AFRICOM: Washington’s New Imperial Weapon

The leading scholar on the new U.S. Africa Unified Command (AFRICOM), Daniel Volman, summarizes the Obama administration’s foreign policy towards Africa as continuing "the expansion of U.S. military activity on the continent initiated by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s and dramatically escalated by President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009." Already the Obama administration has made significant increases in funding in the Fiscal Year 2010 budget for U.S. military programs concerning Africa (expected to grow more the following year). It has also expanded direct U.S. military operations on the continent, particularly in Nigeria, Mali, and Somalia. These developments qualify as additional evidence for "Obama’s continuity with George W. Bush’s foreign policy," as described recently by Edward S. Herman in Z Magazine ("Obama and the Steady Drift to the Right," March 2010).

The current direction of U.S.-Africa relations is by no means unexpected given one of the more significant changes to the U.S. military structure implemented during the Bush II administration: the October 2008 addition of the sixth U.S. unified command, AFRICOM. Prior to its establishment, five unified commands coordinated, integrated, and managed all U.S. defense assets and operations for their respective regions. Africa fell under the responsibility of three different commands: European Command (EUCOM), Central Command (CENTCOM), and Pacific Command (PACOM). Each viewed the continent, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, as a "secondary or even tertiary concern." Thus, as "Africa’s position in the U.S. strategic spectrum…moved from peripheral to central," AFRICOM was established to take over all U.S. military assets and operations conducted on the continent (with the exception of Egypt) in order to achieve a "unity of focus throughout Africa."


Foreign policy scholars identified three principal reasons for increased U.S. military focus in Africa: securing key natural resource bases, responding to China’s growing influence, and acquiring a strategic position to continue the so-called "war on terror." AFRICOM planners, however, dismissed these strategic interests as "myths." They instead promoted the command through "the language and aims of humanitarianism" while pursuing a diplomatic campaign in 2007 for African countries to host its headquarters. Despite these attempts, citizens and civil society organizations responded to the plan with hostility, and, with the exception of Liberia, all target governments declined to host the new command. In responding to the "image problem" surrounding the campaign for AFRICOM, one State Department official said, "[p]ublic opinion is really against getting into bed with the U.S. They just don’t trust the U.S." (In a prudent PR maneuver, AFRICOM planners decided to establish the new command’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany for the time being.)

Africa’s shift from "peripheral to central" on Washington’s strategic radar is a key component of the changing landscape of U.S.-Africa relations, which (while outside the scope of this article) should also be understood in terms of geopolitical developments occurring outside of Africa, such as Latin America’s increasing internal integration and independence. Accompanying the changing landscape are significant historical continuities. These continuities run counter to declarations from AFRICOM planners about it being a "different kind of command" that represents a new "paradigm" in U.S. military engagement. Two continuities explored in this article are: (1) the consistency of AFRICOM’s overall strategy of "sustained security engagement" with established U.S. military doctrine, specifically the "counterinsurgency" and "low-intensity conflict" doctrines, and (2) Obama’s continuation of interventionist policies in response to conflicts on the continent, as in the case of Somalia, a nation driven deeper into crisis as a result of the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion and occupation during Bush II’s tenure. These continuities demonstrate clearly that the U.S. global military system is advancing significantly on African soil.

A Different Kind of Command?

AFRICOM planners cite two reasons why the new command is "different": first, the command’s overall strategy, "sustained security engagement," and, second, the "interagency coordination" built into the command’s structure. AFRICOM’s commander, General William Ward, has provided a detailed description of the strategy in three annual testimonies before Congress (2008, 2009, and 2010). According to General Ward, sustained security engagement is a strategy that emphasizes "building African security capability and capacity" with a primary focus on "conflict and crisis prevention rather than reaction." As part of this so-called "preventive strategy," AFRICOM enhances conventional military and security forces of client governments through a wide-range of "security assistance" programs. Such programs include training military and security forces, providing them with weaponry and military equipment, and improving their logistical and intelligence capacity. In addition, AFRICOM conducts and helps coordinate military operations on the continent, particularly in the area of naval operations which have undergone a "significant expansion."

