The central role of Africom, the U.S. Africa Command, in the civil war in Libya, while geographically determined by Libya’s position in North Africa, complicates the Pentagon’s careful strategy of wooing African governments with promises of technical assistance, while reassuring these same political leaders that Africom doesn’t represent an effort by the U.S. to intervene militarily in their countries. This last question is especially important since most African nation-states that are nominally at peace experience some form of seccessionist or ethnic movements within their borders. For instance, famously peaceful Senegal continues to witness resistance from within its Casamance district. In the anglophone area of Cameroon, calls for regional autonomy (and even union with neighboring Nigeria) persist. Some Acholi of northern Uganda dream of union with the new nation of South Sudan. And so on, across the continent.
To the extent that U.S. military forces show discipline and restraint, African governments expect to accomodate the legitimate desire of the Pentagon to operate an Africa command. Which is why the Libya intervention raises so many concerns, at least in the abstract — because the very commanders in charge of overall Afrcom operations have been intimately involved in the Libya campaign.
The most urgent question is whether these officers, especially Africom’s “air boss” Maggie Woodward, ought to temporarily give up their posts in favor of a Libya-specific assignment. Africom’s many programs of engagement with African military establishments around the continent would seem to be undermined by the presence of commanders actively engaged in a war on African soil. By shifting these officers, perhaps including Africom’s ultimate chief Army General Carter Ham, the Pentagon could continue its pan-African activities without the risk of individual African countries concluding that they were somehow, however remotely, colluding and cooperating with a Pentagon military action they may oppose or at least hold deep reservations about.
Supporters of Africom argue that the command’s role in Libya demonstrates its “minimalistic” approach to the continent. But critics say the Pentagon has risked too much in the current intervention.
From its inception in 2007, Africom has been presented by its architects (and promoters such as the writer Nathan Hodge) as “unlike a traditional military command” because of it heavy focus “on humanitarian and development issues. The Libya campaign may alter this carefully cultivated image — and prove that the risks were greater than the rewards of this military intervention of African ground.