Vince Crawley's Africa Blog

U.S. Africa Command: A Journey of Decades

Posted in Uncategorized by Vince Crawley on August 31, 2011

By Vince Crawley

A Somali girl at a refugee camp in Wajir, Kenya,January 1993. Photo by Vince Crawley

I wrote and  published the below essay, minus the lengthy footnotes, as part of our March 2011 photo book “U.S. Africa Command: The First Three Years …” However, I think the footnotes and sources help contribute to the public discussion of the origins of U.S. AFRICOM, a subject in which opinions often have been presented freely as facts and vice versa. My thesis, not necessarily strongly stated in the paper, is that the creation of U.S. Africa Command was not a radical departure from long-established U.S. foreign policy in Africa, as some perceived, but instead represented a logical progression in U.S. military interaction with African nations and regional organizations.

This is, in many respects, still a work in progress. I would welcome any corrections, clarifications, or additions. 

14th CENTURY KING - This bronze image of a ruler of the kingdom of Ife, in modern-day Nigeria, was created in the 1300s and today is one of the prized masterpieces in the British Museum in London. Arts and culture have flourished for thousands of years across Africa, a continent of 1 billion people, more than 1,000 languages and more than 50 nations, each with its own distinct history. (photo by Vince Crawley)

The U.S. Africa Command was a concept long in the making prior to the February 2007 announcement of its creation.

Beginning with Morocco — which in 1787 became the first nation to establish diplomatic relations with the newly independent United States — U.S. strategic and defense interests have included Africa. However, before 2007, defense engagement with the continent of Africa was viewed as an extension of geo-political environments elsewhere, and therefore not a priority in its own right.[1] The command’s establishment was partly a recognition of the growing unsuitability of this approach, as well as the realization that long-term U.S. security objectives would be better served through a dedicated geographic combatant command exercising sustained security engagement with the nations and regional organizations of Africa.

The U.S. military certainly has not been a stranger in Africa, although throughout U.S. history the vast majority of military activities were comparatively small-scale, shorter term in duration, and limited in their objectives. [2] Some of the earliest U.S. military actions were against Barbary pirates along the North African coast in 1801-05, and again in 1815. In the early and mid-1800s, U.S. ships sometimes took part in anti-slavery patrols off the west coast of the African continent. In 1912, the U.S. Army assigned approximately five African American officers to train a Liberian border force.[3]

The onset of World War II saw northern Africa serve as a battleground of the European theater.

In 1997, the first year of the African Crisis Response Initiative peacekeeper training, Senegalese soldiers train with U.S. Special Forces at Camp Thies. Photo by Vince Crawley for Stars and Stripes

Tens of thousands of U.S. troops fought against German-led Axis powers in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Today the graves of 2,841 Americans are honored at the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial in the ancient city of Carthage.[4]

After World War II, U.S. military engagement with Africa was principally viewed through a Cold War lens.[5] U.S. troops were stationed in Morocco (including Nouasseur Air Base near Casablanca, Rabat SalĂ© Air Base, and Port Lyautey, north of Rabat, until the early 1960s) ,  and Libya (Wheelus Air Base near Tripoli until 1970), where they focused on dissuading Soviet threats.[6] From the end of World War II through the 1970s, there also was a large communications relay facility, Kagnew Station, in Asmara, Ethiopia, which today is in Eritrea. The facility was at the edge of the Ethiopian mountains just inland from the Red Sea and in the early 1970s housed 1,900 personnel and 1,600 family members. Fighting related to the Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia (more…)