US Strategic Approach to Africa
Donald C. Bolduc
Strategic Concerns in Africa
The recent tragic event in Niger has brought attention to the US presence in Africa (especially that of USSOF). This attention which highlights the “why we are in Africa now”, serves as a useful point that we are there because we have interests. The point that is not very well explained is the importance of Africa and why it matters and why we have diplomatic, military, and other government agencies supporting our African partners and other members of the international community. Given the lessons learned from 9-11 on preventing attacks on the homeland and US interests abroad, supporting our allies and protecting US personnel and facilities overseas should be enough to justify our presence in Africa; however, there are additional reasons why the United States should be involved in Africa and why Africa matters. Rather than politicize an event, we must understand why Africa matters and resource the effort appropriately.
The purpose of this paper is to address these issues. To do so, it will first address the strategic and operational challenges that Africa poses for the US. It will then discuss the US strategic and tactical approaches toward these challenges on the continent. Last, it will conclude with an outlook for the future.
The Challenges of Africa for the US Government
Africa matters because an unstable Africa is not in the world’s best interest. To keep Africa stable will require a long-term international effort and the United States has interests that require our involvement. Our African partners and the international community will look for our leadership and resources to support this effort.
What will an unstable 21st century Africa bring the world??? It has brought destabilization and security issues in Europe, the Levant and Middle East, Asia, and South America. Due to weak civil administration and weak local governance in many African countries, Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) have established safe-havens and sanctuaries, to organize, conduct operations, and control territory. This has allowed the VEOs to train, organize, equip, and support their operations, recruit and provide fighters to other areas of the world, and create socio-economic and development issues in many African countries. Given there are 10 of the 14 Department of State designated VEOs effectively operating in Africa this should be a huge concern to the United States.
The following additional reasons (root causes) are significant and will continue to destabilize Africa across their security and non-security ministries, local civil administration, socio-economic development, and their ability to deliver goods and services to the populace. In Africa, the international community and the United States, will continue to face significant humanitarian, refugee, health, population, resource, and socio-economic issues that will de-stabilize the continent and require our involvement. I estimate that with unstable governance, population growth (including a youth bulge), and humanitarian, pandemic, security, education, and employment issues, the international community has about 15 years before the violence by VEOs in Africa is the least of our worries and day to day survival over lack of resources will create unimaginable violence on the continent.
Finally, it is China’s, Russia’s, North Korea’s, and Iran’s interests in Africa that merit the United States’ concerns. Their interests are largely strategic relationships, access, oil, precious metals and stones, and minerals and have little to do with support to African partners. Their approach differs from our approach and makes it easier for African countries to get what they more quickly with no strings attached. It should be noted, that it was my experience our African partners would rather work with the United States, but our bureaucratic requirements make it easier to obtain what they want via other countries.
The current and looming threat in Africa is not just an African problem. The problems in Africa have significant global ramifications that threaten our homeland, US interests, our African partners, and our international allies and friends. By the existence of these strategic issues there are military operational issues that emerge. The military is only a small part of the broader solution, but nonetheless very important to the success of our African partners.
The operational importance of Africa runs across a full spectrum of military missions, operations, activities, and actions. It is both top down (national-level) to bottom up (local-level). These issues are comprehensive and require a whole of society approach that addresses the root causes of instability. The root causes create problems for the populace and provide time, space, and opportunity for VEOs to operate. One of the shortcomings of the operational approach in Africa is the environment, which is volatile due to the political, economic and security environment, and threat factors. It is uncertain due to the impact of these factors on the drivers of instability. It is complex due to the past and present global effects on governance, economic development, and security in Africa. Finally, it is ambiguous because of a lack of clear policy, strategy, and the variety of interpretations of the Africa problem set.
The VEO threat operates in a nonstate, trans-regional and trans-national, decentralized, and dispersed operational construct, exploiting and exacerbating instability in Africa. The threat survives in ungoverned and under-governed safe-havens and sanctuaries created by ineffective governance resulting in a population that has lost hope. The threat often has outside support, controls the populace, exploits asymmetric approaches, and leverages information operations to promulgate its ideology and implement its will. We assess that African partners are best able to address these threats through integrated campaigning, characterized by effective commitment, cooperation, and coordination of their military operations in support of a broader political strategy that recognizes that regional problems require regional solutions. Countering this threat to create opportunities for a comprehensive approach (whole of society) is in the common interest of U.S. policy objectives and those of our African partners.
