When General David Rodriguez took the helm at the U.S. Africa Command (Africom) in April, Stars and Stripes newspaper called him "one of the Army's most battle-tested officers." The newest of six geographic combatant commands, Africom is headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany but has operational responsibilities for all of Africa, except Egypt.
Africom was established as a separate regional military command under President George W. Bush in 2008. Previously, responsibility for Africa had been divided among four regional Pentagon commands. The unification represented by Africom was assailed by critics as a militarization of U.S. Africa policy. Those fears were reinforced in February this year when President Barack Obama announced that about 100 U.S. troops had gone to Niger to set up a base for unarmed Predator "drones" for use in the battle against terrorism in the volatile west African region, which includes Mali. But other analysts praised Africom as a signal that American policymakers would more seriously address the causes of instability and underdevelopment in Africa. Unlike the other commands, Africom has a strong orientation toward conflict prevention and two deputies - one of whom is a civilian – a 'smart power' approach that Africom has seen itself as pioneering.
AllAfrica spoke to Gen. Rodriguez when he visited the Pentagon last month and asked him to outline his vision for Africom and to reflect on his first five months in the command. The telephone interview preceded the four-day siege of Nairobi's Westgate Mall, for which the militant group Al Shabab, operating out of neighboring Somalia, claimed credit, saying it was retaliation for Kenyan forces support of the Somali government.
This weekend the Pentagon confirmed two raids by U.S. forces - one in Libya, which captured Abu Anas al-Libi, an al Qaeda operative wanted in connection with linked 1988 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and another in Somalia. Dalsan Radio in Mogadishu, the capital, quoted an Al Shabab spokesman saying that the coastal Somali property attacked by U.S. special forces housed members of the 'Mujahidin' fighters in Somalia. General Rodriguez spoke about both the military and civil elements of his command. Excerpts:
In your Foreign Affairs article on Afghanistan, you wrote about the importance of learning from the past. Could you reflect on what you've learned from your own, very multi-faceted experiences that has served you best in these early days with Africom?
I learned the challenges and the complexity of these security situations – and about governments' ability to lead their people and provide stability for them. There's a strong connection between security forces, governments and the people, and it really does take joint, inter-agency, intergovernmental and multinational efforts to solve those new challenges. And they take a long time.
In your first months as commander, what has surprised you about Africa?
Traveling around with Africom, I've seen some amazing things. And I've been able to learn, as I've listened to African leaders. As I mentioned, there are a wide range of challenges that require robust, multinational, international, and inter-agency efforts to solve. Listening to African leaders and the African people, what I hear is that they all want the same things. They all want enduring stability so that they can live a better life in the future. I've been very impressed by African leaders' commitment to what they have to do. They have a pretty good feel for how hard and how long that's going to take. I've seen some beautiful places, and I've seen some tremendous potential. I've seen some great leaders that are trying to make a difference out there.
So you've already traveled pretty widely?
I've gotten around quite a bit and will continue to get around quite a bit. I've been to about seventeen countries so far - out of 54.
You mentioned that people everywhere want security. Many experts argue that insecurity in places like northern Nigeria and Mali could be greatly diminished if poverty and inequity were addressed more effectively. Could you discuss the balance between the civilian and military components in Africom?
The root causes of instability are just as strong a challenge in the civilian and the political realm as they are in the military. As you mentioned, in both Mali and Nigeria, the challenge of the government to take care of its people in a fair and equitable way - in a way that's perceived by the people to be fair - is one of the huge root causes of instability. So that's why our whole efforts - led by our Department of State colleagues - are aimed at building that relationship I mentioned earlier among the government and the people and the security forces.
Would you talk about some of the regional challenges, starting with the Horn of Africa?
In the Horn of Africa, we're supporting the African Union (AU) and their mission in Somalia – Amisom. We provide support for the Department of State's efforts to build the capacity of troop-contributing nations, who have made significant progress over the past year in Somalia. Around the continent, we've got challenges in north and west Africa ranging from Mali to northeastern Nigeria to Libya. We're working in a regional manner to try to degrade security threats there. And in the central part of Africa, we have the war against the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) that we've continued to support and there's the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the instability and security threats have a spillover effect and influence several nations in that area. Those are the primary security threats that we're continuing to look at. And then, across the board, we are concerned with the security of U.S. facilities and personnel throughout the region.
How do you see the prospects for peace in Somalia?
Two years ago it probably would have been a surprise to most people if we said we were going to be where we are now. It's been a huge success of the AU to get where they have. Of course, there is still a long way to go. They have a very young government with institutions that have to be built, and the same for the Somalia national army. It's going to take a long time and a national effort, but they've made significant progress in the past year. I think the prospects for a better future are there, but it's going to require significant international support for a long period of time to make a difference in the future of Somalia.
What is Africom's role in the DRC, which, as you just mentioned, seems such an intractable problem that is largely ignored by global media?
There are a lot of both security and humanitarian challenges in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. While we don't have any kind of direct role, we're continuing to support the UN mission there and support Department of State efforts to help the international community bring about a solution and get that sad situation under control. We've provided training to countries in the UN mission, and we're going to continue to do that.
Minusco – the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - has been widely criticized for ineffectiveness, despite its large size. Is Africom able to do anything to strengthen this capacity?
