Do we understand perceptions of U.S. military involvement in Africa?

Earlier this week, The Independent published an interview with Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani, “Somalia, Museveni, and Militarising the Region.” The interview was a good read and confirmed many of my suspicions of Uganda’s (read: President Museveni’s) perception of the country’s role in regional security. However, I was slightly annoyed at his allusions to the U.S. military’s role in the matter because I think he made it seem like Uganda’s militaristic proclivities were as a result of the U.S. military engagement in the region. I think it’s an oversimplification for him to allude to the United States causing Uganda to be more militaristic. It is, however, fair to say that increased U.S. military engagement in the region has probably facilitated a trend that was organic to the Museveni regime.

Regardless, the article reminded me of a conversation I had with a handful of academics several years ago about African perceptions of U.S. military engagement in Africa. I was in an East African country for a conference, and after the first day, a bunch of us went out to dinner. As the token American on the trip who also happened to work on African security issues, I was soon confronted with complaints about increased U.S. military activity in the region since 9/11, and most particularly, criticisms of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). My first instinct was to be defensive. After all, I did (and still do) believe that a military command whose priority was Africa (like U.S. Central Command’s priority is the Middle East and U.S. Pacific Command’s priority is the Asia-Pacific region) was, in principle, a good thing. This was also around the time that AFRICOM was doing a lot of damage control because the public relations part of rolling out a new combatant command hadn’t gone over well in many parts of Africa. However, I quickly realized that as an objective analyst, it wasn’t my job to defend what the U.S. military was doing, but rather to shut my trap and listen.

The more salient points of the ensuing conversation were as follows:

  • U.S. policies in Africa are contradictory, and mixed messages delegitimize U.S. engagement. For example, we preach good governance while simultaneously supporting corrupt regimes.
  • Military-to-military engagement, as envisioned by AFRICOM, was not ideal because it strengthened regimes that were democratic on paper, but not in reality, such as Uganda and Ethiopia. Furthermore, they were concerned that U.S. military training could be used to suppress popular discontent and keep authoritarian leaders in power.
  • Many blamed the U.S. military for the fallout of its counterterrorism-focused operations in the region since 9/11. They were particularly concerned that kinetic counterterrorism operations were destabilizing to the region, and created terrorist problems in areas where they did not exist before

While I learned quite a bit from this conversation, I realized that I needed to take the academics’ points with a grain of salt for two reasons. First, these academics were all from the Horn of Africa, where U.S. strategy has been executed through an almost exclusively counterterrorism lens. This may explain their hostile views on U.S. military involvement in Africa. Second, my dinner companions all came from academia or think tanks, so their perspectives were a subset of civil society perspectives in the Horn of Africa.

This experience, which was reawakened by the Mamdani interview, made me wonder what other perceptions of increased U.S. military engagement in Africa are out there. Do perceptions differ by region or by position in society? It would be nice to be able to systematically gather those perspectives from ministers in African governments, members of parliament, and members of civil society, including NGOs, advocacy groups, academia, and the media. If I ever got the opportunity to collect that data, I think I would get closer the answering that question. Because I think it’s an important question to answer if the United States plans to continue security cooperation with African countries.

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9 responses

  1. […] last but not least, Lesley Anne Warner asks, ”Do we understand perceptions of U.S. military involvement in Africa?” The […]

  2. Take Mali – Africom could train Malian troops forever, and they still would never go after Al Qaeda in the desert or uphold law & order. President ATT’s only use for the army was to keep touaregs down, and in the end they proved totally impotent in doing that anyway. So what good did Africom do?
    You Americans are being too nice. Stop tip-toeing around and don’t be afraid to use your power. People will be/act hurt or insulted whatever you do, so why try to please everyone. Do like the Chinese or French – use your muscles, be they economical, political or military and be clear about what you wish in return for your participation.
    Chinese don’t have congressional hearings. French have played under the table forever. You could get the moral upper hand and gain public support by simply talking straight.

    1. Thanks for your comment, but I disagree. I think that particularly for conflict prevention and partner capacity-building missions, if we’re able to develop a better understanding of who the relevant stakeholders are and what equities they have, we might be able to avoid misperceptions and miscommunications. But perhaps I’m too idealistic.

  3. Lesley, what do you make of Prof. Mahmood Mamdani’s last sentence below?

    What are the implications for Uganda’s involvement in Somalia?

