No articulation of US military strategy by Obama in Africa

Despite the recent wave of media coverage highlighting the increased militarization of U.S. foreign policy in Sub-Saharan Africa, President Obama did not once mention AFRICOM in what senior White House officials referred to as the President’s “overarching Africa policy speech” at the University of Cape Town on Sunday, June 20, 2013 (read speech here). The President acknowledged the increasing attention towards U.S. military operations on the continent in exactly one brief aside, stating:

“I know there’s a lot of talk of America’s military presence in Africa.  But if you look at what we’re actually doing, time and again, we’re putting muscle behind African efforts.  That’s what we’re doing in the Sahel, where the nations of West Africa have stepped forward to keep the peace as Mali now begins to rebuild.  That’s what we’re doing in Central Africa, where a coalition of countries is closing the space where the Lord’s Resistance Army can operate.  That’s what we’re doing in Somalia, where an African Union force, AMISOM, is helping a new government to stand on its own two feet.”

This account, however, neither reflects the reality of these specific engagements nor lays out the broader strategy behind expanded U.S. military operations across the continent.

Over the past four years, the United States has spent between $520 million and $600 million to combat extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa with the strategic intention to avoid the kind of direct military engagements it has waged in the Middle East. A complex multi-year counterterrorism operation has stretched from Morocco to Nigeria, the most recent and high-visibility partner nation of which has been the Malian military.

That President Obama’s increasingly militaristic U.S. foreign policy elicited protests by youth, civil rights and political organizations across South Africa should not be underestimated. In an increasingly horizontal world order, the United States will be held ever-more accountable for the consistency between its words and actions – particularly when its physical military presence and policies of engagements are perceived by civilians on the ground as contributing to human rights abuses and political destabilization.

U.S.-backed efforts to contain al-Shabaab militarily in Somalia, for example, have resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Somalis, exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation. Ethiopia and Kenya’s military interventions in Somalia – both supported by the United States – catalyzed one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history and have instigated extensive retaliatory attacks on civilians.

U.S. military presence may also be contributing to the perpetration of human rights abuses against civilians. Under current operations, U.S. Special Forces have been tasked to train African troops on marksmanship, border patrol, ambush drills and other counterterrorism skills. In many cases, however, U.S. troops did not allocate sufficient training on ethics or human rights these training sessions. Recent reports have cited incidents of rape, torture and abuse by U.S.-trained police forces in Kenya, the DRC and Uganda – and the reports and concerns continue.

This critique of the consequences of U.S. foreign military engagement is not unique. On June 2012, a large group of transnational scholars sent a letter to President Obama and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton blaming U.S. security assistance policies for the political destabilization and violence in Honduras and across the United States, stating: “U.S. appeasement and support of the violent agents of a rogue state have destroyed our fledgling democracy, brought us greater insecurity and a human rights catastrophe.” The letter urged the U.S. government to rescind all military assistance “support” until it could prove that no beneficiaries of these monies were involved I human rights abuses or support for a repressive regime – and warned US leaders that “History will see the emperor without his clothes on.”

According to data from Special Operation Command, U.S. Special Forces are currently operating in anywhere from 8 – 15 African countries. Both partner governments and international human rights groups have expressed a desire for the United States to shift its policies of engagement to reflect President Obama’s rhetorical emphasis on democracy, good governance, and strong institutions as the foundations for security and development – and to not repeat the same mistakes of failed U.S. military engagement.

The U.S. Congress has the opportunity to help shift this rhetoric to reality in the coming weeks as it marks up its FY2014 State & Foreign Operations appropriations bills – the legislation that authorizes funding for much of the U.S. counterterrorism, human rights and development assistance funding.

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