From their perspective, Africanists working in the Pentagon have always found Africa interesting. It’s the rest of the Defense Department that’s just realizing how interesting, it seems.

“Yeah, a lot of things have happened in the last year,” said a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke with The E-Ring on Wednesday about African issues facing the Defense Department. With a French military incursion into Mali, terrorism spreading, Somalia struggling for a foothold, and narco- and arms trafficking across West Africa, among other security concerns, the U.S. military has plenty to worry about.

“But we -- like I said, we’ve always thought Africa was plenty interesting, and a lot of these things were similar issues you would have seen, being an Africanist, before, but are sort of coming to a head,” said the senior official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, one day before four African heads of state were scheduled to visit the Pentagon and then meet President Obama at the White House.

Today, the administration means to showcase four African nations -- Malawi, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Cape Verde -- where it says democracy has fostered security and vice versa. It’s the second such event; in 2011 the White House highlighted Benin, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea.

The Pentagon has its hands full elsewhere, however, trying to restart or build new relationships with military officials in countries upended in Arab awakening movements, especially in Tunisia and Libya.

“Everything is sort of new to the Tunisians and the Libyans, certainly,” the official said. “We’re new to them and some of them are new to us.” For DOD, those relationships tend occur between officials from Africa Command or through military attaches.

The good news: “I think on some level the relationships have gotten even better and stronger than they were previously, because you have a more open environment in which to have truly strategic discussions with these partners,” the official said. “Which is only a good thing. It can feel a little slower at first, I think. And I think it can look at little slower from the outside.”

The bad news: “In Tunisia and Libya, unfortunately right now we’re on such limited staffing at the embassies…that has an affect on our ability to work on programs and projects with our partner,” the official said. The practical result is that training and exercises the U.S. wants to get started are stalled. “It does unfortunately impact our ability to do more, faster.”

Next week, AFRICOM’s Gen. Carter Ham passes the flag to a new commander, Gen. David Rodriguez, who is well known after serving as the second-ranking commander of the Afghanistan war, running its day-to-day operations. With the change could come a higher public attention to how many U.S. boots are on the ground in Africa and their mission to train and advise African security forces.

The official stressed the U.S. has no large presence or expanded bases in Africa, to avoid either a perceived or actual “militarization” of Africa. But even though news accounts of secret drone bases, special operations units, and other quiet DOD involvement have become increasingly common, the official said the U.S. is still operating as a welcome partner.

“The military-to-military relationship is so important because we know there is sensitivity on the continent to a U.S. military presence. And so any places that we do have -- we only have one base, and that’s in Djibouti -- but any place that we do have sort of rotational presence, we always want to make sure that the country that we’re working with is comfortable with that,” the official said. “Comfortable publicly and comfortable privately.”