U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the newest of the U.S. military's six regional commands, has rapidly expanded its presence on the African continent.
Emphasising a "3D" approach of "defence, diplomacy, and development," the White House describes AFRICOM's charge as coordinating "low-cost, small-footprint operations" throughout the African continent. Yet despite efforts to market AFRICOM as a small operation, recent reports have revealed that the command is "averaging more than a mission a day" on the continent, and has anywhere from "5,000 to 8,000 U.S. military personnel on the ground" at any given point. The US military has attempted to put a friendly face on its expedition to Africa.
New York Times, Eric Schmitt marveled at AFRICOM's Operation Flintlock, a multinational and multiagency training operation in Niger. Schmitt wrote glowingly about fighting terrorism with mosquito nets: "Instead of launching American airstrikes or commando raids on militants," he wrote, "the latest joint mission between the nations involves something else entirely: American boxes of donated vitamins, prenatal medicines, and mosquito netting to combat malaria."
Humanitarian and development missions like the ones outlined in Schmitt's article are at the forefront of AFRICOM's public relations campaign. But promoting AFRICOM as a humanitarian outfit is misleading at best. To put it simply, these projects are a Trojan Horse: dressed up as gifts, they establish points of entry on the continent when and where they may be needed.
Under the auspice of development and conflict prevention, AFRICOM regularly undertakes humanitarian projects in countries unmarked by permanent war or conflict. AFRICOM relies heavily on social media to showcase these projects and to portray itself as collaborative with African partners, dedicated to humanitarian aid, and trustworthy in the eyes of local peoples.
The command's Facebook and Twitter accounts are updated daily, and include postings on anything from participation in global humanitarian campaigns such as World Malaria Day to reports on medical missions, sound bites from local recipients of AFRICOM aid, and photos of troops distributing toys to children. Less is said about the expansive presence of American military personnel and technology on the ground and in the skies. AFRICOM conducts aerial and ground operations with U.S. troops, private military contractors, and proxy African military operatives trained and equipped by the United States.
Not surprisingly, given the ongoing U.S. interest in securing new fuel sources and growing concerns over China's influence in the region, many of AFRICOM's efforts are located in oil-rich regions – specifically Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, and the Gulf of Guinea. The Gulf of Guinea, which hugs the Western coast of Africa, has received heightened interest of late given its proximity to the Sahel and Mali, an alleged increase in pirating, and notably, both on- and off-shore oil deposits. In Takoradi, Ghana, for example – a place affectionately nicknamed "Oil City" -AFRICOM trains Ghanaian troops, conducts humanitarian missions, and meets with local chiefs, NGOs, and fishing communities. Of course, U.S. spokesmen have attempted to distance the United States from any interest in the region's oil. A recent report from the Army War College dismissed claims that AFRICOM is protecting U.S. oil interests, but nonetheless argued that private American oil companies are the "best corporate citizens that African leaders and their publics could hope for." Its daily operations and talk of "sensitising" West African nations to the idea of a permanent Marines "crisis unit" in the region make clear that a more permanent U.S. presence on the continent is its true intention.
Humanitarian projects allow military personnel to train in new environments, gather local experience and tactical data, and build diplomatic relations with host countries and communities.
As activists with Women for Genuine Security have explained, this use of relief and humanitarian aid to "further larger geopolitical and military goals" – a practice they have dubbed "disaster militarism" – is a general strategy employed by the U.S. military worldwide.
For example, a 2010 report from the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University found that in Kenya, humanitarian projects by the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, a multi-branch military operation in East Africa, provided "an entry point" to "facilitate a military intervention, should the need arise." The U.S. military's "lily pad strategy" of speckling the globe with tiny military installations small-scale troop build-ups allow the United States to establish "goodwill" with local communities, planting the seeds for larger concentrations of troops and activities later on. As Women for Genuine Security puts it, "co-mingling humanitarian relief and military operations" contributes to "civilian confusion, public distrust, and questions of transparency and accountability."
AFRICOM's humanitarian undertakings are not gestures of goodwill or conflict-deterrence, but rather the militarised U.S. approach to foreign policy in Africa.