Karen Blixen’s evocative 1937 memoir “Out of Africa” was about the British Empire’s experience in Kenya at the beginning of the 20th century, when European powers were scrambling to consolidate colonies across the massive landmass of Africa. Over the ensuing century, Africa has gone through massive decolonization, a population expansion, and enormous turmoil. Recently, US involvement, while episodic at best, has at least helped contain the rise of violent extremism. But the US is now considering withdrawing much of its military and intelligence capabilities in a shift designed to free up resources for a renewal of “great power competition.” This potential move out of Africa is a mistake, and we should examine the reasons for a sensible level of US security involvement on the continent.
The size and scale of Africa are important to understand, as are its economic and demographic growth. The continent is huge — you could fit China, India, the US (minus Alaska) and western Europe into it comfortably. It is a continent rich in diamonds, gold, rare earths, excellent farmland, and other natural resources including oil and vast, flowing rivers. Economically, the continent is the second-fastest-growing in the world and may hit 4% annual growth (despite many challenges, especially in the larger economies). Sudan, Senegal, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya are all pushing 8% growth. And from a population perspective, it already represents 16% of the world at 1.3 billion people, projected to grow to 2.5 billion by 2050 and perhaps 4.5 billion by the century’s end. Demographically, it is exploding. Nigeria, with a massive population spurt and a youthful populace, has been called the “Black China.”
But Africa’s future — despite its manifest advantages — is dependent on creating stable systems of governance and overcoming pockets of violent extremism that are dangerous and spreading. In west Africa, the ultraviolent group Boko Haram maintains a stronghold on much of northeast Nigeria; in east Africa, the al-Shabab group conducts constant terror attacks up and down the coast of the continent; piracy is still at work both in the Gulf of Guinea and the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean; and the entire Sahel — the region separating the northern Arab states from sub-Saharan Africa — has a strong and violent strain of al-Qaeda at work. And of course in the northern tier, ISIS is still attempting to recruit and conduct operations along the Mediterranean Sea.
With the creation of US Africa Command in 2007, the US military began to focus with great seriousness on working toward a more secure environment throughout the continent. At the time, I was a four-star combatant command in Miami at US Southern Command; I had my hands full in Latin America and the Caribbean with a virulent insurgency in Colombia, massive narcotics smuggling throughout the region, Cuban influence rising, Hezbollah in many spots, and an increasing level of Chinese political, intelligence, and military activity. In some ways, the challenges were similar in Africa, and I reached out to my new counterpart, General Kip Ward. He wisely decided to use a blend of hard and soft power to counter the security challenges, much as we were doing in Latin America. He had both a military deputy (a three-star officer) and a civilian deputy (an ambassador), the latter in charge of merging diplomacy, development, and defense, as well as coordinating efforts across agencies (State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, Drug Enforcement Administration, National Security Agency, etc.). I saw the command stand up and create a wave of momentum, eventually deploying around combat 7,000 troops but also working medical diplomacy, humanitarian operations, counternarcotics, disaster relief, rule of law, and other soft-power initiatives.
All of that has had a real effect in combating terrorism — both indigenous and the even more concerning export variety — against the groups noted above. One notable effort has been against the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, which operates on the borders of Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. US troops have trained and provided intelligence and logistic support to the multinational task force that is fighting them. Efforts against al-Shabab, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups have been vital, and US capabilities are central to maintaining international coalition support from the Europeans and others. Africa is a place where that blend of hard and soft power — sometimes called smart power — is necessary to help our allies, partners, and friends.
It is worth noting the relatively low cost of these efforts. The budget of US Africa Command (like US Southern Command) is a tiny fraction of what we are spending, for example, in the Middle East. With only 7,000 troops forward-deployed, it is well below the Middle East (50,000), Europe (40,000), Afghanistan (12,000) and Asia (80,000). The return on investment in both people and dollars is considerable, and given the long-range potential of Africa, it would be foolish to walk away from the efforts of over a decade in setting up what is now a vibrant and effective combatant command.
Ironically, the real recipients of a US withdrawal from the region would not only be the terrorist groups, but China as well. The Chinese are already conducting a wide variety of military training missions coupled with the global commercial outreach of their Belt and Road Initiative, which is strongest in Africa. They will be more than happy to step in and fill the vacuum created by a US departure. So if the objective of this drawdown is to conserve resources to meet the rising threat from China (and Russia), pulling out of Africa seems particularly counterproductive: It will cede a huge, fast-growing, and ultimately crucial global zone to Chinese influence. Now is simply not the time for us to go out of Africa.