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The Great Game in Africa

Washington's emerging containment strategy.

12:00 AM, Oct 9, 2008 • By THOMAS M. SKYPEK
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But China's involvement in Africa is much more than economic and political. Of particular concern to Washington are Beijing's weapons sales to African nations, particularly small arms and light weapons. As the Congressional Research Service noted last year, "China views such sales as one means of enhancing its status as an international political power." China's proliferation of small arms and light weapons on the African continent to failed states and regions of conflict runs orthogonal to U.S. interests. As the Heritage Foundation's Peter Brookes noted in 2006, "Beiing's involvement in sub-Saharan African security issues has expanded to peacekeeping operations, exchange programs, and military deployments." China has established close military relationships with states such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria.

However, with last year's establishment of AFRICOM, President George W. Bush took an important step toward engaging in Africa and countering Chinese influence. The new command is as much of a diplomatic organization as it is military. AFRICOM's unique organizational structure leverages the broad capabilities of the U.S. national security establishment, as it is staffed with personnel from the Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce, the U.S. Agency for International Development as well as other government agencies. AFRICOM's key mission is to coordinate military-to-military relationships with Africa's 53 countries. Enabling activities include military exercises, information sharing, professional military education programs, public diplomacy and humanitarian projects. AFRICOM will continue to work with partner nations to curb arms smuggling, narcotics and human trafficking and to improve maritime security.

AFRICOM's commander, Army General William "Kip" Ward, is assisted by two deputies: Navy Vice Admiral Robert T. Moeller, who serves as the deputy for military operations, and Ambassador Mary Carlin Yates, who serves as the deputy for civil-military activities. Like George F. Kennan's original conception of containment, Washington's new strategy is based on much more than military might. The new command's integration of civilian and military leadership underscores this important point. AFRICOM's mission is as much diplomatic as it is military.

Once fully staffed, AFRICOM will have a staff of 1,300 personnel; roughly half of those will be civilians. As of June 2008, about 600 personnel were assigned to AFRICOM, which is currently headquartered at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart-Moehringen, Germany. AFRICOM's geographic area of responsibility will include the continent of Africa; the Islands of Cape Verde; Equatorial Guinea; Sao Tome and Principe; and the Indian Ocean islands of Comoros; Madagascar; Mauritius and Seychelles. AFRICOM's area of responsibility was once handled by U.S. European Command and to a lesser extent, U.S. Central Command. In terms of defense appropriations, AFRICOM was budgeted for $75.5 million for fiscal year 2008. The Defense Department requested nearly $400 million in fiscal year 2009 for its newest unified command. In September 2008, appropriators in the House of Representatives voted to provide $266 million for AFRICOM in fiscal year 2009.

In August 2008, U.S. Marine Major General Anthony Jackson of AFRICOM, and Brigadier General Ali Traore of Burkina Faso signed a new bilateral agreement to streamline future military cooperation enabling the two countries to exchange logistics support. In July 2008, AFRICOM and Malian personnel participated in a 19-day joint medical exercise to enhance bilateral response capabilities. As AFRICOM becomes fully staffed, the new command's ability to collaborate more extensively with partner nations will only increase.

The Bush administration has laid the foundation of a new containment strategy for its successor with the establishment of AFRICOM, enabling the United States to leverage more effectively its soft and hard power assets to contain China. The next administration will be forced to confront China's rise and its rapidly expanding influence in Africa. Writing in the November/December 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, Senator John McCain identified China's rise as a "central challenge" for the next president and cautioned against Beijing's expanding economic and diplomatic relations with African nations Sudan and Zimbabwe. In the coming years, Washington's new containment strategy will likely mature as China's balancing efforts in Africa collide with U.S. interests.

Thomas M. Skypek is a Washington-based defense analyst.