The operational threat emanating from the Greater Middle East (including North Africa) is eroding the institutional framework of Western security. Migrants fleeing the instability in the Greater Middle East threaten to destabilize the European Union (EU), the United States’ number one trading partner, and further undermine the stability of the European Union and the existing political order in the EU’s component countries. When we look at security threats posed by our adversaries it is essential to assess where on the spectrum of conflict they elect to take the actions to undermine the institutions and structures that create our overwhelming strength. In the future it’s reasonable to assume our adversaries will continue to challenge the U.S. and its allies in a similar manner below the threat of full-scale armed conflict. Transnational security threats are most difficult to combat where national institutions are weakest, where people are poorest, and conflicts most enduring. Strong governments and leaders and economically viable societies are less likely to provide terrorists and drug traffickers with material support, safe havens, or a gullible following. In countries where governance fails, poverty prevails, and strife is the norm, we risk seeing whole countries, even regions, grow more vulnerable to the influence of our most dangerous adversaries. Therefore, we must invest in regional partnerships with African countries along with our allies to combat these global threats before they become more pernicious and pervasive.
Approach to Africa
The policy process to determine US strategic objectives in Africa are defined by National Security Council staff through an established interagency process. This process results in tasks being assigned to the appropriate department for coordination with the Department of State (DOS), the Ambassadors and their country teams, and our African partners. It also results in objectives that are then developed into plans that focus broadly on security, socio-economic, development, and governance concerns. The DOS then translates those into an engagement strategy, in large part driven by the Ambassador’s Integrated Country Strategy (ICS). AFRICOM receives a request for support from the DOS and begins a staffing process with OSD, JS, Military Services, DOS, the country team, and the African partner to develop a responsible and appropriate military support plan integrated with the appropriate interagency partners. This is a very comprehensive process that results in DOD approval and tasking of AFRICOM to conduct the operation, mission, activity, or action require to support the African partner and the Embassy goals and objectives.
AFRICOM then conducts their mission analysis and determines the appropriate service component (SOF, Army, Marine, Navy, Air force or combination of all) to assign the mission. This is done through planning orders, tasking orders, and execute orders outlining the mission, resources, funding, authorities, and other mission specific requirements. The component then turns this into operations orders and plans to support the assigned task. In addition, there is an international coordination process with our international military partners to ensure full integration of resources and complementary effects in support of our African partners. The tactical level units translate their actions into Concept of Operations (CONOPS) which is an established process to gain approval to conduct missions. In AFRICA, this runs the full spectrum of Special Operation Force missions. As of 29 June 2017, SOCAFRICA was conducting 96 missions with 886 supporting tasks, in 28 African countries with approximately XXXX SOF personnel. The final piece of this is congressional notification and the supporting of member visits, congressional delegations, and staff delegations as part of their congressional responsibilities to the American public. The policy environment in Africa that has resulted from this approach to date is characterized by both clear policy guidance in West Africa and the Sahel and unclear policy in North, Central, and East Africa. Further complicating this environment is the fact that the United States is not at war in Africa, but the partners we support are. In addition, the problems in Africa defy solution within a single fiscal year, or the two to four-year tour of a Geographic Combatant Command commander; such change will require at least a generation for a policy to become effective. These aspects of the situation in Africa have proven challenging for the US strategic policy process to address, with the end result being the absence of a coherent strategy to address the root causes of instability in Africa and the competition for strategic influence and relationships by the likes of China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. My view is that we must use a strategy based on a goal of SUCCESSFUL GOVERNANCE as a baseline and building to GOOD GOVERNANCE as an enduring solution.
In Africa, I describe the operational environment as the “Gray Zone.” Our personnel must understand and operate in the space between war and peace in a complex, volatile, uncertain and ambiguous environment — an environment of “adversarial competition with a military dimension, short of armed conflict” referred to as the “Gray Zone.” Operating in this environment requires a human-aspects focus and long-term, integrated campaigning where gains may be measured in inches. We must possess patience, be persistent and support our partners through presence. By the request of our Ambassadors and our host nation partners the foot print must be small, capable of supporting partner units in remote areas, dispersed over large geographical areas, and flexible enough to support a wide range of situations.
To support tactical level operations in Africa, it requires a regional approach and mission command construct that supports flat communications, decentralized authorities, and distributed command and control construct that is underpinned by a responsive logistics, air, and communications support construct. A key component to this framework is nested key leader engagements and relationships conducted at all levels. This supports transparency with all stakeholders and a regional comprehensive approach with a focus on understanding that we are connected by our partners and the threat, and one that leverages the SOF-Conventional force integration, our allies, and coalition partners to compliment and expand capacity. This framework is designed to effectively support our tactical level unit operations in the Gray Zone.
