Thursday, November 19, 2009

AFRICOM's Sensitive Ego

Foreign Policy has an article out titled "Think Again: Africom" by Elizabeth Dickinson. It's a little light, but that's not surprising given where it's been published (these are the people who see fit to give Tom Ricks a forum). Once you get past the fact that they consistently refer to the command as Africom (as opposed to its real name which is AFRICOM), I don't see anything factually incorrect with this article. At a minimum, it addresses the "conventional wisdom" surrounding the command, probably without adequately addressing all of the issues that drive that CW, or prove or disprove said CW. Not like the paper I highlighted here.

Probably most interesting in all of this (if you've already read the CRS paper) is that someone from the AFRICOM Public Affairs Office, a Vince Crawley, commented on the article. That is odd coming from a combatant command. And I don't think Mr. Crawley makes very persuasive arguments, it just sounds like complaining about some very valid concerns surrounding AFRICOM. But could you imagine CENTCOM responding to every article about it? Especially ones that are actually pretty objective? Very bizarre. The AFRICOM PAO doesn't seem all that ready to handle the messaging issues that the command will require. If you doubt me, look them up on Facebook and see what they put out every day. I'm sure you'll be equally unimpressed.


  1. It's been pointed out to me that I may have sounded critical of the cited CRS report on AFRICOM in the thread where we discussed this previously. For the record, I should state that I think the report is excellent (as is almost everything else that I've read from CRS), and I have no beef whatsoever with its content or tone. My only question was whether there had been some sort of update or major revision to the paper I read two years ago, because I didn't see it indicated anywhere. Anyway, it's a great report. I actually recommended it to a whole room full of people in a meeting about Army activities in Africa last week.

    As for the Dickinson piece, I think it's pretty terrible. I know FP makes hay off of trying to be edgy and controversial, and this "Think Again" concept is even more skewed in that direction. But this piece is poorly written and informed throughout by a total misunderstanding of what AFRICOM is all about. I'm not going to go through and pick apart the mistakes and misunderstandings one-by-one, but here's a representative example:

    So for those worried about an oppressive U.S. military presence in Africa, the question may be less what the U.S. troops are doing as what missions they are training African troops to carry out.

    Here's the thing: what troops? It's a HEADQUARTERS and a staff; there are no organic forces (unless you want to talk about CJTF-HOA, but that's sort of something different). Of course AFRICOM can source forces to carry out particular missions (just like every other COCOM), but it's not like AFRICOM is made up of ten brigades sitting around in Stuttgart or Vicenza waiting to go tromp around in Africa.

  2. Dickinson makes consistent reference to the fact that AFRICOM doesn't have "clear definition" or assigned tasks. Guess what? Neither do other COCOMs! Here's what COCOMS do: (ready?) they plan, direct, and execute military operations. The services are responsible for proving the COCOMs with trained and ready forces with which to execute these operations. Now this doesn't always mean combat operations, of course -- there's training exercises, there's security cooperation, there's shaping operations, and so on. But a COCOM's job is to get ready to fight, and to perform any other operations that may be useful in attaining desired regional/theater objectives and endstates. Period.

    We've got a whole talk going on over in another thread about the so-called militarization of foreign aid if anyone's particularly interested in that line. To me, this point feels sort of jammed in; when you talk about the military taking over traditionally (and appropriately) civilian roles in conflict environments, that's usually not going to be in Africa; we're really talking about places where the military has been engaged previously in combat operations. I don't see DoD running a whole lot of stability-only ops in places where State ought to be handling the business.

    And the military's hands are usually far less tied by paperwork, earmarks, and procurement restrictions than civilian agencies, particularly the notoriously bureaucratic U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

    Yet more evidence that Dickinson is probably not that familiar with the way the military works. Check out the various authorities for the U.S. military to provide aid, assistance, training, equipment, or pretty much anything else to foreign partners and then get back to me on how easy it is.

    Sometimes, the military is indeed right for the job -- for example, when the task is actual military training, funds for which are today still allocated to State.

    I could (and probably should) go into this subject at length, but for now let's leave it at this: military training money is allocated to State because training is purchased by a customer in the same way that equipment is, and the provision of military assistance is still foreign policy. If you're complaining now about the military taking over jobs that civilians should be doing, how are you going to feel when you give security assistance money to DoD and the Pentagon is running its own independent foreign policy through arms sales?

    Ugh, I'm getting into picking this apart line-by-line, which I didn't want to do, so I'll just leave it there for now. Thanks for the heads-up on this article, Gunslinger.

  3. Jesus, I just got to this part:

    The counterinsurgency and the African Security worlds are beginning to merge, or at least mix, in the world of ideas in Washington. The two groups may well share also their failure or success.

    This is completely insane. AFRICOM has nothing to do with counterinsurgency. Here's an example of a crazy buzzword catching on and being repeatedly used without due consideration for WHAT IT ACTUALLY MEANS. Is Phase 0 shaping and conflict prevention now considered counterinsurgency? Is development counterinsurgency? Security sector reform? Security assistance or foreign aid?

    No! Not just "no," but hell no, obviously not!

  4. @USArmyAfrica on twitter is the same way ! Check out this item for fun: (middle of page)

    submitted by

  5. Also check out me and AFRICOM's "Vince" going at it in the comments after this NewsWeek item:

  6. I've got to be honest with you here and say that I find absolutely nothing wrong with AFRICOM PAO being proactive and trying to engage in social media and the blogosphere to tell their story. Maybe it's because I have experience with military public affairs and strategic communications, but I think it's totally understandable that commands and DoD organizations would want to get the message out on their terms, as press accounts are often going to be 1) mistaken and 2) not particularly charitable.

    Crawley is a very good writer and he explains the command's perspective in an effective and polite way. I've got no problem with this, and I certainly don't view it as AFRICOM being overly sensitive.

  7. I guess I ought to correct my last and say "press analysis is often going to be mistaken." I'm not so concerned about the accounting of the facts as the contextless and paranoid interpretation often provided by civilian writers who, as in Dickinson's case, frequently seem to lack a clue.