According to the general, sustained security engagement will enable "partner" nations to counter "the greatest security threats facing Africa," which he identifies as "enduring conflicts, illicit trafficking, territorial disputes, rebel insurgencies, violent extremists, piracy, and illegal immigration." AFRICOM will also pursue objectives that include: ensuring "access and freedom of movement" throughout the continent for the U.S. military; developing "en-route infrastructure" to better enable the "rapid deployment" of troops from U.S. bases positioned around the world to anywhere in Africa (and vice versa); and preventing the "unsanctioned possession and proliferation of WMD capabilities and expertise." The first two objectives are addressed later in this article. As for the third, it is important to recall that the African Union (AU) established the African nuclear-weapons free zone, but with only one minor glitch: U.S. and UK defiance over a small island included in the treaty, Diego Garcia, "one of the most valuable (and secretive) U.S. military bases overseas," in part because of the "nuclear material and nuclear weaponry regularly transiting…the base." So when General Ward says "unsanctioned," he means unauthorized specifically by the U.S, not by law or AU unanimous decision.

The new command is intended to be heavily involved in peacekeeping operations and civic military initiatives such as humanitarian and disaster relief programs, all of which are to be facilitated by interagency coordination. Given the hostility towards AFRICOM from African citizens, civil society organizations, and governments, these programs and operations offer important entry points for the command to operate on African soil, as well as opportunities to shape public opinion. For example, forces that receive peacekeeping training are often the same forces that AFRICOM trains to engage in more aggressive military action, enabling peacekeeping training to serve more interventionist ends. In fact, peacekeeping training in general is being transferred from the State Department to the Pentagon, thereby freeing it from the mild "human rights and democracy conditionalities under congressional supervision" that were "at least a deterrent to some of the worst abuses" (Noam Chomsky, "Coups, UNASUR, and the U.S.," Z Magazine, October 2009).

The Pentagon is also increasingly contracting out military functions, such as training military and peacekeeping forces, to private military contractors (PMCs), despite their poor human rights record. According to experts, because PMCs "are contracted by the U.S. government, they are answerable only to them and not the host government. African states can only deal with them through U.S. diplomatic missions" ("The Role of Private Military Companies in US-Africa Policy," Review of African Political Economy, December 2008). Hence, relying on PMCs is one method of limiting the control African governments have over the training their militaries receive. U.S. planners are, in turn, able to alter African militaries and security forces to become "more geared towards protecting U.S. geo-strategic interests." This form of "capacity building" can potentially render these same forces less capable of addressing "the real security threats facing their respective countries." Thus, seemingly benign operations and programs, which in some cases can benefit the target populations, help lay the groundwork for Washington to pursue more interventionist policies. It grants the U.S. military and its private subsidiaries leverage and access on the ground, unfettered by the minimal constraints placed on civilian agencies, namely the Department of State and USAID.

The developments described here are not the qualities attributed to AFRICOM’s uniqueness. Instead, AFRICOM planners have heralded the "visionary concept" of integrating civilian personnel into the command’s organizational structure, ostensibly as a means to advance collaboration between the Defense (War) Department and civilian agencies. However, due to difficulties in recruiting civilian personnel, efforts at building interagency coordination have been largely unsuccessful as nearly all of AFRICOM’s personnel are from the military. The opportunity for civilian agencies to play a significant role in planning AFRICOM’s programs and operations is further undermined by the steep decline in funding for these branches (particularly USAID) since the end of the Cold War. As M. J. Williams puts it in a 2008 International Affairs article, "The State Department and USAID have been rotting financially for almost 20 years." Also, PMCs are integral to programs coordinated by AFRICOM and are taking over roles "that were formerly the exclusive reserve of civilian organizations." These developments run counter to claims of interagency "cooperation," and instead represent a significant achievement by the Defense Department: its increased independence from civilian branches of government in the areas of implementing foreign aid and development programs and peacekeeping operations, which naturally have been altered to meet more militaristic ends.

Doctrinal Antecedents

Immediately after entering office, the Kennedy administration initiated an unprecedented "shift in strategic focus from conventional and nuclear warfare to unconventional forms of conflict" in order to crush the revolutionary movements sweeping the Third World during the early post-war era. This shift was the "first comprehensive effort of the U.S. government to devise a politicomilitary strategic program to deal with guerilla and counterguerilla warfare." The result was the "counterinsurgency doctrine," which utilizes indigenous military and security forces to carry out Washington’s orders, as in the case of South Vietnam.

