“Africa is a Command” – Bush to Obama to Trump

By electing President Obama we got through with race and became post-racial.  Now that we have elected Trump we are surely done with “political correctness”, so lets us speak plainly.  What is “Africa” as seen from Washington?
Well, surely Africa is a playground for so many characters, but that is nothing new at all, and we don’t really like to focus on that.  From Trump children big game hunting to politically engaged ministers and ex-diplomats involved in unusual investment schemes, Africa abides.  With election campaigns to run and autocrats to lobby for in Washington.  And missions and aid and economic investment programs continuing apace with varying degrees of pep and power in accordance with the visions and priorities of policy makers.

The thing that is new from U.S. vantage in this century is the overriding common legacy of the Bush and Obama administrations: AFRICOM (recognizing that the new command was primarily planned by the Bush Administration but did not “stand up” until Obama was almost in office).

I never had strong opinions about whether having a separate combatant command for Africa would be better or worse than than the status quo under CENTCOM, et al, that existed in my time working in Kenya and Somaliand in 2007-08.  It has escaped my attention if there are many Americans who see our policies in Africa during the Cold War as a highlight of our better angels, and I think on balance our aspirations for our relations in Africa in this century are higher than back in the past; nonetheless, largely staying out of Africa directly with our own military during the the Cold War and its initial aftermath may have reduced risks that are now potentially at play.

I think it is fair to say that ten years in the December 2006 Ethiopian operation to remove the ICU in Somalia with our support has not over time convinced all skeptics.  In fairness, perhaps, as with the French Revolution, it is still too early to tell.

So did having AFRICOM as a separate combatant command from late 2008 (with a new “whole-of-government” flavor and hardwired entre for USAID and State Department involvement) result in wiser judgment and better execution in terms of US national security and/or related and ancillary command objectives in recent years?

It is hard to judge because it is a big command (aside from the answer being, in substance, classified) but the experience with regard to the Libya intervention in particular is not altogether encouraging.

Would having CENTCOM engaged from Tampa rather than AFRICOM from Stuttgart have made a difference in some way to our consideration of intervention and our planning-perhaps more hard questions initially to Washington from a more “war wary” perspective as opposed to input from an entity with the bureaucratic equivalent of the “new car smell”?  [If inexperience was not a factor, what do we need to change to avoid future repetition if we agree that something went wrong on Libya?]

One way or the other, Trump takes office with AFRICOM at his command, a vast range of relatively small training interactions of a primarily “military diplomatic” nature all over, large exercises and larger programs with many militaries, active limited and largely low profile (from outside) “kinetic” operations  across a wide “arc of instability” and the war in Somalia with a new legal opinion, for what its worth, tying the fight against al Shabaab more explicitly to 9-11 and al Queda.  Along with a real live emergency in South Sudan and several other critical situations from a humanitarian and stability perspective.

I have declined to be persuaded by a dark view of the intentions behind standing up AFRICOM (versus the status  quo ante and any realistic alternatives).  Perhaps this is merely self protective since I am, after all, American, but also worked for much longer in the defense industry than my brief foray in paid assistance work.  But it is my attempt at honest judgment from my own experience.  Regardless, we are where we are, and Donald Trump will be giving the orders at the top to AFRICOM and whatever anyone had in mind, the fact that it is a military command rather than a civilian agency makes a great deal of difference in terms of the latitude that he inherited along with possession of the American White House.

Needless to say I hope it turns out that he has a yuge heart and bigly wisdom however fanciful that hope might look from what he has said and done so far.

My Memorial Day post: If a President Al Gore had invaded Iraq in 2003 with the support of Sen. Hillary Clinton . . .

all the current GOP presidential candidates would agree now that it was a foolish act of hubris given that the administration had in hindsight clearly been shown to have simply not known what they were doing.

