Africa Emerges as a Strategic Battleground

Africa suffers from a series of humanitarian crises, but the continent also offers tremendous opportunity. Oddly enough, it’s the US general in charge of the Europe Command and NATO who insists that the US must pay more attention on Africa. The Bush administration, distracted with war in Iraq, faces three urgent issues in Africa – Islamic terrorism, energy security and growing Chinese influence and investments across the continent. Africa’s economy increased by 4.8 percent last year and 40 percent of its countries are already electoral democracies. Still, extremism could gain a foothold in any of the large regions where lawlessness, corruption and poverty reign. AIDS rates remain high, and the continent could be the starting place for other global pandemics. From Germany, US generals use limited resources to develop a think tank and coordinate 15 US government agencies and intelligence – ensuring that economic and political initiatives accompany rapid-reaction military force. NATO Commander and US General James Jones insists, “If the wave gets ahead of you in a place like Africa, you never catch up.” – YaleGlobal

Africa Emerges as a Strategic Battleground

Challenges for US include terrorist ties, energy issues, countering China's inroads
Frederick Kempe
Friday, April 28, 2006

For those wondering when they really must start paying attention to Africa, U.S. Gen. James Jones deploys every fragment of his 6-foot-5 frame to emphasize with a forward lean that the time is now. Why else would the U.S. military's European Command, which he runs, spend 70% of its time and energy on Africa, he says, up from nearly none when he took it over three-plus years ago?

Even Iraq-preoccupied officials of Bush administration -- who feared little global impact from Africa's long-running humanitarian crises -- are taking more notice now because of the wider ripples from the continent's new triple threat: Islamist terrorism, energy security and growing Chinese influence there.

First, radical Islamist groups in Africa have stepped up recruiting, struck up closer ties to terrorist group al Qaeda and developed infiltration routes to Europe, Iraq and the Persian Gulf. The ties were underscored Sunday, when al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in an audiotape, called on his followers to go to Sudan to fight a proposed United Nations force in the war-torn region of Darfur.

Second, record crude-oil prices and increased Western dependence make protecting African resources more critical.

And finally, China has made Africa a front line in its pursuit of more global influence, tripling trade with the continent to some $37 billion over the past five years and locking up energy assets, closing trade deals with regimes like Sudan's and educating Africa's future elites at Chinese universities and military schools. Most telling about Chinese President Hu Jintao's just-ended trip to the U.S. was where he went afterward: first Saudi Arabia, then three African states: Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya.

"Africa plays an increased strategic role militarily, economically and politically," Gen. Jones says. "We have to become more agile in terms of being able to compete in this environment."

Africa is a place of unrecognized opportunity. The continent's overall economy expanded by 4.8% last year and the Council on Foreign Relations recently calculated3 that 40% of its countries were electoral democracies, providing a promising base for U.S. influence.

Yet great swaths of Africa are lawless, corrupt and bitterly poor -- ideal breeding grounds for extremists. AIDS continues to plague Africa, which remains a likely place for any global pandemic to begin.

Even before China's bolder courtship of Africa began to galvanize new attention in Washington, Gen. Jones was executing the Bush administration's national-security doctrine of preventive action there "in an effort to preclude parts of Africa from becoming the Iraqs and Afghanistans of the future," he says.

He and Deputy Commander Chuck Wald, his point man for Africa at the European Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, are overseeing a think tank on Africa. To improve coordination of U.S. initiatives, they have put together a group in Stuttgart with the participation of 15 U.S. government agencies. Gen. Jones has worked with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to bring business leaders with him to Africa. It's all in service of what he sees as the military's new role as forward scout and animator for integrated U.S. response.

"The fight in the 21st century," he says, "is about coordinating all elements of national influence so that it works together in a seamless way. If nothing follows the military in Africa, we won't succeed."

On the military front, Gens. Jones and Wald have pioneered counterterrorism efforts that provide intelligence and training and promote cooperation among nine countries.

Gen. Wald brought together the group's defense ministers to meet for the first time to coordinate strategy, in particular going after the most visible armed Islamist threat in the region, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which has declared loyalty to al Qaeda.

In the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa -- through which 15% of U.S. oil imports flow, a figure expected to rise to some 25% in the next decade -- Gen. Jones sees a more lasting maritime presence to protect against piracy and bunkering, or the widespread siphoning of oil from pipelines. As Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Gen. Jones has scheduled the first live exercise of the alliance's new rapid-reaction force for the Gulf of Guinea this summer.

Gen. Jones won't be drawn on China. Yet with the Bush administration preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, one Pentagon official worries "China is taking advantage by making inroads elsewhere and particularly Africa." Beijing has been driven by economic interests, but it has gained political influence through rich infrastructure projects, aid programs and weapons sales. The only string attached for the most odious of its partners: that they not recognize Taiwan.

Gen. Jones has achieved much: executing the further enlargement of NATO, expanding allied military activities to three continents and launching a rapid-reaction force. Yet a Pentagon official says he may be remembered most "for bringing Africa into the building. He's used limited resources to leave a large footprint."

Shrugs Gen. Jones: "We have people starting to understand Africa really matters, and we need a strategy that hangs together. This is a 50-year problem, but we're getting at this on time. We are swimming with the waves instead of trying to catch up. If the wave gets ahead of you in a place like Africa, you never catch up."

Copyright © 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved