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The United States and the Transformation of African Security: The African Crisis Response Initiative and Beyond

Authored by COL Daniel W. Henk, Dr. Steven Metz. | December 1997

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For at least the next decade, Africans will need help constructing the foundation of a regional security system and dealing with conflicts that occur along the way. The United States, which currently has as much influence in Africa as at any time in its history, is searching for ways to provide such assistance. The African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI) may be a solid first step in this direction, but only a first step. Other actions and programs must follow if Africans are to have the resources necessary for such a profound transformation. It is in the long-term national interest of the United States to shape this transformation. However, to do so, America must carefully coordinate political, economic, and military actions and exercise diplomatic skill, political sensitivity, and patience.

The African Security Environment.

In general, the African security environment is one in which traditional methods of analysis that stress nation-states and national interests must be modified. Nonstate factors, actors, and considerations are as important as national interests. Foreign policy and national security strategy in African states tend to be associated with a regime, group, or individual leader more than a nation as a whole. They are often designed to augment or preserve the power of an individual and his clients rather than promote what western scholars would see as true national interests. And a change of leadership sometimes brings a fundamental change in foreign policy and national security strategy. Personal ties and friendships as well as regional, ethnic, and religious considerations help define strategic interests, objectives, and partners.

Because African foreign policy and national security strategy, like African politics in general, are imbued with flexibility and personalization, they tend to be dominated by informal methods and procedures. Shifting coalitionsdominate rather than formal alliances. Consensus-building among the powerful?a traditional political technique in much of Africa?is an important part of the regional security system. This emphasis on individuals and consensus-building rather than the application of power resources through formal structures means that consultations are a vital element in the African regional security environment. Such consultations can occur in a variety of traditional and nontraditional fora. Any actor seeking to shape the environment must be adept at recognizing the available fora, organizing consultation, and building consensus.

American Interests in Africa.

The fact that there is not broad agreement on U.S. interests in Africa is a serious detriment to developing coherent, long-range national security strategy for the region. The result is a policy that often seems inconsistent and reactive. In fact, the United States does have substantial interests in Sub-Saharan Africa. These include:

  • Regional Stability;
  • Access;
  • Information and Warning;
  • Safety;
  • A Region Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction;
  • A Region Free of Sponsors or Havens for Transnational Threats;
  • Comity and Cooperation;
  • Freedom from Egregious Suffering;
  • Humane, Managerially Competent, and Accountable Governance;
  • Sustained Economic Development; and,
  • Unthreatened Natural Environment.

The African Crisis Response Initiative.

Given the combination of frequent conflicts in Africa, the tendency of these conflicts to generate refugee problems and humanitarian disasters, the global leadership role and commitments of the United States, and the limits on U.S. interests, encouraging the growth of an organic African peace operations capability makes perfect sense.

In mid-1996 a looming crisis in the small nation of Burundi revived the idea and made it the centerpiece of American security policy in Africa. The African response was tepid. To Africans the new proposal lacked definition in critical features and the specifics of external support. African leaders were themselves puzzled (in some cases annoyed) by the lack of prior consultation and by American failure to recognize the growing role of subregional organizations. They were irritated by the apparent offer of participation to some African countries but not others.

Despite the less than overwhelming reception, the subregional continued to pursue the idea of an organic peacekeeping capability in Africa. In early 1997, an experienced Foreign Service Officer and former U.S. ambassador in Africa, Marshall McCallie, was assigned to lead an interagency working group (IWG) overseeing the project.

The IWG renewed consultation with African and European governments, listening to their concerns and soliciting moral and material support for the program. In deference to African sensitivities, the IWG changed the name of the project from African Crisis Response Force to African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI). The idea was that a force of some sort might be formed in the future, but the initial goals were more modest.

The IWG also had formulated a long-range approach and training plan, and crafted a relationship between the ACRI and the United Nations. The U.S. Congress provided $15 million in ACRI funding for fiscal year 1997. By mid-1997 Washington had obtained commitments from seven African countries to furnish a total of eight battalions for training. The U.S. Army Special Forces began instructing Ugandan and Senegalese units in the late summer of 1997.

Assessment of ACRI.

