Strategic Africa: Why the U.S. and Europe are sending in the troops
U.S. and France leading the way, sometimes even together
In the U.S. military's remarkably globalized world staff, officers deep in a special headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, are organizing training missions over three continents all dedicated to one special place — Africa.
What's striking is that this far-flung and little noticed U.S. Africa Command — AFRICOM as it's called — has been on a roll at a time when the Pentagon is undergoing a big downsizing.
But the move coincides with new thinking in Washington that big wars like Iraq and Afghanistan are far less likely in future, so it's now time to shift priorities toward preparing for smaller regional conflicts.
This will require, the thinking goes, relatively small, fast-moving actions by units specially trained for working with local forces on a wide range of missions from counter-insurgency to backup support of UN and African Union peace missions.
What also makes AFRICOM notable is the low-profile stance adopted by all concerned.
No African nation has agreed to host the full U.S. command given all the security headaches that would entail. Which is why the HQ is in Germany, and many of the soldiers are training in mock-up African villages on the plains of Kansas.
The low-key approach can't hide the fact, however, that U.S. troops in Africa will reach full brigade status this year (5,000 soldiers).
They will also have a presence in 38 of Africa's 54 nations and could conduct as many as 100 separate missions on the continent, often supported by teams of U.S. State Department specialists and private contractors
The French connection
This mini-buildup is raising eyebrows in strategic study centres around the globe.
While the U.S. military objectives seem clear enough, it is assumed Washington has an unstated strategic goal as well — to lay down markers again in an Africa increasingly being courted by China and other Asian nations.
While Africa remains poor by global standards, the continent has enormous resource potential and future strategic value, which helps explain one of the most interesting trends on this new front — the upsurge in Franco-American military co-operation, despite the two sides' often prickly relationship in the past.
France has become extraordinarily active in Africa over the past year. First it flew up to 4,000 soldiers, including special forces, to block the advancing al-Qaeda linked rebels in Mali; then, more recently, it sent another 1,000 troops to the Central African Republic to suppress Muslim-Christian violence following a coup there.
In both conflicts, the U.S. offered extensive air transport plus other logistical and intelligence support to the French, while expanding joint efforts in West Africa to counter al-Qaeda.
While French politicians moan about the heavy financial burden of intervening in Africa, Paris has strong strategic as well as sentimental interests in its former colonies.
It has now entered talks with Washington to build a whole new counterterrorism network across its traditional areas of concern.
According to The Associated Press, a French buildup would include basing 3,000 permanent French soldiers in the Sahel region, and pre-positioning Mirage and Rafale fighters at an air base in Chad, actions that the French hope will both stabilize the region and encourage even more U.S. support.
"I don't think we want Americans to lose interest in this very sensitive zone," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
Europe joining the fray
It now looks like the rest of Europe, long eager to avoid Africa's troubles, is taking more interest as well.
In a notable change of tone, European foreign ministers have just agreed to send a rapid deployment force of up to 600 troops to bolster French and UN peace efforts in the Central African Republic. Separately, Germany and Britain are sending logistical support.
There's apparently new awareness of the cost of chaos in Africa and of the strategic realities of the region.
Still, this increasing Western military presence in Africa is a point of frustration for many in the West, and even more so for many Africans who feel it is time they should be able to cope with their own problems.
"Some African leaders tell you privately that there is a sense of embarrassment," Comfort Ero, African director of the International Crisis Group told the BBC last month. But, she added, "the continent still requires a significant amount of assistance."
There has been talk for years of building an effective regional peace force, even a centralized quick-reaction time, within the African Union to handle crises.
However, despite some increased deployments in Somalia and in West Africa, the problems are daunting.
Bluntly put, conflicts are too common, effective African military forces are far too few.
Some of the most efficient militaries on the continent, such as South Africa's, have shown little appetite for taking on onerous regional conflicts. Others are built on an unreliable officer corps that is self-serving, and a rank-and-file that is underpaid and ill-trained.
All this suggests the rising Western involvement is a huge, complex undertaking that is almost certain to last many years and become more controversial over time.
One safe bet, given the nature of turmoil of our time and the tendency of new American commands to keep expanding their reach, the role of AFRICOM won't be low-profile for very long.