I am not now nor have I even been a member of the Democratic party.  I worked in the defense industry throughout the whole bloody course of the Iraq war.  I even voted for George W Bush that first time in 2000 even though I knew deep down he had very thin, maybe too thin, experience on foreign and national security policy.  (In my defense I will say that I don’t think I should have been expected to know how strongly opposed many of his most senior advisers and subsequent appointees would turn out to be to the values he expressed in seeking our votes in his campaign that year.)

I certainly did not wish him to fail, nor did I wish the harm experienced by my country or by Iraq and its region from that decision but I cannot pretend it away.  It seems to me to be deeply misconceived for citizens of a democratic republic to create an “identity politics” around the competition of parties to the point of transcending a larger patriotism, moral and spiritual values, even the ability to observe and process basic facts.  Over 4000 Americans and over 100000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the Iraq war and the pre-ISIS aftermath and no one who wants to be the “leader of the free world” can plausibly duck an assessment of this war, of our choice, because of the identify of the party of the Commander in Chief at the time.

Part of the reason I took leave from my job and moved my family to East Africa in 2007 to work on democracy assistance is that I had seen how badly we were screwing up our relationships in the world by having embraced a doctrine of “preemptive war” that traditionally might have been seen as unworthy of our national ethos by both “hawks” and “doves” of other generations.  And how our biggest democracy assistance program, by far, was going in Iraq were it was in many respects too late in the wake of the invasion, as opposed to places like Kenya and Somaliland that were not at war where we had a bona fide opportunity to make a positive contribution.  The suspicions and damaged credibility of our country made the work more challenging even among those inclined to a positive view of our aspirations.

Other than the “moral injury” to our country as a whole, the Iraq war did me no personal harm–my taxes didn’t go up so my kids presumably get stuck with the bill, although it might cramp my Social Security and Medicare down the road.  I worked primarily in Navy shipbuilding, on which going to war or not going to war had relatively little business impact; we didn’t build more or less ships than we would have if we had not gone into Iraq from 2003-11.  Before we launched the invasion I was convinced by a senior friend in the industry who had been a naval officer that the sectarian situation in Iraq was beyond our grasp and I did not see the decision to launch the war as anything other than a huge risk that would have been warranted only by an extreme immediate threat which the Iraqi regime simply did not pose by any reasoned assessment.

But here at home now my dry cleaner is an Iraqi Christian.  Before we invaded, he was a medical doctor, a specialist, in his country, as was his wife.  He runs the cleaners himself six days a week, but will be closed and with his family for Memorial Day.  I’ll think of him with gratitude that he was able to get here and for the relative safety and freedom he has here, but with sadness that we elected to reach for the war hammer rather than have the patience to continue to turn the diplomatic screw in 2003 and in so doing upended his life, that of his family and community and his country.  (See Waiting for An Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq by Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi, excerpted here.  A must read, to accompany all the war and political reporting, on life for middle class Iraqis following the invasion, for those who want to learn from the war.)

I will mourn those Americans who gave their lives for the endeavor, especially those young people who volunteered out of patriotism to protect our country in the wake of the 9-11 attacks.  The rest of us collectively let them down and the very least that is required of us now is to learn from their sacrifice and do better together whatever our preferences of party or domestic ideology.

I will also be thinking with gratitude of my uncle who volunteered for the Navy in World War II as a 17 year old on the family farm after Pearl Harbor, made it home from the Pacific and is still with us at 90.  He he told me years ago that he did not believe we had any business taking it on ourselves to invade Iraq to change the regime without the support of the United Nations that we created with our allies in the wake of that war that he and his “greatest generation” fought at high but shared cost.  And his grandson, serving in the Air Force now, with his own young son.  Let us use his service wisely, with a judicious and open debate over what we ask him to do for us, being honest enough with ourselves to learn from the experiences that have cost the lives of others.
 

 

 

“War, Guns and Votes”? What will be the impact of Kenya’s war with Al Shabaab on the 2012/13 election?

AfriCommons, on FlickrGoing For Water

After three months it is now quite clear, if it wasn’t always, that Kenya’s military offensive against Al Shabaab across the border and into the Jubbaland region will be of indefinite duration rather than any type of quick strike. The fact that Kenya has sought and obtained UN approval for its forces to be added into the AMISOM “peacekeeping” mandate makes it clear that the Kenyan government does not have intentions to achieve any predetermined goals, declare victory and withdraw.

