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On October 18, 2012, the president nominated Gen. David Rodriguez to be the next commander of AFRICOM. While my invitation to brief him hasn’t arrived quite yet, here’s an advance copy of the seven key points that I would recommend he bear in mind as he prepares for his new role.

 

  1. Africa is diverse.  Transnational challenges should not translate into trans-continental diagnoses and prescriptions. Each situation has its own dynamics, power structures, and societal fault lines. While there are lessons to be drawn from other global and regional contexts, resist the tendency  to compare African states  to Afghanistan or Iraq, and reject oversimplifications and gross misdiagnoses such as Mali is the next  Somalia or Afghanistan or Yemen.
  2. Do no harm. Africa is not a hotbed of terrorism, as some articles announcing your nomination claim, but we can help make it one by treating it as such. AQIM; al-Shabaab; Boko Haram; LRA; and the sundry homegrown violent extremist organizations in North Africa pose serious local and regional challenges, but they do not pose serious threats to our homeland. American kinetic responses are just as likely to engender threats to the US as to reduce them, see here.
  3. Poverty does not equal terrorism. Ungoverned spaces and poverty are not the primary drivers of violent extremism; ergo development is not the silver bullet to countering it. Foreign occupation and perceived humiliation and exclusion—coupled with the pull of charismatic leaders or family members—are vastly more instrumental. Promoting inclusive political systems, empowering credible local voices, and supporting strong social networks are far more effective in the short-term in discrediting terrorist ideology and countering radicalization than poverty alleviation programs, see here and here.
  4. Fragility. If one generalization of African states can be made, it is that most are still quite fragile and in the process of state formation. This is a serious concern for the United States. State fragility is ultimately much more a crisis of politics—namely the lack of a robust social contract between citizens and the state—than about either security or development. Promoting state-society relations should be at the core of all US engagement with African states.
  5. Humility. State formation is an endogenous process. Security may be provided externally for a time, but political settlements and development ultimately must come from within. US engagement cannot make any of these processes happen; it can only hope to help them along if done wisely.
  6. Patience. State formation doesn’t happen according to our time clock (be it a theater campaign plan, development project timeline, appropriations cycle, or presidential term). Just willing, tasking, planning, funding, ordering, or demarching something doesn’t make it so.
  7. Focus. Civilian-led militaries within governments that hold all accountable to the rule of law should be the fundamental objective of US security engagement. The more professional African militaries are, the better US defense, development, and diplomatic interests will be served. Leave development projects to the development experts, see here and here, and keep AFRICOM focused on what it can do best: security sector cooperation.

Bottom line, I’m encouraged that the president has nominated someone of Gen. Rodriguez’s operational and leadership caliber for AFRICOM. I hope he’ll lead the Pentagon in refraining from seeing Africa as a receptacle for the US military’s leftovers—equipment, manpower, doctrine—as Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, and assess its security challenges and needs in its own light.