AFRICOM Chief Gen. Ward: 'What We Do Must Continue'
Following Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ call for fiscal responsibility, military and civilian agencies are scrambling to come up with $100 billion in savings over the next five years. Building insiders already smell blood as it becomes clear that unless major programs and activities are cut, it will be hard to hit Gates’ bogey.
Against this backdrop, it was an opportune time for the commander of U.S. Africa Command, Army Gen. William “Kip” Ward, to come to Washington this week and remind movers and shakers why AFRICOM must hold on to its already scarce resources.
Speaking to a crowd of industry executives, military officials and think tankers at theCenter for Strategic and International Studies, Ward cautioned that his three-year-old command is just now gaining traction and it would be a mistake to slow down the momentum, even in these times of tightening budgets.
CSIS President John Hamre prefaced Ward’s remarks reminding the audience that the general “needs our help” because new organizations such as AFRICOM are particularly “fragile in the Washington budget environment.”
In the world of zero-sum budgeting, he said, commanders such as Ward are “instantly in a fist fight for everything.”
AFRICOM, with headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, was launched with great fanfare in 2007 as the first and only military regional command that would focus primarily on “soft power” and include a heavy mix of civilians in its ranks. It is responsible for military-to-military relationships with Africa’s 53 nations.
It has endured growing pains but now is finally beginning to prove its value, said Hamre. “We can’t afford to lose the progress that’s been made,” he said.
The command has suffered its share of PR problems, which is one reason why it is still based in Europe and has yet to find a home in Africa. The Government Accountability Office contended in a2009 report that the mission of AFRICOM raised troubling questions about where the line should be drawn between military and civilian diplomatic duties.
In his speech, Ward outlined a case for why AFRICOM serves an essential role “in pursuit of U.S. national security interests.”
Africa is “strategically important” to the United States, he said. “What we do has to continue, it makes sense.”
The initial chilly reception that AFRICOM received within the continent has evolved into warmer ties with many countries, Ward said. “Partners are now asking, ‘What more can AFRICOM do to help?’ as opposed to ‘Why do we have AFRICOM?’” he said. “We have turned the corner after a lot of hard work.”
Washington’s short-term thinking clearly frustrates Ward. AFRICOM is about establishing long-term ties in the region, not just dealing with the crisis of the day, he said. “I’m often asked ‘What are you going to do about Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia?’” he said. “We do pay attention to these issues but it’s also important to look at Africa’s opportunities in development, governance and security.” Ultimately the work that AFRICOM does “promotes an environment where American lives are more secure, and American interests are promoted,” he said. Being able to keep an eye on the burgeoning networks of violent extremist groups in Africa could help prevent attacks against the United States, he said. Africa’s “stability and growth is in the best interest of the United States.”
Ward cited the defense secretary’s January 2009article in “Foreign Affairs,” where Gates endorsed the notion that the Defense Department should shift resources from conventional war planning to helping train the militaries of foreign allies in unstable areas of the world, so they can take care of their own security, as opposed to relying on the United States.
AFRICOM is doing that, Ward said, although he acknowledged that some militaries in Africa are destabilizing because they undermine civilian authorities. “Our involvement is based on our foreign policy objectives,” he said. “Those are national policy decisions, not Kip Ward decisions where we are going to conduct military-to-military activity.”
The good news, he said, is that more African nations are boosting their capacity to cope with natural disasters, conduct peacekeeping operations and protect coastal areas from narco-traffickers and pirates. Civil wars, instability and pandemic disease are huge challenges for AFRICOM, and more time is needed to address them, he said. Malaria remains the greatest killer of African children.
If AFRICOM’s existence were to be questioned, he said, the same logic would be applicable to any of the other five geographic commands. “It’s how we in the United States exercise our military-to-military cooperation with our partner nations, we do it through our geographic commands,” said Ward.
Then there is the issue of Africa’s natural resources. The continent is rich in energy sources and minerals, which often stirs conspiracy theories about outsiders’ land grabs and quests to tap the region’s wealth.
Ward said promoting development of manufacturing capabilities and infrastructure in Africa would allow countries to be able to exploit and benefit economically from those natural resources.
Some U.S. officials have voiced concerns thatChina may outmaneuver the United States in Africa in the pursuit of energy sources. In 2005, Marine Gen. James Jones, who was then military chief of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and currently is President Obama’s national security advisor, said he worried aboutgrowing Chinese influence in Africa. “It’s beyond question that China is the most aggressive country economically in Africa,” he told reporters. China is seeking closer ties with nations in the oil-rich continent, especially Sudan, to sate its rapidly increasing appetite for energy, he said. The United States needs to do more in the region, Jones said. He quoted one African diplomat as saying: “We love the United States. You’re always telling us what we should do. Now, China is giving us the things that you say we need.” Beijing, Jones said, is flooding the region with free scholarships in China and aid both in the economic and military sectors. “It’s something we have to worry about.”
Asked whether AFRICOM would consider working with China on common interests, Ward said it cannot be ruled out, but added so far that has not happened.
“China is pursuing its own national interests on the continent of Africa,” he said. Most of the evidence of China’s presence is in the form of infrastructure and buildings that pop up around the continent, Ward said. “I’m not privy to the arrangements that China makes with African nations but clearly China is involved.”
Right now, Ward has more pressing priorities than partnering with China. Near the top of the list is ensuring that AFRICOM is spared from the Defense budget ax.