The significance of the doctrine was at least twofold. First, it elevated unconventional warfare to a level "equal in importance to conventional warfare." Second, it emphasized employing the full-arsenal of state power (military, economic, diplomatic, etc.) to shape Third World affairs.

In Low Intensity Warfare: Counterinsurgency, Proinsurgency, and Antiterrorism in the Eighties, Michael Klare outlines the tactics of the counterinsurgency doctrine:

  • direct combat operations: destroying or neutralizing enemy tactical forces and bases, particularly through special operations forces
  • military civic action: using military forces in development projects, particularly in rural areas, in order to win popular support for the established government
  • psychological operations: enhancing the popular image of client governments and isolating and discrediting insurgent movements, largely through the use of propaganda as well as military civic actions
  • military intelligence: obtaining information on the enemy’s organizational structure, command and control systems, communications systems, and logistical support, and on the mass civil organizations supporting to the enemy cause
  • In addition to these tactics, counterinsurgency includes a key feature of U.S. foreign policy: arming, training, and financing client forces with the condition that they obey commands from Washington.

Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, foreign policy planners were well aware of the "pervasive reluctance of American citizens to support overt U.S. intervention in local Third World conflicts." The Reagan administration responded to what is called the "Vietnam syndrome" by initiating its own "strategic reorientation of the U.S. military establishment." What ensued was a new military doctrine called "low intensity conflict" (LIC). The LIC doctrine proved useful in circumventing the lack of domestic support for U.S. interventions by placing central significance to propaganda campaigns waged at home and a reliance on Special Operations forces to engage in a form of unconventional warfare sometimes called "clandestine warfare." The purpose was to keep Americans ignorant of their government’s application of the doctrine, while convincing them that communists were out to get them. Reagan made good use of the doctrine in his terror campaigns in Central America, which devastated the region for decades to come.

According to Klare in the study cited above, LIC maintained all the tactics of counterinsurgency but distinguished itself through the addition of the following:

  • proinsurgency: sponsoring and supporting anti-Communist insurgencies fighting against enemy governments
  • peacetime contingency operations: engaging in short-term military activities, such as show-of-force operations, punitive strikes, assassinations, and rescue missions
  • terrorism counteraction: taking defensive and offensive measures to prevent or counter international terrorists
  • antidrug operations: destroying foreign sources of illegal narcotics and curbing the flow of narcotics into the U.S.
  • peacekeeping operations: using U.S. forces to police cease-fire agreements or serve as a buffer between enemy armies

In addition, LIC emphasized the rapid introduction of U.S. forces to achieve "fast victories through overwhelming strength and firepower" and the ability of U.S. forces to "shift rapidly from one type of LIC activity to another" across great geographical distances, referred to respectively as rapid deployment and rapid mobility.

General Ward (left) talks with DRC media at AFRICOM HQ in Germany, July 2010
—photo by Jeremiah Erickson

AFRICOM’s strategy of sustained security engagement is largely consistent with the tactics of the full LIC "spectrum" highlighted by Klare above. But before comparing the LIC doctrine with AFRICOM’s command strategy, it is important to make two points. First, we must distinguish between the pretexts for intervention and the tactics of intervention. In the case of AFRICOM, the "war on terror" and the other "security threats" identified by General Ward serve as justifications for interventions, as opposed to the Cold War pretext central to LIC articulations.

Second, the tactical categories identified above are by no means employed in a discrete fashion. Instead, they often overlap as many programs and operations engage in multiple tactics, such as training forces to engage in peacekeeping and direct combat operations. With this said, AFRICOM’s programs and operations closely adhere to LIC and counterinsurgency tactics as follows:

Weapons Transfers and Training: AFRICOM provides military and security training through a variety of programs, such as the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs. Weapons and military/security equipment are being transferred to governments through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS), Foreign Military Financing (FMF), and other programs. For the FMF alone, Obama’s budget is set to increase its funding for sub-Saharan African countries from just over $8.2 million to more than $25.5 million.

Psychological Operations: Psychological operations are conducted on the continent through Operation Objective Voice, one of AFRICOM’s "information operations" that leverages "media capabilities" to disseminate propaganda in order to shape public opinion in accordance with U.S. strategic objectives. 