This creates an important dynamic in regard to the Kenyan election that doesn’t seem to be getting the discussion it deserves. A number of questions: will the heightened security requirements associated with the threat of terrorism from Al Shabaab also help secure the country against election violence? Or will security forces be used to intervene in the campaign instead, as in 2007? Will donors and international institutions supporting the election process be that much more unwilling to challenge electoral misconduct for the sake of perceived “stability”? Will Al Shabaab attempt to disrupt the elections or the campaign, or international support efforts? Will his role in the process enhance the campaign prospects for George Saitoti? What will be the impact on other candidates? What will be the impact on the presidential campaigns’ appeals to Muslim voters and organizations and will there be efforts by candidates to mobilize votes on the basis of religious tensions as well as ethnicity? I could go on and will try to explore this in coming posts.

Here is the latest summary on the war from the African Conflict Prevention Program from the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria:

Somalia: Kenya’s Military Offensive in Somalia

Kenya’s defence minister, Yusuf Haji, has called on the international community to provide logistical and financial support for his country’s on-going military offensive against Al-Shabaab in Somalia, particularly to enable the operation to take over the port-town of Kismayo. In justifying his call, the minister argued that even though Kenya’s Operation Linda Nchi was in response to a provocation by Al-Shabaab, Kenya is acting broadly in the collective interest of advancing international peace and security and fighting terror. It therefore requires the support of the international community in order to meet its objectives. Haji stated that the prime aim of the operation is to create a buffer on the Somali side of the border which should prevent the incursion of armed groups into Kenya. The debates and expectations of taking over Kismayo, in his view, are only imaginary.

The call for resources comes in the wake of developments regarding the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq and the recent United Nations endorsement of the merging of the Kenyan Defence Forces into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Within this context, there are good chances of Haji’s call being heeded by international actors and stakeholders. The uncertainty concerning the taking of Kismayo, however, raises two key issues. Firstly, in the event that the strategically important town remains untaken it would ensure that Al-Shabaab would remain a strong threat. Furthermore, the group can continually access the necessary resources needed to resist Kenya’s incursion. Secondly, given the expectations that have been built among the public about the taking of Kismayo, any delay or a change in strategy needs to be clearly communicated to Kenyans so as to help sustain public support for Operation Linda Nchi. This will help allay the perception that operational challenges and Kenyan fatalities have prevented the taking of Kismayo.

In a related development, Al-Shabaab is reported to have elevated Sheikh Ahmad Iman Ali, a leader of the Muslim Youth Center in Kenya, to the position of supreme leader (Emir) for the Al-Shabaab cell in Kenya. Sheikh Ali and his organisation have in the past been blamed for supporting Al-Shabaab through fundraising and the recruitment of fighters. He is known to have been operating in Somalia since 2009. His elevation appears to be a move by the group to organise its activities in Kenya more robustly in order to be able to take the battle into Kenya. Moreover, this comes in the wake of security alerts by western embassies in Nairobi that a terror plot seems to be underway. Sheikh Ali, has also created propaganda videos and called upon jihadists in and outside Kenya to join his cause. In a recent video produced by Al-Kataib Media Foundation, the official video wing of Al-Shabaab, Sheikh Ali appealed to the group’s loyalists to join the battle, declaring Kenya a war zone and Somalia a land of jihad.

Here is the link to a new policy paper from Ken Menkhaus for the Enough Project: “After the Kenyan Intervention in Somalia”.

Are we watching the early stages of a broader conflict in the Greater Horn of Africa?

