Since the announcement of the creation of Africom, a new unified American combatant command responsible for Africa, there has been much skepticism over its intent and what it will be able to achieve on the continent. Africom should be seen for what it is: recognition of the growing importance of Africa to U.S. national security interests, as well as recognition that long-term African security lies in empowering African partners to develop a healthy security environment through embracing good governance, building security capacity, and developing good civil-military relations.
The Africom charter specifies that the new command will focus on conflict prevention, rather than intervention. It will work with African states and regional organizations, such as the African Union and Ecowas, in coordination with other donor countries, to improve security capabilities and promote military professionalization and accountable governance.
If Africom aims to use its "soft power" mandate to develop a stable environment in which civil society can flourish and the quality of life for Africans can be improved, African nations should work with Africom to achieve their own development and security goals. Through these means, the potential of Africom can far exceed its initially limited scope of engagement. To achieve the greatest possible results in development, security, and governance, this must be the model for donor assistance in the future: helping governments that are willing to help themselves.
For example, the United States established the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to dispense assistance not by need, but by performance. Criteria and standards were designated—anti-corruption efforts, child and maternal health and welfare, investments primary education and in health, etc.—and assistance is parceled out based upon the ability of the recipient nation to meet benchmarks in these areas.
Humanitarian efforts will remain vital in the years ahead, but gone are the days when the United States can blindly reward governments that refuse to invest in their own people. Africom is the recognition that African growth can only occur in an environment where security, development, and good governance are integrally linked. There is no substitute for boots—and eyes and ears—on the ground. A well-designed Africom will enable smarter, more strategic engagement of African states as true partners, rather then end-recipients of aid and programs.
In the United States, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and other government agencies will have to develop a process for greater interagency coordination to ensure that existing commitments to Africa are maximized and that additional resources can be efficiently allocated. This enhanced cooperation and focus on efficacy can greatly increase the impact of the U.S. commitment to the continent, and allow for the identification of new avenues for investment in Africa's future.
U.S. and foreign skeptics of Africom have pointed to concerns that previous military engagements on the continent have often led to the disproportionate development of the military over instruments of civilian rule, or they see Africom as a naked American attempt to gain greater access to and control of regional resources.
But we all must acknowledge that security and development are inextricably linked. There is no greater engine for development than a secure nation, and no better way build a secure nation than through building professional militaries and security forces that are responsible to civilian authorities who safeguard the rule of law and human rights.
Similarly, such nations are able to responsibly manage their own resources, making them assets for national development and growth rather than bounty for looting and spoils. African nations will prosper when they are given the option to balance multiple foreign interests in their economies, and not continue to project the notion that they are dependent on the support of a dominant "patron."
Africom should be seen as the end-product of a significant strategic realignment a long time in the making—one where engagement with African nations is more than just a humanitarian cause.
Liberians can only hope that the United States will use Africom to raise standards for engagement and help change "the way of doing business" in Africa. Africom is undeniably about the projection of American interests—but this does not mean that it is to the exclusion of African ones.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is president of Liberia.