Direct Combat Operations: AFRICOM has already coordinated direct combat operations on the continent. The Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), now under the command authority of AFRICOM, has conducted operations in Somalia killing numerous individuals with alleged links to al Qaeda. For example, in August 2009 the Obama administration authorized a U.S. Special Forces operation where an alleged al Qaeda operative, Ali Saleh Nabhan, was assassinated in Somalia.

Civic Military Initiatives: One example of a civic military initiative currently being performed through AFRICOM is its HIV/AIDS program. This program aims to prevent the escalation of HIV/AIDS infection rates within African military and security forces. Another civic military initiative was the MEDFLAG program, where the U.S. Army Africa and U.S. Air Forces Africa designed a mass casualty scenario to exercise the Swaziland Defense Force’s "response capabilities and its interoperability with civilian first-responders."

Military Intelligence: AFRICOM conducts programs and operations in order to "collect, analyze, and synthesize information." An example of an intelligence program is AFRICOM’s Intelligence Security Cooperation and Engagement (ISCE), which "seeks to build sustainable military intelligence capacity in designated partner nations and regional organizations." Intelligence operations are crucial components of other operations (highlighting how multiple tactics are employed in single programs). For example, airborne surveillance and intelligence gathering is included in the African Coastal and Border Security Program (ACBS), which provides equipment to improve border and costal patrol operations, particularly in strategic waterways like the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea.

Peacekeeping Operations: AFRICOM offers training to indigenous forces for peacekeeping operations. For example, through the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program (ACOTA), training is provided to African military and security forces in order to improve police, counterinsurgency, and conventional military operations as part of a larger peacekeeping initiative (highlighting again tactical overlap). PMCs are "an intrinsic part" of ACOTA and other peacekeeping operations, such as the Global Peace Operation Initiative (GPOI).

Antidrug Operations: In expanding the "war on drugs" to the continent, the Obama administration has increased funding for antidrug operations in Africa, such as the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) programs. INCLE and other counter-narcotics programs "train, equip, and support partner nation law enforcement, paramilitary, and military units" so that forces can conduct "the full range of counter-drug activities," which includes interdicting and seizing vessels.

Peacetime Contingency Operations: Maritime security operations is one area where the U.S. engages in peacetime contingency operations in Africa. For example, U.S. ships are increasingly being deployed off the coast of the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea. A goal of these operations is to prevent oil theft and the sabotage of oil exploitation facilities owned by Shell, ExxonMobil, and other multinational oil companies operating in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, which provides 10 percent of total U.S. oil imports.

Proinsurgency: While to my knowledge AFRICOM has not engaged in any proinsurgency campaign, its programs enable it to arm, train, and finance insurgent movements fighting against enemy governments at a moment’s notice. Any government deemed to have links to al Qaeda or any other terrorist group will be particularly susceptible to proinsurgency (with a virtually non-existent factual threshold to justify the intervention, as many cases demonstrate).

Terrorism Counteraction:AFRICOM conducts a variety of programs and operations through the Anti-Terrorism Assistance program (ATA), established in 1983 during the first "war on terror." These programs include: Operation Enduring Freedom—Trans Sahara (OEF-TS), a program conducted by special operations forces to deny "safe havens to terrorists"; the Kenyan Antiterrorism Police Unit (KAPU); the East Africa Counter-Terrorism Initiative (EACTI); and the Global Equip and Train program, which permits the Pentagon to provide training and equipment to foreign military, police, and other security forces to combat terrorism with minimal congressional oversight. Funding for antiterrorism programs in Africa have increased significantly in Obama’s FY 2010 budget.

Rapid Deployment and Mobility: A primary objective for the new command is to develop "en-route infrastructure" to better enable rapid deployment of U.S. troops from the homeland to anywhere the Pentagon wants them. In fact, the Air Mobility Command released a document in March 2009 that proposes a "global en route strategy" with the goal of achieving "global access" for the U.S. military, particularly in "key areas" such as Africa. The document describes AFRICOM as instrumental in achieving "significant mobility capability" in Africa and states that U.S. bases in South America will assist with "the mobility routing to Africa," thereby designating the continent as a possible "launching pad for airlift into Africa."