Now that Kenya has initiated a full-fledged ground war in Southern Somalia, the obvious and necessary question becomes “what are the near term unintended consequences?”. It is hard to be too clear about what is “unintended” because Kenya’s intentions, on either the military or the political side, are not altogether clear in the first place, but here is one possibility that few would desire:

Simon Allison posits in South Africa’s Daily Maverick: “Kenya’s Somali raid threatens to explode into regional conflict”, noting Kenya’s confrontation with Eritrea regarding alleged arms flights to supply Al Shabaab:

. . . This begs the question: what does Eritrea have to gain by funding a Somali Islamic fundamentalist militia?

The answer lies neither in Somalia nor Eritrea, but in the country that looms large between them: Ethiopia. Ethiopia is Eritrea’s nemesis, having occupied Eritrea for decades until Eritrea achieved its modern independence with a hard-fought and vicious civil war. But Eritrea can’t relax, ever, because it has the one thing that land-locked Ethiopia wants more than anything else in this world: a port. And rapprochement is not the style of Eritrea’s slightly mad President Isaias Afwerki, whose militaristic foreign policy has left Eritrea in the international wilderness.

Instead, Afwerki has fomented instability in Somalia, hoping the chaos next door will keep Ethiopia and its military occupied. Ethiopia is deeply involved in the Somali conflict itself, and its troops make frequent cross-border raids to chase rebels who are agitating against the Ethiopian government in the ethnically Somali province of the Ogaden. As International Crisis Group’s Somalia expert Rashid Abdi explains: “Eritrea definitely has been supportive of Al Shabaab for a long time and this support is not ideological. It’s essentially meant to counter Ethiopia’s influence in Somalia.”

So while we don’t know if it really was Eritrea sending planeloads of weapons to Al Shabaab during the current conflict with Kenya, this nonetheless represents the first step in turning what is a domestic conflict into a larger, regional issue. In a way, it doesn’t really matter if Eritrea was involved or not, as long as Kenya thinks they were, they will be implicated.

Kenya has said it will pursue its claims against Eritrea, saying that it has a “series of options” to deal with them. It’s unclear what these options are, but it’s unlikely that any of them will ease tensions in the Horn of Africa. And whenever Eritrea gets involved in something, it’s not long before Ethiopia follows suit – on the opposite side, of course. So what started out as a Somali issue might just turn into something much, much bigger, not forgetting that Uganda and Burundi are already involved as they are the only countries to have contributed troops to the African Union mission in Somalia.

Kenya hoped its Somali incursion would be quick and easy. But its troops are getting bogged down in the mud and are struggling to even find the enemy. And on the diplomatic front, as the incursion starts looking more and more like an invasion, other countries are inevitably getting involved, making it even less likely that Kenya can extricate itself from Somalia quickly or easily.

U.S. Drones and TFG Join in Kenyan Offensive; Embassy Warns Americans in Kenya

From the Daily Nation:

Al Shabaab militants were on the back foot on Saturday evening as they faced heavy bombardment from multiple fronts from a combined force of Kenyan troops, US drones, African Union peacekeepers and Transitional Federal Government fighters.

Reports from the battlefront indicated that Kenyan troops were advancing towards four al Shabaab-controlled towns as they launched a final push to capture the Kismayu port and Afmadow in Central Jubaland.

There was progress on the diplomatic front, too, when the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) member states endorsed the military offensive against the militants during a special conference held in Addis Abba Ethiopia on Friday.

The Igad Council of Ministers urged the United Nations Security Council to impose a blockade on Kismayu, a move which will effectively cut off billions of shillings collected by the militants to fund their insurgency.

A statement from the military said Kenyan security forces were advancing towards Burgavo town in southern Somalia after capturing Oddo on Friday. (READ: Kenya targets al Shabaab’s lifeline)

Another group was marching towards the town of Badade from the direction of Kolbio which they conquered on Friday. The troops had earlier bombed areas around Munarani near Oddo from the air, flattening an al Shabaab command centre.

“US Warns of Imminent Threat in Kenya” from Reuters in The Standard, indicates that the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi Saturday issued a warning with the usual language regarding risk to Americans in Kenya from reprisal attacks on prominent facilities or places known for concentration of Westerners, and indicated that official American travel to Kenya would be curtailed.