On the list of U.S. military priorities, Africa has always ranked right smack at the bottom. Now that appears to be changing. As Eric Schmitt recently reported in the New York Times, "thousands of soldiers once bound for Iraq or Afghanistan are now gearing up for missions in Africa." Before the gearing up proceeds much further, Americans might want to ask a few questions. Chief among them are these: Why the sudden shift in priorities? What's the aim? Who stands to benefit? What risks does the militarization of U.S. policy in Africa entail?
Among the various services, the U.S. Army in particular finds the prospect of an expanded Africa presence appealing. As Schmitt observed, with U.S. forces out of Iraq and soon scheduled to leave Afghanistan, "the Army is looking for new missions around the world." For Army leaders, Africa spells opportunity, a chance to demonstrate continuing relevance at a time when the nation's appetite for sending U.S. troops to invade and occupy countries has pretty much evaporated.
Thus, we have U.S. Army Africa, or USARAF, the latest in the Pentagon's ever-growing roster of military headquarters. The mission of this command, which describes itself as "America's premier Army team dedicated to positive change in Africa," manages to be at once reassuringly bland and ominously ambitious. On the one hand, USARAF "strengthens the land force capabilities of African states and regional organizations." On the other, it "conducts decisive action in order to establish a secure environment and protect the national security interests of the United States."
One might hope that successfully accomplishing the first half of that mission — U.S. troops training and equipping African counterparts — will preclude the second. More likely, however, such efforts will pave the way for "decisive action," a euphemism for war.
Let's discard the euphemisms. Here is a classic example of bureaucratic interests displacing strategic calculation, not to mention common sense, as a basis for policy. For the Navy and Air Force, the Obama administration's much-ballyhooed "pivot" toward East Asia has come as something of a godsend. Addressing the putative threat posed by a rising China promises to keep those services busy (and flush with cash) for decades to come. Yet apart from a possible resumption of the long-dormant Korean War, Asian scenarios involving a large-scale commitment of Army forces are difficult to conjure up. So expanding the "global war on terrorism" into the heart of Africa allows the Army to make its own pivot.
Initially, only small contingents of American soldiers will be venturing into Africa, consistent with the Army's recently discovered affinity for what it calls a "light footprint." Although these will be combat troops, their purpose will be not to fight but to coach, helping to create competent and politically reliable local forces. U.S. efforts to upgrade African military capabilities will no doubt create opportunities to market American-manufactured arms, a secondary benefit not lost on U.S. defense contractors.
There are at least a couple of problems here. The first is that when it comes to building foreign forces, the U.S. military's track record is mixed at best.
Take Iraq as an example. After foolishly dismantling Iraq's army in 2003, the Pentagon toiled for years to rebuild it. That effort eventually allowed U.S. forces to quit the country. Yet as indicated by the daily insurgent attacks wreaking havoc in Baghdad and other cities, "our" Iraqi army is manifestly unable to maintain even minimally adequate internal security. If that's success, it's hard to imagine what failure looks like.
Imagine hard enough, however, and you get Egypt. For decades, the United States worked to inculcate in Egypt's army respect for the principle of civilian control. Yet this year when Egyptian senior officers contemplated a democratically elected government behaving in ways not to their liking, they promptly mounted a coup and overthrew it. Egyptian soldiers then brutally suppressed citizens who had the temerity to object. Meanwhile, Pentagon influence on Egyptian generals turned out to be nil.
Perhaps worse from a U.S. perspective, modest troop commitments have a way of morphing into larger ones. When things don't go right, Washington's reflexive inclination is to up the ante. To sustain a few casualties is to create the impression of big stakes, with U.S. credibility ostensibly on the line and hawks insisting that turning things around will require "boots on the ground."
Lest that sound like some hoary reference to the escalatory actions that produced the Vietnam War, consider the words of then-Maj. Gen. Burke Garrett, who was USARAF's commander until 2010. Taken alone, he remarked, USARAF might be small, but "we represent a million-person army — active, Guard and reserve — that we can … bring to bear in Africa."
Africa has many needs. Whether it needs the United States bringing to bear a million American soldiers is doubtful. If Washington wants to encourage "positive change" in Africa, training a million African schoolteachers or a million doctors might be more useful.
Efforts to build foreign armies are implicitly based on the assumption that "backward" peoples want and will surely benefit from American tutoring. That paternalistic assumption, amounting to little more than a politically correct updating of the white man's burden, deserves critical examination. Indeed, it should be abandoned as both false and pernicious — bad for Africans and bad for us. In the meantime, an army looking for new missions just might look closer to home.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is "Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country."