U.S. Marines and Senegalese in Exercise Flintlock, May 2010—photo by Jeremiah Erickson

According to Daniel Volman, these base access agreements grant U.S. "access to local military bases and other facilities so that they can be used by American forces as transit bases or as forward operating bases for combat, surveillance, and other military operations." In addition to these agreements, military personal are being transferred to all U.S. embassies in Africa, creating "mini-AFRICOM headquarters in every single country." Moreover, the CJTF-HOA base at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti has been identified as AFRICOM’s "main operational presence in Africa," a de facto headquarters on the continent currently undergoing expansion. In light of these developments, the decision to keep the new command’s official headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany after all African governments (except Liberia) declined to host it was hardly a set-back in achieving direct military access on African soil.

Though not an exhaustive comparison, we can see that there are significant historical continuities of military doctrine and strategy, which can be traced back further than the contributions made by Kennedy and Reagan. These continuities challenge official declarations describing AFRICOM as a "different kind of command" or a radical post-Cold War "experiment." Instead, such declarations should be viewed more as a response to the "image problem" the U.S. military faces in Africa, with the ultimate aim of obscuring that AFRICOM is instrumental in Washington’s quest to subordinate African states to U.S. imperial dominance by employing the full arsenal of state power, including direct military intervention when the need arises. While maintaining the character of established military doctrine, there is one innovation in AFRICOM’s strategy worth noting: the enhancement of what is being called "counter-piracy." This innovation comes as a response to incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia, a nation pointed to as justification for the recent increased militarization of U.S. foreign policy towards Africa.

Momentum Gains, Conflicts Persist

Two prominent scholars of Africa, William Minter and Daniel Volman, warned a year ago of AFRICOM’s developing "institutional momentum," which they argued could induce the Obama administration to initiate interventionist policies in response to Africa’s various conflicts and crises ("Making Peace or Fueling War in Africa," FPIF, March 13, 2009"; "Somalia Crossroads," In These Times, June 29, 2009). Key factors galvanizing AFRICOM’s "momentum" are the strategic interests driving the expansion of U.S. militarism on the continent—securing natural resource bases, competing with China and other growing powers, waging the "war on terror," etc. Stimulating additional momentum is the fact that U.S. foreign policy planners are now equipped with a comprehensive strategy that improves the prospects of achieving these strategic interests. Another crucial factor is the ability of the new command’s high-ranking staff to more effectively compete for the ever-growing pool of military funds. In fact, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has recently recommended that the CJTF-HOA receive increased long-term funding.

U.S. Special Forces and Malian troops outside Timbuktu—photo by Justin Bishop

Minter and Volman go on to identify the "fundamental alternatives" for the Obama administration’s security policy towards Africa: (1) continue waging counterterrorism and counterinsurgency campaigns and reinforce oppressive regimes in the process or (2) prioritize building multilateral capacity to respond to conflicts more diplomatically while addressing the root causes of instability on the continent (poverty, unemployment, lack of access to education and health care, violence against women, global warming, and so on). The first alternative moves in the direction of AFRICOM’s growing momentum, while the latter cuts against it. From the Obama administration’s significant budgetary increases for AFRICOM and its handling thus far of one of Africa’s most enduring crises in Somalia, there are signs that U.S. foreign policy towards Africa is taking the predictable path of moving with the momentum.

A recent Human Rights Watch report describes the current humanitarian crisis in Somalia: "About 1.5 million Somalis are displaced from their homes and half the population is in urgent need of humanitarian aid. More than half-a-million people have sought shelter in other countries as refugees. And as of this writing the UN World Food Program (WFP) had to suspend food aid to a huge swath of southern Somalia."

The mainstream press has largely stuck with the U.S. official position that "Somalia has collapsed in on itself," attributing the crisis to internal factors. But the historical record reveals that it is directly linked to Bush II era policies, key features of which are being continued by Obama. Like Bush II, Obama is arming, training, financing, and providing diplomatic cover for allies as they hunt "radical Islamists," killing significant numbers of civilians in the process. The U.S. is also conducting direct military operations on Somali soil. In response to the recent "7/11" terrorist attacks in Uganda, Obama has pledged to "redouble" U.S. efforts to crush the militant group al Shabaab, which took credit for the attacks that killed 76 civilians. Respected analysts, however, have continually warned that Obama’s militarized response will only exacerbate the crisis, as well as the threat of terrorism.