The existing version of the ACRI, which is limited to a military-to-military training program, has utility. It will impart tangible skills to those African soldiers and officers who undergo the training. The units trained will probably perform more effectively in peace operations than they would without the training. Interoperability?which is a key objective of the existing program?will help. As a result, it will be easier in the future to put together an African peacekeeping force on short notice which dovetails with ongoing U.N. reform of peacekeeping operations.

ACRI will also have a positive impact on civil-military relations in the host countries since much of the training concerns appropriate ways for those in uniform to deal with civilians. It will begin to create habits of cooperation, both between the American military and its African partners, and, hopefully, among African militaries. And, ACRI brings benefits to the U.S. Army Special Forces units involved by allowing them to practice their skills and advance their understanding of the African operational environment.

There are, though, significant limitations to the results which can be expected from ACRI. The training is perishable. Even more importantly, ACRI as currently construed does not fundamentally alter the African security environment or lead automatically to an organic African capability for peacekeeping. It does not deal with typical shortcomings in command and control, logistics, planning, and mobility. It does not augment the peacekeeping skills of police who play a vital role in such operations. It does not create structures to coordinate military and civilian efforts during peacekeeping operations. And it does not begin to build institutions to practice conflict avoidance or authorize and direct a peacekeeping operation when conflict avoidance fails.

These shortcomings are not due to a lack of understanding or vision on the part of ACRI's designers, but reflect the rigid political and budgetary parameters they face. But if ACRI does not grow beyond what it is today and if Africans themselves do not take further steps to develop peace operations capabilities, then while trained units of the African states which participate may be somewhat more effective, Africa as a region will still be forced to rely on the United Nations, the United States, Western Europe, and Japan to fund, organize, control, and support any future peacekeeping operations.

Conclusion and Recommendations.

To promote American interests in Africa, the United States should use ACRI as a first step in a long-term program to encourage and assist in the transformation of the African security environment into one where violence is less common and where most violence that does occur can be handled without massive outside involvement. A number of actors must participate in this, each with vital roles.

Congress should:

  • sustain support for ACRI,
  • consider ending prohibitions on the use of American security assistance money to train police for peacekeeping roles; and,
  • help the American public understand that ACRI secures U.S. regional interests.

The Department of State should:

  • continue to broaden ACRI;
  • enlarge participation among African democracies;
  • help Africa improve its conflict avoidance and conflict resolution capabilities; and,
  • continue and increase efforts to coordinate official programs with initiatives by private organizations, universities, and international organizations.

The Department of Defense and the U.S. military should:

  • consider expanding ACRI training to include support to civilian officials during natural disasters and pandemic disease as well as peacekeeping;
  • develop a program to augment the ability of Africans to plan, command, and control both humanitarian relief and peacekeeping operations through wargames, staff exercises, andsimulations;
  • move ahead on initiatives to help Africans create a pan-African staff college or the equivalent of the U.S. Department of Defense's Marshall Center;
  • consider supporting any African efforts to develop regional training centers;
  • plan actual combined exercises with troops from a range of African states; and,
  • consider greater involvement of Army National Guard units as ACRI develops.

African leaders should:

  • sustain the positive political and economic trends of the past few years;
  • continue to reform their systems of civil-military relations;
  • recommit themselves to things like the paramount obligation of all states to provide maximum support for refugees and to eschew support for rebels or insurgents in neighboring states; and,
  • improve the ability of the OAU and subregional organizations to prevent violence, resolve conflicts peacefully, and to organize and deploy peacekeeping forces when violence or natural disaster does occur.

Ultimately, Africans must assume the lead in transforming their security environment and must help the United States understand how it can support this given the extent of American global responsibilities. If the ACRI concept is to succeed, Africans must take ownership of it. This should be a key U.S. objective even if it means that ACRI's descendants are quite different in form than the original initiative. The United States must develop the maturity to accept that it will not control programs that grow from ACRI and must resist the temptation to withdraw support if Africans decide to approach regional problems differently than Washington would have preferred.

ACRI is a useful but limited program that seeks to help Africans improve their security options without making unrealistic demands on American resources. Even if it never expands beyond its current parameters, it will provide some benefits to Africans and support U.S. regional interests. But the true value of ACRI is as a first step in a broader strategy to transform the African security environment. Today, there are great opportunities to do this. Hopefully, the United States will develop a pattern of regional engagement based on three ?Cs??consultation, consensus, and cooperation?in order to capitalize on the opportunities it now has.