AFRICOM and Beyond: The Future of U.S.-African Security and Defense Relations
About This Event

The October 1 operational launch of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), on the eve of a new American presidential administration, provides an unprecedented opportunity to reshape U.S. strategy toward Africa. Significant attention has been devoted to the structure and functions of AFRICOM--and to its strategic communications challenges. Less thought, however, has Listen to Audio

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been given to identifying the core security interests that should guide U.S. strategy on the continent or to defining the new kinds of partnership with a more self-assured Africa that are most likely to advance those interests.

With its capacity for political as well as military engagement and for conflict prevention as well as traditional war-fighting, AFRICOM has the potential to serve as a model for future interagency security cooperation efforts abroad. But what AFRICOM does is more important than how the command is structured. What is the strategic rationale for increased U.S. security engagement with African countries? What are the emerging threats and challenges in Africa, and how should they be addressed? AEI’s Mauro De Lorenzo and Thomas Donnelly will host two panel discussions with African security experts to answer these and other questions.

Event Summary


As AFRICOM Gears Up, U.S.-African Relations Get a Second Look



WASHINGTON, OCTOBER 9, 2008--The new U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) became operational on October 1. At an AEI conference, several security analysts assessed the strategic context in which AFRICOM will operate and identified programs that will be critical for successful security cooperation in Africa. Opening the conference, AEI's Mauro De Lorenzo emphasized the need for a clearer dialogue on U.S. security goals on the continent and argued that the purpose of the event was to evaluate the necessary terms of the future defense relationship between the United States and Africa, not between AFRICOM and Africa; "AFRICOM is a tool," he explained. "It's going to be an important tool, but I don't think it should be the center [of the debate]." While much of the commentary on AFRICOM has focused on the command's internal structure and strategic communications challenges, now is a time to "turn the page," De Lorenzo argued, and reassess "the fundamental guidelines . . . of American purpose in Africa and how that fits into the rest of our national security strategy."

Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, explained the evolution of U.S. security interests on the continent and the rationale for continued engagement. She described American defense planners' long-held perception of Africa as a "Cold War game board." This notion shifted in the 1990s, as the United States recognized that that it had a stake in the democratization processes and the humanitarian challenges emerging on the continent. The U.S. focus has since shifted again as concerns about the exploitation of "under-governed space" by narcotraffickers and international terrorist groups have escalated. In recent years, the continent has also proven ripe for the proliferation of small arms, WMD-related material, and human-traffickers. "These are the kinds of things that make Africa relevant to us in the twenty-first century," she explained.

As De Lorenzo pointed out in his introductory remarks, "it falls to the next president and his administration to conduct a review and a reorientation that places our relations with Africa on a firmer strategic footing." Panelists Witney Schneidman and Peter Pham, the senior Africa advisers to the Barack Obama and John McCain campaigns, respectively, offered perspectives on how each of the candidates might approach U.S. security policy toward Africa. Pham argued that "what is needed is a high-level dialogue, aimed at building a consensus . . . which articulates America's strategic interests in Africa, prioritizes them, defines the vehicle for achieving these objectives, and allocates the relevant responsibilities. If we're going to engage Africa . . . we have to have a clear idea of what the overall picture is, and I think that's a step that's going to be a priority in the next administration."

Schneidman pointed to the current imbalance among Defense Department, State Department, and USAID resources and personnel available for security engagement programs: "When the U.S. goes to deal with a fundamental conflict situation," he said, it must leverage its interagency resources such that "we have the people that we need at the table. . . . It's a resource issue, but it's also a policy issue that we would certainly deal with in an Obama administration."

Col. Robert Killebrew (U.S. Army, retired) and Retired ambassador Robert Houdek expanded on Schneidman's concerns, describing the practical implications of interagency friction and resource imbalances. Killebrew advocated a model for tactical interagency security engagement that would place a military assistance group under the authority of a country's ambassador, creating a unity of command and effort, and allowing for the easier distribution of resources among an embassy's civilian and military elements. (AEI's Thomas Donnelly and Christopher Griffin articulated this "country team" proposal in a 2008 AEI report.) Robert Houdek, meanwhile, observed that successful security engagement demands the resources and personnel for judicial and police training, not just the provision of weapons or military-to-military assistance.

What American policymakers cannot lose sight of, Whelan said, is that a successful U.S. strategy for Africa will "make Africans part of the action in solving" the continent's many challenges. Schneidman echoed her point, suggesting that the United States will develop the most novel and effective strategies for addressing Africa's unique challenges by listening closely to Africa's leaders.


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For more AEI research on Africa, visit

  • AEI held an event on AFRICOM and U.S.-African relations in September 2007 featuring a number of African defense officials and U.S.-African security experts.
  • Mauro De Lorenzo was interviewed by Voice of America on the occasion of AFRICOM's operational launch.
  • De Lorenzo collaborated with other Africa experts on a study of how African countries will interact with AFRICOM.

For media inquiries, contact Véronique Rodman at 202.862.4870 or [email protected].


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