The Bush II policy towards Somalia began immediately after 9/11 when the Administration led an international effort to shut down Al-Barakaat, the Dubai-based Somali remittance network responsible for bolstering the fragile economy to the amount of some $250 million. This action was initially justified on the grounds that Al-Barakaat was financing terror, a charge Washington withdrew a year later. In another policy of combating fictional terrorism, in 2006, Bush II supported a coalition of warlords in their campaign against a popular coalition of Islamic courts and militias. The Islamic coalition had liberated Somalia’s capital Mogadishu and the southern region from U.S.-backed warlords, who had long terrorized the region, and formed the Union of the Islamic Courts (UIC). The UIC immediately gained widespread support from Somalis across the country for offering an alternative to 16 years of warlord terror and failed attempts to provide basic security and government services by the "corrupt and feeble" Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Somalia’s internationally recognized government since 2004. UIC control, however, only lasted from June to December 2006, during which time Somalia experienced "a degree of peace and security unknown to the south for more than fifteen years," according to an International Crisis Group report.

Confronted with the so-called UIC threat, Washington’s regional client, Ethiopia, began preparing for its overthrow by immediately sending troops and military supplies across the border to bolster the TFG (whose only stronghold was a small city north of Mogadishu). By November, thousands of troops were positioned in Somalia. Ethiopia prevented a peaceful settlement by refusing to respect Somalia’s autonomy and withdraw its over 7,000 troops from Somali soil—a direct violation of longstanding UN Resolution 733, which called on all states to refrain from any action that might increase tension and impede "a peaceful and negotiated outcome to the conflict in Somalia." U.S. officials provided diplomatic support for Ethiopia’s looming assault by declaring that the UIC was "controlled" by al Qaeda, notwithstanding expert opinion that found the pretext to be a gross "exaggeration" and "unfounded." The Administration then sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 1725 on December 6, which authorized the deployment of African "peacekeeping" forces, but omitted a demand for the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops.

Later that month, the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion took full force. The CJTF-HOA, now considered a "model" "critical to accomplishing U.S. Africa Command’s mission," played an active role through training Ethiopian troops, providing U.S. military advisors, offering intelligence on the positions of UIC fighters, and carrying out airstrikes. The invasion ended the six-month period of relative peace and security ushered in by the popular UIC and drove the nation back into a familiar state of war, terror, and repression. By the time Ethiopia pulled out of Somalia in January 2009, the horror unleashed from "saving Somalia from terror" amounted to thousands of murdered civilians, over one million displaced, and over three million in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. The Bush II response was to refuse to "confront or even publicly acknowledge the extent of Ethiopian military and TFG abuses" (much less its own), thereby continuing the recurrent U.S. policy of "not counting bodies" when saving the world from fictional terrorism by unleashing real terror and aggression.

The U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion drove the moderate elements of the UIC out of the country, leaving the more militant to fight the occupation. They formed al Shabaab, the "radical offshoot" of the UIC. Bush’s policy of sponsoring warlord terror and foreign aggression had the predictable consequence of engendering terrorism. According to Human Rights Watch, while by no means a "proxy" of al Qaeda, as has been described by Washington, some of al Shabaab’s leaders have declared ties to al Qaeda, whereas others are resistant to the external influence. Moreover, foreign fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan have reportedly been traveling to Somalia to fight with al Shabaab, a development referred to as the "internationalization of the conflict," having now reached inside Uganda with the recent terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, the U.S. is currently backing previously designated "extremists" and "terrorists," such as the former UIC leader Sheik Shariff who now heads the TFG.

Currently, the TFG controls only a "sliver" of territory in Mogadishu and would collapse were it not for the protection of the 6,000-strong African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), manned by Uganda and Burundi, both loyal U.S. clients. The majority of southern Somalia is instead controlled by armed opposition groups, the most powerful being al Shabaab, which subjects the population under its control to "targeted killings and assaults, repressive forms of social control and brutal punishments under its draconian interpretation of Sharia." Since Ethiopia’s January 2009 withdrawal from Somalia, the population has been caught in the middle of clashes between the AMISOM-backed TFG, al Shabaab, and other armed groups. Human Rights Watch reports that "[a]ll sides have violated the laws of war by conducting indiscriminate attacks," the majority of which have occurred when TFG and AMISON forces respond to al Shabaab attacks by launching mortars into civilian dense areas. Additional crimes include both TFG and al Shabaab forces impeding the flow of aid convoys, a charge routinely attributed to only al Shabaab, and relying significantly on child soldiers. Somalis have responded to the incessant violence, which has claimed over 21,000 lives since 2007, by fleeing in droves to neighboring countries, mainly Kenya, a nation whose police welcome Somali refugees by routinely beating and raping them.