Our role is helping the Department of State in training the forces that are participating from South Africa and Tanzania and now Malawi - the three main contributors to that intervention brigade. We train them on the skills that we've learned over the years - sometimes the hard way - about protecting civilians, about communications between military and civilians and about partnering with host nations security forces. It's very tense situation that goes back and forth day by day, and we're going to help the State Department prepare those forces to be the best that they possibly can be.
Is that training taking place inside the DRC, or outside, or both?
Outside. The State Department has set up training in the host nations. We bring people who have experience in the region where they'll be serving, as well as in the lessons we've learned over the years, to supplement and try to help that training become more effective.
And there's no Africom training for Congolese forces, for the government army?
There's none - that's correct.
Would you say a little more about the progress of the campaign against the LRA since President Obama ordered the deployment of about 100 U.S. soldiers to assist the armies in central Africa?
That has continued to be a success story. Again, a long-term challenge, thanks to the terrain and the distances. We've been supporting regional partners as they work to decrease the impact of the Lord's Resistance Army, and we're part of a wide-ranging U.S. government approach. We believe the size and capacity of the LRA has been decreased over the last several years, and the LRA is finding it harder to operate in that region. There've been several attempts to do away with the camps that they move through, and we think that's taken a toll on them. There have been defections, and that has also helped. We'll continue to support that effort for the foreseeable future, until the African forces degrade that threat to the local populations.
What's the current Africom role in Mali?
We continue to support the French with aerial refueling, with aerial movement and mobility as well as information sharing. As far as the transition to the UN mission, we support the Department of State efforts to provide training for all the troop-contributing nations as they are helping the Malian army stand up and secure the northern region. The Department of State is still developing policies as they move forward after the recent elections.
President Obama has voiced support for President Jonathan's efforts to increase security in the northern part of Nigeria. What is Africom's role?
We're not directly involved, but we do provide training through our relationships with Nigeria, as they work hard on human rights challenges and the protection of the population and a counter-insurgency strategy that is part of the approach by President Jonathan and his team to address security challenges in the north.
Is that training of military carried out inside or outside of Nigeria?
There is training of their units inside the country - but in the south. We're not involved in training in the northern region.
You spoke earlier about the military/civilian balance. How would you describe the role of Africom's civilian deputy commander?
The civilian component of Africom has been so effective, I think. We have seven inter-agency partners that are all represented at the headquarters. The ability to communicate across agencies and coordinate and synchronize our efforts is very important for Africom.
Africom was the first geographic command to have both a civilian and military deputy commander. Do you foresee other regions adopting this approach?
I think all of them are moving in that direction at different rates based on the different situations they find themselves in. We've learned that a great relationship between our inter-agency partners and, of course, with host nations, is going to enable success over a long term. It's a great model.
Can you cite some examples of how that civilian component has accomplished something valuable?
The coordinated effort by the Departments of State and Defense has contributed in the security arena to improving contributing nations' capacity. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has had a key role. Through our inter-agency partners we have a better idea of how to help these nations, rather than charging out there not understanding the situation as well as we could - whether it be the Drug Enforcement Agency or the FBI. Presidential Policy Directive 23 [on U.S. Security Sector Assistance, issued in April] talks about security reform in a broad way. If you think about our strategy to strengthen economic institutions and strengthen economic growth, promote development and advance peace and security, that really requires an inter-agency effort. That's been a huge success story to build that teamwork within the U.S. government. I also think the intelligence community has done a much better job of sharing information to provide us better situational understanding of the challenges we're trying to address.
The wisdom of having a separate Africa command has been debated, even before Africom was created. What do you think, now that you have a first-row perspective?
The value of Africom has been in increasing the focus and the understanding of Africa.
Would Africom be strengthened by having headquarters in Africa?
There are no plans to move out of Stuttgart at this point in time. That location works , and it's in the same time zones.
Could you demystify for our readers what it is that the leader of a geographic command actually does on a day-to-day basis? Are there routines, or does every day bring something unexpected?
Like every other command, our job is to help strengthen and advance the security interests of the United States and the region. We are all working together to build a more stable region and to prevent conflicts from getting out of control. People get concerned that we're militarizing our foreign policy, but our plan is not to get into a conflict and to reduce the chances for that by preventive measures.
As far as day-to-day operations, we are building partnerships, we are communicating, we are coordinating, and we are traveling and working with other nations as well as our inter-agency partners to ensure that we're building those partnerships and those capacities stronger, so that the Africans can come up with African solutions. That, in the long run, is the best way to do anything in Africa.
You spend a lot of your time talking with people, meeting with people, getting to know them?
Yes, engagement is a huge part of what we do - listening to African leaders and the people so we better understand what they need and how we can best support those efforts.
Could you say a little more about why you think greater militarization of U.S. foreign policy is not what's happening?
If you talk to African leaders, they want help developing capacities in certain areas, and they're all pretty much the same areas. It's about command and control and communication so that everyone can work together, and interoperability within themselves as well as with us. It's about sharing intelligence and information so they can better understand their problems and logistics and medical support. Then there's mobility, to move around over that vast continent. It's those types of things that we are doing to help build capacity and partnership.
Would you elaborate on the humanitarian work?
We work with the militaries on disaster relief, on HIV/AIDS prevention and other health issues, and that has expanded tremendously over time. Quite frankly, that's one of the main ways we make inroads with our partners. They see we're really there to help build their capacity and take care of their populations when they have challenges. We build trust and confidence with these activities.