May 23, 2007 | 02:00 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: AFRICOM and U.S. Military Priorities in Africa

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
The Nigerian militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which has shuttered one-third of Nigeria's oil output with attacks since December 2005, on Tuesday criticized the U.S. proposal to create a Pentagon command in Africa (AFRICOM). The statement comes shortly after the U.S. Energy Information Administration released data indicating Nigeria has become the third-largest supplier of U.S. oil, behind Canada and Mexico and ahead of Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon's upcoming launch of AFRICOM reveals that U.S. activities in Africa are failing to fully protect U.S. interests there, namely energy — meaning the Pentagon likely will open a command location in the Gulf of Guinea once AFRICOM gets under way. AFRICOM, the Pentagon's newest combatant command station, is expected to be launched in September 2008 to combine U.S. defense activities in Africa under one roof. Until now, the Europe, Central and Pacific commands have held separate responsibilities for activities in Africa. The Pentagon has so far been divided on how to operate on the continent because, unlike in other theaters, it does not face a constant threat in Africa that requires a unified military presence there. Rather, the Pentagon has a number of competing priorities, including conducting counterterrorism, humanitarian, maritime and energy security operations to keep the ungoverned parts of the continent from becoming the next Afghanistan or Iraq. AFRICOM will begin operations from a U.S. base in Stuttgart, Germany, but will relocate to Africa once a basing model is determined. The Pentagon has yet to decide whether AFRICOM will follow a single headquarters model or a multiple location, distributive model. In the Horn of Africa region, the United States carries out counterterrorism operations from Camp Lemonier in Djibouti. The Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa command, which conducted airstrikes in early January against al Qaeda and Islamists in southern Somalia, falls under the Central Command's responsibility. In the Sahel region of West Africa, U.S. concern for combating terrorism led the Pentagon in 2005 to launch the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCI), which built on the previous Pan-Sahel Initiative. TSCI, which falls under the Europe Command, does not use a fixed base location. Rather, this initiative, which receives funding of $100 million per year, provides for joint military cooperation with countries bordering the largely ungoverned Sahara desert region. While TSCI includes Nigeria, it does not include security for the country's oil-rich Niger Delta region. This issue is of particular concern in Nigeria, where the government has proved incapable of protecting Niger Delta oil infrastructure against attacks by militant groups, the best known of which is MEND. Since the group kicked off its December 2005 campaign to demand national political prominence, MEND attacks have cut Nigeria's oil output by a third. AFRICOM's goal is to boost security cooperation in the region. While the United States is not expected to send troops into Nigeria to guard oil facilities or personnel, the Pentagon can be expected to work closely with the Nigerian government and military by providing training, advising and possibly weapons to improve their indigenous security capabilities. The United States previously engaged in military cooperation with Nigerian forces, training a battalion of Nigerian peacekeepers in 2000 perceived to have performed exceptionally during U.N. and West African peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Adding the Gulf of Guinea region to the Pentagon's list of priorities for AFRICOM complicates the challenge of determining the command's location. With 2,500 miles from north to south and 2,500 miles from east to west — as well as little reliable transportation infrastructure in between — responding to crises in Africa's vastly disparate and troubled regions presents a tremendous logistical challenge. Therefore, AFRICOM is not likely to follow the single headquarters model; rather, it probably will use a distributive model with a series of lily pad bases. Even so, AFRICOM will still have to deal with logistics contingencies that cannot be solved by spreading bases out among a number of locations. The Camp Lemonier base in Djibouti likely will be kept, as it is an excellent location from which to conduct counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa. Liberia, the closest U.S. ally to the Sahel region, could also be considered for a base from which to launch into the Sahel. Improving energy security cooperation in the Gulf of Guinea, however, will require its own nearby military presence — and for that AFRICOM likely will focus on one of two locations: Sao Tome and Principe, or the Malabo archipelago of Equatorial Guinea. Both are island territories that provide numerous advantages for military planners and the oil industry as they are essentially protected by water from land-based threats like MEND. Malabo has the benefit of being more closely located to the Niger Delta, while Sao Tome and Principe is located in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea subregion, roughly equidistant to Angola's oil fields to the south and the Niger Delta to the north. Lastly, particularly in the case of the Niger Delta, being located nearby yet offshore would reduce AFRICOM's visible and likely controversial presence. While Pentagon planners have not yet determined how and where AFRICOM will be configured when it is set up in fall 2008, this much is certain: The current setup does not adequately serve U.S. interests. AFRICOM will be a different kind of command, with priorities other than conventional combat that relegate fighting further down the list, but being ready in the Gulf of Guinea will remain a high priority.

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