The Somali Crisis

The July 11 terrorist attacks in Uganda placed the Somalia crisis at the top of the agenda during the recent AU summit (July 24-27). African leaders attending the summit agreed to authorize a more aggressive "peacekeeping" mandate and increase the AMISOM mission to 8,000 soldiers, a number expected to rise above 10,000. Joining Uganda and Burundi in contributing troops are Djibouti and Guinea, the latter’s armed forces notorious for their gross human rights abuses, "including the massacre of over 150 opposition supporters in 2009 and several gang rapes." There are several factors that fail to elicit confidence in AMISOM and the TFG’s ability and willingness to take measures to ensure Somali civilians do not bear the burden of the more aggressive mandate with their lives, as has been the case with the recent heightened attacks on al Shabaab from AMISOM following the Uganda terrorist attacks.


Somalia refugees in a skiff in the Gulf of Aden, 2009—photo by Daniel Barker

Two factors include the regular crimes committed by TFG and AMISOM and TFG incompetence—exemplified by reported incidents of "fierce fighting" between its army and police, its high rate of defections, the fact that its troops lack a "physical headquarters," and its overall inability to demonstrate itself as a viable political option to Somalis. Also, there are reports of tensions between AMISOM and the TFG, with a few TFG officials speaking out against the spike in casualties resulting from the decision by Uganda’s president, Museveni, to intensify AMISOM shelling in retaliation for the Uganda terrorist attacks. An additional factor is the role of regional powers, mainly Ethiopia and Uganda, in shaping the AMISOM mandate. Museveni, in particular, has considerable influence over the AU mission, given that most of its troops are provided by Uganda, the site for the majority of U.S. training coordinated through AFRICOM (some of which is contracted out to PMCs). Both are calling for more resources from its paymaster for the looming "intervention," but with no plans to clean up AMISOM’s pitiful human rights record.

Turning to the paymaster, the U.S., of course, is capable of exerting significant influence given its position as primary financier to the mission. Following the 7/11 terrorist attacks, the Obama administration exerted its influence by pledging to "redouble" support in the "same fashion" it has thus far. This amounted to employing key tactics of AFRICOM’s strategy of sustained security engagement by training, arming, and providing intelligence, logistical support, and transportation to TFG and AMISOM forces, while refusing to take even the smallest measures to reduce U.S.-sponsored crimes—for example, by establishing a minimal adherence to international humanitarian law as a prerequisite for military assistance, as recommended recently by Human Rights Watch. Though clearly the Administration does not want to become invested in any full-scale U.S.-led intervention in Africa, direct combat operations, particularly through the use of Special Operations Forces, remain an option, such as the operation that killed an alleged al Qaeda operative last year, a fact that evidently slipped General Ward’s mind when he said recently that the U.S. is uninterested in "direct foreign involvement" as it often becomes "an irritant and a distraction."

In short, key factors point to an escalation of the bloodbath in Somalia. If this occurs, defenseless Somalis will again be left to find cover wherever available, which will likely be in domains controlled by al Shabaab and other armed groups. An alternative to this potential scenario, however, is to call for dialogues with the armed groups, as proposed recently by the International Crisis Group. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is pursuing interventionist policies in response to Africa’s conflicts and crises and ignoring their root causes. In fact, the Administration is reportedly considering creating a Marine rapid deployment force composed of 1,000 troops to "intervene in African hot spots." Now that AFRICOM is operational, Africa and all of its "hot spots" are subject to the new command’s so-called revolutionary strategy, equipped with tactics fine-tuned through a long history of subordinating weaker states to imperial dominance by conventional and unconventional means. And with AFRICOM’s growing momentum, driven primarily by the movement of Africa’s strategic importance from "peripheral to central," we should expect ample opportunities for Washington to exercise its new imperial weapon, even with a "son of Africa" now calling the shots.


Stephen Roblin is an activist and independent researcher from Baltimore, Maryland. For a complete list of references for this article, contact him at