As of October 1, 2008, every square inch of land on Earth has the attention of a dedicated United States military command.
The United States military is split not just into branches - like the Navy and the Army - but also into unified combatant commands, which have responsibilities for operations in a given region and encompass forces from all of the branches of the military. The one we hear most about at the moment is United States Central Command, or CENTCOM, which has responsibility for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are also combatant commands covering Europe, Latin America, the Far East, and home defence. And now, the final piece of the jigsaw has been added: United States Africa Command.
The creation of the command has been met with scepticism across the African continent. No African nation agreed to host the headquarters of the new command, and it has been placed in Germany for the "foreseeable future". African leaders worry that the creation of the command is not aimed at their best interests, but rather to offset the growing influence of China in Africa and to assert some control over Africa's oil supplies. Meanwhile, U.S. officials say that the aim of the new command is to prevent wars, not fight them. Whose assessment is truest to fact remains to be seen.
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The Pentagon became genuinely interested in Africa for the first time in history after 9/11. One of the main lessons that military planners took home from that event was that they no longer had to focus on the next war with a major superpower - euphemistically dubbed The Big One in the defence establishment - but on parts of the globe which had previously been viewed as entirely marginal. These marginal areas - like Afghanistan, Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, and Africa - were redefined as potential hotbeds of terrorism and associated criminal activity. And while we are all familiar with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, a much less talked about aspect of the war on terror has been the Pentagon's involvement in these areas by other means - training indigenous security forces, providing military aid, and intervening with Special Forces.
All of these things happened across Africa in the aftermath of 9/11. By 2002, 1,500 U.S. forces were stationed in the small nation of Djibouti, their mission to train local security forces to conduct anti-terror operations. They were also sometimes conducting strikes into Yemen against al-Qaeda members. From 2006 onwards, they also became involved in confrontations with the notorious pirates off the coast of Somalia, trying to clear the sealanes for the delivery of UN aid to the stricken country and prevent the pirates from acting as a funnel to terrorist groups in the Horn of Africa. The troops have also conducted humanitarian missions across the region, such as assisting civilians after floods.
Further west, the U.S. established what would eventually become the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative. This group focused on the Maghreb, the mainly Arab countries at the top of the African continent, but also countries like Nigeria and Chad which straddle the Sahara. Here, the self-proclaimed al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb has been a longstanding threat to regional states, especially Algeria, and has kidnapped and killed Western tourists. Again, the U.S. focus here was on training local forces to defend themselves, and helping out with surveillance and intelligence. U.S. forces also helped to battle drug trafficking, which was a major component of funding for terrorist groups.
These prominent initiatives were the most noticeable of many training operations being conducted by the U.S. military across the continent, and they were for the most part unobjectionable. After all, they were carried out in partnership with states who had invited U.S. forces into the region. But a possible foretaste of slightly more controversial actions came in 2006, when Ethiopia invaded Somalia to overthrow the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist militia which had brought a measure of stability to the country but was suspected of ties to al-Qaeda. The U.S. backed-up Ethiopia's invasion with air strikes, naval patrols and intelligence-gathering, including the use of Special Forces on the ground. This precipitated another round of bloodletting in Somalia, a price considered worth paying to prevent the country falling under the sway of an Islamist government.
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On the surface, the creation of the Africa Command is designed to integrate all of the training, counter-terrorist and intelligence missions that the U.S. military is conducting across Africa into one unified command. This is common U.S. military practice across the world and allows for the proper co-ordination of a strategy across an entire region; before, African operations were split between three of the other combatant commands. For now, Africa Command is merely an upgrading of the control structure, and there are no plans for new U.S. bases in Africa. But what worries African countries is not so much the more efficient continuation of current activities, but what might happen in the future.
The creation of the Africa Command has symbolic repercussions because it means that the U.S. military is now officially interested not just in the northern part of the continent, whose proximity to the Middle East and Europe has always made it an object of interest, but sub-Saharan Africa as well. Sub-Saharan Africa has been of little interest to the U.S. ever since the end of the Cold War, and for several decades now subsequent U.S. administrations have reduced aid to countries in the region and turned a blind eye to developments like the genocide in Rwanda.
But with the next U.S. administration likely to make ending America's dependence on Middle Eastern oil a top priority, Africa's oil supplies are taking on a new importance. By 2015, it is predicted that the U.S. will import 25% of its oil from Africa, which is even more than comes from the Middle East. This oil comes from places that are not famed for their stability, like Nigeria, Sudan, Angola and Equatorial Guinea. These countries are likely to become objects of strategic cultivation in the future as developed countries jockey for oil supplies, whereas their crucial position in global energy supplies will make them favourite targets of terrorist groups. The U.S. wants to promote stability in these countries and build their capacity to defend themselves and keep the oil flowing, a process similar to the one that unfolded across the Middle East after it became central to the West's energy supplies.
Finally, after the desire to combat international terrorism and secure oil supplies, there is the matter of growing Chinese influence in Africa. China has recently become Africa's third-biggest trading partner, and nearly a million Chinese are working in Africa. China has proved itself willing to work with African countries that the U.S. considers beyond the pale, such as Sudan, and has made significant inroads as a result; its interest in Sudanese oil, which prevented it supporting a meaningful intervention in the genocide in Darfur for so long, is especially notorious. China and the U.S. will be engaged in competition for access to Africa's raw materials for some years, and the Africa Command could well eventually act as a framework for interventions to promote U.S. economic interests, and denigrate those of China.
For now, much of what will happen under the rubric of the Africa Command can only be speculated about. But the message that the establishment of the command sends is clear: the U.S. is interested in Africa now, and this interest is going to be durable. The logic of our shrinking world - from its threats such as international terror to opportunities such as new oil resources - has sucked in Africa, the final frontier of military globalization. Whether the world's newfound interest in occurrences all over the African continent will prove to be good or not for Africans - or for the rest of us - remains to be seen.