Everything we do at the tactical level is intended to build the right capability and capacity, trust and interoperability, effective teams, and develop long-lasting partnerships. Our engagements support bilateral and regional relationships to address regional security problems. U.S. Chiefs of Mission manage these relationships and play a critical role in strengthening military-to-military relationships. This allows us to work effectively in a Title 22 led environment as a member of a larger team that is led and directed by the Department of State through the country teams as directed in National Security Presidential Directive 44 (NSPD 44).
We must not replace our partner’s will with U.S. capability and capacity. Instead, we must enable our partners to conduct responsible and appropriate military operations. This approach enables and builds capability and capacity in our partners without the United States encumbering responsibility for the fight, allowing us to be in the position to better support them so that they own the problem, own the fight, and own the solution. All too often, civil administration lags behind military successes and creates a gap that exceeds military capability and capacity, negatively affecting the populace, local government and development. We need to figure this out as an international community; the solution is neither military nor unilateral. If people have no hope for the future, no job, no education, and poor government, they will find something to do (i.e., be subject to extremism/crime).
Africa may be the best example of a true Gray Zone environment anywhere in the world. The complex, volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous environment we are tasked to operate in presents challenges that have no military solution. Getting to ‘good governance’ across Africa will require a comprehensive, multidiscipline, multi-agency and multinational approach — this will be a generational problem set. For our tactical teams, understanding the full spectrum of the problem, the challenges ahead and the nature of our partnerships with African nations will guide our operations in this direction for decades to come.
Outlook in Africa
At the strategic level, the question about Africa is not “if” Violent Extremism will take root, rather how much will entrench on the continent, and how much the world is willing to risk by allowing it to occur.
Partnership and cooperation can prevent the acceleration of instability in Africa. Military forces will play a significant role, but they are not the solution. Initiatives should not only focus on countering VEOs, but building security capabilities of African partner nations, and fostering long-term resolutions through diplomacy and participation of inter-agency partners. It is only through a comprehensive, international effort focused on building functional governance from the national to local levels, that stability will be achieved.
Socio-economic development will be critical to inhibiting the activity and influences of VEOs on the populace. Studies indicate ideology is not a driving factor for support to violent extremism in Africa. Polling data from Nigeria (a region plagued by both Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa branch) suggests that Islam is not driving recruitment– rather, unemployment rates are a more predictable driver of support for VEOs. Analysts also suggest a correlation between the presence of USAID programs and lower levels of support for VEOs.
Similarly, civil administration is vital for enabling enduring security. Local police are an essential link in maintaining local security to protect the populace. The establishment of local security will legitimize the government, allow for the establishment of government services and assistance from international organizations and NGOs to address education, health, and humanitarian assistance because of conflict.
Furthermore, the international community and the U.S. government will need to relook current organizational constructs to be able to support the development of national to local governance in conflict affected regions in Africa. Current approaches are not working, and the lack of a comprehensive approach will only support VEO objectives and goals.
Tactically, we owe the service members and civilians we send to Africa more than we are giving them to do their operations, missions, activities, and actions. We owe them more experienced leadership, the right authorities, improved medical support, better logistical infrastructure, more air support (ISR, fixed and rotary wing), dedicated lift assets, personnel recovery assets, and a coherent strategy that supports the way we need to operate to successfully support our partners. Our tactical level units are supporting programs to train and equip, assist civil military operations, assist their information support operations, provide intelligence training, land, sea, and air platform equipping and training, public affairs training, institutional training, and advise, assist, and accompany support. If it was not for their creativity, imagination, initiative, and experience there would ZERO gains in Africa.
Overall, we are on a time line of about 15 years to get this just about right. Failure to do so will have significant impact on the stability in Africa and negatively impact Europe, the greater Middle East, South America, North America, and coastal security in the Mediterranean Sea, Gulf of Guinea, and East Africa.
Over the years we have witnessed the devastation at the hands of an extremist ideology. This violence will pale in comparison to the devastation brought on by day to day survival and competition for resources in an unstable environment. This is why Africa matters now. An unstable Africa is not in the best interest of global stability.
Author’s Note: This article is derived from the following: 1. Chairman’s Forward to the National Military Strategy. 2. Department of State Strategic Plan 2014-2017 3. Department of State Integrated Country Strategies 4. United States AFRICOM Theater Campaign Plan 5. United States Special Operations Command, Special Operating Forces Operational Concept “A White Paper to Guide Future Special Operations Force Development” 6. Special Operations Command Africa “Gray Zone Defined” 7. Special Operations Command Africa “Foundational Documents” 8. Joint Concept for Human Aspects of Military Operations, Oct 16 9. DRAFT Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning as of Apr 17. In addition, I would like to thank Jon Schroden, Eric Schmidt, Thom Shanker, Matt Maybauer, Jami Forbes, and Sharon Bolduc for their assistance in the development of this article.
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