The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), an organizational construct intended to unify the entire African continent (except Egypt) under a single U.S. commander, is due to become fully operational September 30. As described by the Pentagon, it will be a new sort of animal, a combatant command "plus," that will have the ability to mount military operations, but which will rely primarily on "soft power." AFRICOM "will support, not shape, U.S. foreign policy on the continent," Theresa Whelan, the Pentagon's deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, told a House subcommittee on Wednesday. But despite official assurances, concern is mounting that AFRICOM could stray from its "supporting" role to become the new center of power for U.S. activities in Africa. The issue is central to the ongoing debate over the new command's proper place.
At this week's hearing of the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, the first of two scheduled hearings on AFRICOM, General Michael Snodgrass and Ambassador Mary Yates, both members of the command's nascent leadership, assured lawmakers that AFRICOM is "a listening, growing, and developing organization dedicated to partnering with African governments, African security organizations, and the international community to achieve U.S. security goals by helping the people of Africa achieve the goals they have set for themselves." And to its credit, AFRICOM has gone out of its way to calm fears that it represents a new imperial push into the Dark Continent. (It even hosts a blog to keep the public informed of its progress.) AFRICOM's primary purpose, say proponents, will be to coordinate with the State Department and USAID in the pursuit of "stability operations"—one of the Pentagon's latest enthusiasms, encoded in Directive 3000.05, which places humanitarian and relief operations on a level plane with combat missions. (You can read my earlier piece on the subject here.)