    I think the Congo war introduced some element of jealousy in the Ugandans. They envied the military capacity of Angolans and Zimbabweans. Uganda wanted to be the Angola of this part of the world but did not have the means, which for Angola came from oil. Uganda solved the problem by finding an ally in the US. Thus was born the Somalia project. I think Uganda’s military presence in the region is pegged on that. Somalia is Uganda’s claim that we have a solution for your security concerns in the region. It fits very nicely with the American claim that the primary problem of Africa is not development, nor democracy, nor even the lack of human rights, but security.

    1. Sam,

      Re: Mamdani’s last sentence in that section of the interview, I think he oversimplifies the way the U.S. addresses security in the developing world. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan really forced us to learn that security is necessary for solving a country’s problems, but it is not sufficient. The problem, however, is that the U.S. has a narrow understanding of security (i.e., state security instead of a human security-state security continuum), and that we are neither conceptually nor bureaucratically set up to understand the nature of security in the developing world. I think that issues of development and democracy can become security issues, and in a globalized security environment, they have the potential to become threats to the U.S. But I see many signs that we’re backing away from that causal logic, which was largely a post-9/11 phenomenon.

      That’s my view on the topic in brief, but I could write a whole manifesto on how the U.S. understands security.

  4. Lesley,

    I see your point. Here is my view. Unless a nation has democratic mechanism by which grievances and disagreements of governance are solved peacefully through free and fair elections by voting, you end up with violence of many kinds being committed by two sides against each other – those in power against those who are not and vice versa. Those in power oppress to stay in control while those suppressed rise up to over through the oppressor.

    All countries that were colonized got independence from their colonizers the hard way. Then after independence, many of those former colonies are now being ruled by dictators whether by monarchy or through fake elections, either way you end up with a family or the same corrupt leaders in power for decades. And behind every dictator, they is limitless “GREED”.
    Now another dimension has been added to the equation and that is religious extremism.

    In short, it is governance by either ballot or bullet. It is either Democratic leadership or undemocratic leadership which leads to soon or later insecurity.
    As you very well know, this insecurity can spread or involve other countries, case in point is USA- 9/11 and Congo DRC formerly Zaire, when about 6 countries got involved militarily as dictator Mobutu was getting kicked out.

    Lesley, could you please elaborate on your statement: “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan really forced us to learn that security is necessary for solving a country’s problems”.

    What country’s problems are you talking about? I thought that insecurity in itself is a problem. Are you talking about learning something new such as: “It is difficult if not impossible to establish a democratic process of a free and fair election in a country without security?” Please, help me with that, because I know you are an intelligent lady.

    Show me a country that is undemocratic, I will show you a country that is insecure or sooner than later will be.

    I learned a little lesson, but important, from a very old man in a retirement home when I asked him to explain to me what good is served to have mid term Congress elections of the house were elected officials constantly have to be raising money all the time to run every other year instead of doing the job they were sent to the Capital Hill to do, which is to legislate.

    Here is what he told me: “To keep a big country such as USA together under control, you have to have pressure release valve very often.”

    1. Sure, I can clarify what I meant by my reference to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan comes. First, working in conflict or post-conflict environments forced the US to learn that security was an important pillar for reconstruction, in addition to governance, economics, and justice. But many (including myself) believe that security provides a favorable environment for countries and international organizations to focus on the other pillars. Second, those wars reminded us that while we went in with the military first, the interagency (State Dept, USAID, etc) are instrumental in a comprehensive and integrated approach to post-conflict reconstruction. The problem is, that approach works better in principle than it does on paper.

  5. Lesley, I agree with you that “security provides a favorable environment for countries and international organizations to focus on the other pillars”. As you say, you believe it and many others too, including myself. In fact that is basic common sense knowledge from time immemorial.
    It seems that you are telling me that without Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the US wouldn’t have learned that “security was an important pillar for reconstruction, in addition to governance, economics, and justice”. If so, what would be the reason for such disconnect, in your opinion?

    1. The reasons for the disconnect were: 1) the idea that the U.S. military had such a challenging experience in Vietnam that there was an aversion to unconventional warfare (like Iraq and Afghanistan) and 2) when George W. Bush campaigned for president, he spoke out against employing the U.S. military for nation-building, as Clinton had used them in the post-Cold War 1990s. Those perceptions on what missions the military did and did not do influenced the ways we approached irregular conflicts after 9/11.

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