Friday, October 26, 2007

AFRICOM: A failure to communicate

I’ve covered some of the debate surrounding the U.S. military adventures in East Africa and the Sahel. But I haven’t written much about AFRICOM. That’s partly because it’s just been finalized and policies don't seem to be firmed up.

Born out of a recent reorganization in the Pentagon, AFRICOM will be the first U.S. military command solely responsible for Africa and a few outlying island states. Its basic premise will allow U.S. soldiers to work directly with African militaries and build “local security capacity,” claims Theresa Whelan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs. Peace keeping will be a high priority for the training agenda as will maritime security. These trainings will hopefully build local capacity so when security issues arise, African militaries can manage them without relying on the international community.

But there's more. AFRICOM basically follows the leads of Operation Enduring Freedom in the Horn of Africa and a second program in the Sahel, where the U.S. military has expanded its traditional role. Instead of solely providing training, U.S. soldiers will also assist local populations with engineering and humanitarian support, simple development chores like digging wells or providing medical, dental and veterinarian service.

For those in the development field, herein lies a red flag. Where is the line drawn between “military support” and “development assistance”? (Or, where is the line drawn between working with corrupt militaries and their usual prey, the local population?) Well, the Pentagon admits, that lined is purposely blurred. According to this FAQ, AFRICOM’s goals include: “[T]o better enable the Department of Defense and other elements of the U.S. government, to work in concert and with partners to achieve a more stable environment in which 1) political and economic growth can take place and 2) humanitarian and development assistance can be used more effectively.”

Again, there’s more. Rumors persist that the U.S. is looking for a base in Africa to station AFRICOM. Since the end of 2002, around 1,800 U.S. soldiers and civilian employees have worked out of Camp Lemonier in Djibouti City, Djibouti, providing security assistance for trouble spots in East Africa and doing some of that aforementioned winning over the hearts and minds. In the Sahel program, soldiers don’t stay long in one country, so a base has not been a necessity.

But…The U.S. government has allegedly asked around for the use of space in a number of African countries. African governments have turned them down – and the South Africans have coordinated a large “no” block in southern tip of the continent. (On the other hand, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf freely admits she supports AFRICOM’s general principal.)

As you can see, one problem concerning AFRICOM is the lack of detail. Yet this dearth of information hasn’t stopped people from speculating like a stock market bonanza.

AFRICOM: the new militarization of Africa.
AFRICOM: the U.S. digging in to protect its oil interests in Africa.
AFRICOM: An expensive development program.

These stories are mostly opinion and analysis pieces. My worry begins when unverified opinionating finds its way into news stories from the mainstream press.

Here is a story from National Public Radio.

“AFRICOM is about oil," says Sandra Barnes, the founding director of the Africa Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

But, she adds, AFRICOM is also about China.

Barnes points out that China is now one of the largest foreign donors to Africa. The continent is awash in Chinese exports and today, China brings in more oil from Angola than it does from Saudi Arabia.

Over the past five years, China has also started to develop oil platforms in the Gulf of Guinea, worrying officials at the Pentagon and the State Department. Many Africa analysts say that's the main reason the U.S. is pursuing AFRICOM.

So, what is it oil or China?

How are we supposed to know? Curious listeners could believe the unverified opinions of the director of the African Studies Center from the University of Pennsylvania. Or, they could? Believe the unverified opinions of the director of the African Studies Center from the University of Pennsylvania.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Let me put this another way. The press has been rightly criticized for allowing the government to frame the debate in the years directly after Sept. 11, 2001. When their assertions were mostly debunked in the Iraq war, government critics felt vindicated – and reporters began chasing them down for quotes. That doesn't address the real problem. Any so-called expert worth tenure has more than enough ability to lead journalists down wild goose chases.

I am not trying to carp on NPR here. Nor am I against placing opinions in news stories. What I don’t like is allowing speculation to fly unverified through the airwaves.

The role of the media is to help readers/listeners understand an issue. To do this, the press has a responsibility to stop the debate from spinning out of control. We’re here to provide context. And with that comes the responsibility to say “how do you know that?”

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