Growing US security presence in Africa allows safer investments

Growing US security presence in Africa allows safer investments

Recent years have seen an increased US presence in Africa, a presence marked by its distinctly military component. Due to the economic rise of sub-Saharan Africa, but also due to geopolitical considerations and the threat of terrorist groups, this US ‘step towards Africa’ is a positive development for growing investment in the continent.

Recent news of a possible coup attempt in South Sudan has further drawn attention towards political instability and conflict in Africa. The not wholly unexpected development occurred shortly before an unannounced visit by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to the Central African Republic (CAR). The visit by a high level official known for her close ties to President Obama comes following Obama’s pledge of 100 million dollars to assist ongoing French efforts and troop deployments to the CAR in the hopes of preventing genocide.

While the extent of the commitment by the United States towards the CAR remains to be seen, the event underscores a growing US security presence. Indeed, while the U.S. ‘pivot to Asia’ has gotten its fair share of coverage, a more gradual but equally important ‘step towards Africa’ has also taken place. With much recent talk about rising economic prospects on the continent, it is important to consider both why and how the United States is choosing to extend its considerable military power and what this may mean.

In 2012, 7 of the 10 worlds’ fastest growing economies were in Africa. Major companies such as General Electric have dramatically scaled up their investment in various infrastructure and other long-term projects. Multiple forms of energy from Africa have also grown in importance to the US. Indeed, according to the IMF, sub-Saharan Africa has grown at an average rate of 4.8% over the last five years during the very height of the international fiscal crisis. FDI grew from 6 billion in 2000 to 34 billion in 2012. The growing investment into big agriculture in countries like Ethiopia and Mozambique by a variety of other countries has also undeniably increased the importance of the continent in the global economy.

While the reasons and prospects for growth vary considerably by country, such investment reflects a greater degree of confidence in African countries and a move away from a narrative that has long consisted almost solely of war, famine, and instability. Yet the last three items still factor in considerably when looking for explanations behind perceptions of growing US interests.

Geopolitical calculations and the continued threat posed by terrorist groups further account for a growing role for Africa in US security calculations. Recent events such as the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi underscore the longterm viability and danger posed by resilient terrorist groups such as al-Shabab of Somalia, which many had previously underestimated.

Following the 2011 bombing of a UN compound in Abuja by the terrorist group Boko Haram, recognition of the threat posed by violent non-state actors in Africa has grown, albeit belatedly. After that particular event, a US Congressional committee prepared a report in which evidence was presented of growing ties by these groups to Al Qaeda and other high-profile terrorist organizations. Boko Haram itself was labeled an ‘emerging threat’ as a result of the Congressional Committee’s investigation.

In addition to these growing terrorist threats, ongoing moves on the massive continent by geopolitical competitors such as China create a further need for an increased role by the US to maintain a degree of influence in the region. All of these not inconsiderable factors have resulted in important changes to US military posture.

The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) was established in October of 2007 and became fully operational as an independent military command in late 2008. With the stated goals of deterring and defeating transnational threats, preventing future conflicts, supporting humanitarian relief, and protecting US security interests, the establishment of a separate military command by the United States is important and significant.

In addition to growing attention and increased resources, the establishment of AFRICOM gives US policymakers greater flexibility and availability to respond to potentially destabilizing events and crises that could harm US and global economic and security interests. The US military presence is varied with multiple drone bases and estimates of thousands of troops in at least 19 different locations. Generally, the security presence has focused on human security and has acted in more of a supporting capacity for state security.

By working delicately with state governments and allowing other agencies such as the State Department and USAID to play important roles, AFRICOM has thus far succeeded in not antagonizing many of its partner countries. Some US forces are working with local governments in hunts for war criminals such as in the CAR, others in Mauritania and elsewhere are providing medical aid and training, some are engaged in anti-piracy operations off the coastlines, with the largest base in Djibouti housing 2,000 U.S. troops.

Indeed, early reviews have thus far been positive and bode well for security essential to development. The US Navy’s African Partnership Program has succeeded in improving security conditions for maritime commerce. Similarly aspects of Operation Enduring Freedom Trans-Sahara (OEFTS) such as the Flintlock system have worked to shore up essential communication and infrastructure within 25 countries. Given that AFRICOM was first proposed as an idea in 2000, this is a remarkable degree of growth and cooperation that reflects the growing level of importance with which Africa now factors into US policymakers’ decisions.

Increased US presence in Africa is an extremely positive development. While many find it laudable that the United States is increasingly devoting resources to preventing genocide and conflicts, it is undeniable that such growing attention, be it diplomatic, political, or economic, requires an essential military component and security presence. It is also important to remember that the depth of that commitment is far from clear as US interests on the continent do not run deep and the history of incidents such as Mogadishu in 1993 offer a cautionary tale to an American public increasingly skeptical of such involvement.

Yet, by assisting nations in Africa, prospects for greater stability can be increased, thus helping to ensure better results for many of the large-scale investments currently underway, as well as encouraging future investments during what is clearly a critical time for developing countries on the continent.

About Author

Sean Durns

Sean Durns worked as a research assistant to a former high ranking Pentagon official and the Director of National Security Strategies at a DC based think tank. His analysis has been referenced by a variety of media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Roubini's EconoMonitor, OilPrice, and many more. He holds a M.Sc. in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics where he focused on US foreign policy, security studies, and energy security.