Ryan Henry, principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, held a briefing on April 23 about the future opening of the new Africa Command (AFRICOM).  It will join other U.S. commands that coordinate military and interagency operations for the Middle East, Latin America, Europe, and the Pacific.  In her influential book The Mission, Dana Priest called the commanders of these regional headquarters “virtual proconsuls” in America’s informal global empire.  According to Henry, “The goal of AFRICOM is to support indigenous governments, not to assert U.S. primacy on the continent.”  AFRICOM will encompass 52 countries—every state on the continent except Egypt, which will stay within the Middle East’s Central Command.

According to the briefing, “Africa represents about 35 percent of the world’s land mass, about 25 percent of the world’s population . . . [which includes] 400 million Muslims, 400 million non-Muslims—very significant amount of natural resource . . . but most especially a remarkable human potential on the continent.”  Yet, organizing the new command on the basis of continental geography rather than on a political and strategic basis is problematic.  The Horn of Africa, which has been a radical Muslim hot spot, should have stayed in Central Command; the Mediterranean coastal states should have been left in the European Command.

The Bush administration is not alone in looking to expand its influence in Africa.  A Beijing Summit on China-Africa Cooperation was held last November, following numerous visits to Africa by Chinese President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and Foreign Minister Li Zhao-xing.  President Hu made another trip to Africa in February.

The Washington-based Jamestown Foundation devoted the April 5 issue of its journal China Brief to Africa.  Mauro De Lorenzo, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, noted in the lead article that “What distinguishes China’s involvement in Africa from that of other nations is that it is accompanied by a clear government policy in support of African commercial ventures, abundant financing and tax benefits for Chinese firms operating abroad and robust diplomacy toward the region.”  Chinese interest, however, is focused on securing raw materials and energy supplies, not local economic development.  Most of the increase in trade since 2000 has been oil imports from the Sudan and Angola.  Beijing likes to call this “complementary” trade, paid for by Chinese exports of manufactured goods.  But this is also the old colonial pattern that keeps the resource suppliers underdeveloped, while their fuel and metals go to support economic growth in China.

China has come under criticism for her protection of the Islamic Sudanese regime, which is waging genocide against non-Muslim Africans in Darfur.  Beijing has used its veto power at the United Nations to block sanctions and limit the use of peacekeeping forces.  Supplying weapons and training to regime forces and deploying substantial Chinese security troops to protect its investments undercuts Beijing’s claim that it opposes “intervention” in Africa’s internal affairs.  It just opposes intervention by others.  Beijing has also been arming the brutal, failed regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

In the late 19th century, there was a “scramble for Africa” among the major European powers.  In the course of two decades, the entire continent was placed under European flags.  Britain held the most lucrative areas, Egypt and South Africa, the latter attracting substantial white settlement.  Despite investing much blood and treasure there, however, London’s efforts returned little.  Even in 1906, with the region fairly stable, Africa (including Egypt) was a market for less than ten percent of British exports.

Sub-Saharan Africa was a strategic backwater during both world wars.  During the Cold War, the Soviets tried to exploit national-liberation movements to spread their influence.  Fidel Castro provided Cuban troops to spearhead Moscow’s efforts, but, instead of wealth and glory, the expeditions brought home only an AIDS epidemic.

In 2006, U.S. trade with Sub-Saharan Africa showed a deficit of $47.1 billion, with exports of only $12.1 billion against imports of $59.2 billion.  Most of this trade was oil related, and with only two countries: Nigeria ($27.9 billion of imports against $2.2 billion of exports) and Angola ($11.7 billion of imports against $1.5 billion in exports).  A two-way trade volume of $71.3 billion with this region is trivial out of a total U.S. world-trade volume of $3.6 trillion.  Africa is still a poor, high-risk region, as the Chinese learned on April 24 when Somali rebels raided their oil field at Abole, Ethiopia, killing 74 local and Chinese workers.

At his briefing, Henry said “that AFRICOM was not being stood up in response to Chinese presence on the continent.  It was not being stood up solely for the effort of enhanced counterterrorism, and it was not being stood up in order to secure resources.”  So why is this new command being created?  It fills a gap on Pentagon maps, but it appears to have no strategic mission worth the effort.  With American forces overstretched in regions of much greater value, it can only be hoped that Henry’s claim that “AFRICOM does not mean the dramatic increase in resources to the African continent from the Department of Defense or from the U.S. government” will be firm policy.