A Minor U.S. Role in Africa

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS November 17, 2017

The death of four Green Berets in Niger, ambushed by insurgents tied to ISIS while returning from a patrol in the company of Nigerien forces (at least five of whom also died), has continued to stir controversy in the press and on Capitol Hill over a month later. Many express surprise that there are American troops in the region, but this merely reveals their own ignorance. The U.S. Africa Command was stood up on October 1, 2008 with the mission to assist African states and regional organizations to strengthen their self-defense capabilities, especially against "transnational threats" (which means terrorism) and to "effectively contribute to stability in Africa."

On February 25, 2016, the New York Times ran a story reporting that "The Pentagon is poised to send dozens of Special Operations advisers to the front lines of Nigeria's fight against the West African militant group Boko Haram, according to military officials, the latest deployment in conflicts with the Islamic State and its allies." The U.S. started conducting surveillance of Boko Haram and offering increased support to Nigeria in 2015 when President Barack Obama announced the deployment of 300 American troops, an increase over the level of forces sent in 2013. The U.S. has built a drone base in Niger and in June, President Donald Trump sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-YT) informing them of U.S. military deployments in Africa. Most members of Congress, however, are notorious for not paying attention to anything that is not currently in the headlines.

Africa Command is different than the other five geographical commands that the U.S. operates around the world. It is not meant to engage in large-scale combat. It did not even initially have any combat units assigned to it. It wasn't until September, 2012 that the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division was "aligned" with Africa Command. The unit, however, remained in Kentucky. Its soldiers could be called upon for service in Africa if needed, with some personnel rotating through African assignments to gain experience in the theater. However, Africa Command's leader at the time, Army Gen. Carter Ham stated, "We don't want big forces in Africa." A second unit, the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division has become aligned with the command and some if its personnel rotated through Africa in 2015 with one battalion deploying there for nine months. Peak deployment was only 1,000 soldiers,

The U.S. footprint in Africa is very small. Africa Command doesn't even have its headquarters on the continent, but in Stuttgart, Germany. U.S. Army Africa has its HQ at Vicenza, Italy. The command has only one "forward operating site" in Djibouti, home of Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa which covers East Africa but also has responsibilities in the Arabian peninsula.

When the Green Berets were ambushed, it was France that responded, sending fighter jets for support and helicopters to evacuate the casualties. France has over 3,000 troops in five former colonies in West Africa: Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad (where the French HQ is located). The timing of the attack, in an area the Green Berets had transited many times without incident, may have been linked to a meeting in progress in Nigeria, hosted by the U.S. to plan next year's summit of military leaders from across the continent to discuss common threats and plans.

The emphasis of all U.S. actions is to support local forces, not carry the burden of campaigns itself. Training foreign troops is the primary mission of Green Berets. In its 2017 Posture Statement, submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee last March, the objectives of Africa Command's 2-5 year plan were set out as "to disrupt and neutralize transnational threats by building African partner defense capability and capacity." The document acknowledges "continuation of limited available resources, both financial and personnel, to accomplish U.S. objectives." The statement tries to make a case for a larger American effort. It argues that "Africa's sustained economic growth, improved social development and growing entrepreneurial class are unlocking the continent's potential for international investment and trade, raising its geostrategic importance to the U.S. while also attracting international competition for access, influence and trade." But the facts do not support the case.

The U.S. has sought increased economic involvement in Africa, but without much success. On July 1, 2013, President Obama announced the new Trade Africa initiative. According to the White House, the program "seeks to increase internal and regional trade within Africa, and expand trade and economic ties between Africa, the United States, and other global markets." Its focus was the East Africa Community (EAC) comprising Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, with 130 million people. "The EAC is an economic success story, and represents a market with significant opportunity for U.S. exports and investment" declared the Obama administration. 

However, no estimate was given as to how much American producers might benefit from Trade Africa. Instead, most of the detail was about using "trade as aid" to boost the EAC economies. The White House stated, "In its initial phase, Trade Africa aims to double intra-regional trade in the EAC, increase EAC exports to the United States by 40 percent." There was also an emphasis on expanding trade between the EAC and the rest of Africa; and on boosting the "competitiveness" of African producers in global markets. Another priority was "Exploration of a U.S.-EAC Investment Treaty to contribute to a more attractive investment environment." This would lead to the export of U.S. capital rather than goods to the continent; expanding African production rather than American production. The aim was to "Build the capacity of private sector associations in Africa to provide sustainable business services and promote investment in key growth sectors in Africa, including agriculture, health, clean energy, environment and trade-related infrastructure."

The initiative has proven a failure. Exports to Tanzania and Uganda peaked in 2013, and those to Kenya--- the largest trade partner, peaked in 2014. Only in Rwanda were exports higher in 2016 than in 2013. For the EAC as a whole, U.S. exports in 2016 were less than a third of what there were in 2013 when Trade Africa was launched and less than half what they had been in 2005.  In general, American-made products cannot compete with the much cheaper Chinese goods flooding into the continent.  

Trade with Africa has been dominated by oil, but that flow has been cut dramatically in the last five years. The U.S. trade deficits in goods with the four largest African suppliers of oil in 2011 were $28.9 billion with Nigeria; $12.1 billion with Angola; $3.1 billion with Chad; and $439 million with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The total trade deficit with Africa in 2011 was $60.3 billion, with $53.2 billion of that with countries in Sub-Sahara Africa.

By 2015, the goods deficit with Africa had become a slight surplus of $1.8 billion. This was due entirely to a drop in imports, from $93 billion in 2011 to $25.3 billion in 2015. U.S. goods exports to Africa had actually decreased over these years, down from $32.9 in 2011 to $27.1 in 2015. The cause for the change can be seen more succinctly with the three largest oil suppliers of 2011; imports of goods from Nigeria were down from $33.8 billion in 2011 to $1.9 billion in 2015; imports from Angola dropped from $13.6 billion to $2.8 billion; and imports from Chad dropped from $3.2 billion to $1.3 billion; a total decline of $44.6 billion. Thanks to the rapid increase in domestic oil production due to fracking and offshore wells, America no longer needs African oil. And thus the economic argument for any expanded U.S. military role on the continent has faded away.

Helping local governments combat terrorist groups whose ideology and "triumphs" can inspire attacks on the American homeland makes sense. However, the effort should avoid mission creep. Africa should not divert any substantial forces away from confronting more dangerous threats in other parts of the world where the stakes are much higher.

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.

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