African military partnerships in the age of the ‘enemy disease’

Military-to-military relationships have become the dominant mode of U.S. engagement with the African continent, overwhelming cast as institutional partnerships.

U.S. Army Africa familiarization event on maintenance for Armed Forces of Liberia, Monrovia, Liberia, May, 2010. Image via US Army Africa Flickr.

One of the most disturbing developments in the 2013-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was the decision, in late summer 2014, to place armed Liberian security forces around Monrovia’s West Point neighborhood. In an effort to contain the disease, the Liberian government deployed an urban warfare tactic against its own citizens. The cordon sanitaire was short lived and tragic: at least one person was killed (Shakie Kamara, shot by officers manning the barricades); trust in the government’s ability to manage the crisis was further eroded; and the action exacerbated the disease’s overall toll on the city.

Just weeks later, President Barack Obama ordered US troops to deploy to West Africa to partner with other agencies in fighting an Ebola outbreak spinning rapidly out of control. Critics decried the use of US forces as first responders, arguing that Operation United Assistance (OUA) constituted a neo-colonial occupation and represented the securitization of a public health emergency.

But the critical emphasis on large-scale deployments like OUA distracts from careful analysis of a more impacting and worrisome kind of partnership. The fact is that by the time OUA was announced, US armed forces had already had a long partnership with Liberia’s military.  Military-to-military relationships have become the dominant mode of US engagement with the African continent, and these relationships are overwhelming cast as institutional partnerships. (To wit, ten of the twelve areas of security cooperation are described by AFRICOM on its website as partnerships.)

In the Liberia case, that partnership is especially close. The peace agreement that ended the long running conflict in 2003 called for the dissolution of Liberia’s national army and its complete reconstitution under US supervision. The agreement outlined a plan to make the new Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) a multi-talented force that could not only perform traditional defensive operations against external threats, but could more importantly “respond to natural (and other) disasters, assist in the reconstruction of [Liberia] and support and participate in regional and international peace.” The goal was to produce a “force for good” in Liberia, as a 2015 Michigan National Guard report put it.

To that end, the Michigan Guard (the lead US military agency in the Liberia relationship for the past several years) has sent public affairs officers, lawyers, medical teams and engineers along with its combat trainers. Liberia has participated in a range of multi-nation AFRICOM institution building programs, including (ironically), an initiative launched in 2008 to help African militaries plan their response to pandemic disease outbreaks. As is the case with a number of national militaries in Africa, military-to-military partnerships with US troops were intended to bolster African forces’ capacity to be first responders to a wide variety of future crises, including the effects of climate change, resource shortages, poverty, proliferating criminal gangs and political corruption.

Yet, in Liberia, as elsewhere across the continent, this broad human security approach to partnering across militaries has in practice been subsumed by preparing for the “kinetic” demands of counterinsurgency. In a September 2016 interview with African Defense, Brigadier General Donald C. Bolduc, the head of US Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAFRICA) made clear that the non-human challenges facing African partners are simply threat multipliers for the most pressing concern: that “violent extremist organizations” (VEOs) will make use of Africa’s chaos to recruit disaffected youth (especially young men). In other words, the broad human security mandate to which African partner forces are supposedly being supported to respond is, in the end, only of concern to the extent that it enables the more pressing problem of fighting a very human enemy.

This is a worldview in which disease, poverty, corruption and natural disasters are problems primarily because they can be exploited by human enemies. And it is a worldview that continues to prioritize war fighting as the ultimate skill set for both US and partner forces.  As a consequence, the capacity of the AFL to be a “force for good” in addressing broad human security goals has been structurally undermined. Sean McFate, one of three DynCorp contractors hired to design and implement the first AFL restructuring programs, has described the gutting of civil/military relations classes from the earliest days of the program. Non-combat peacekeeper training, for example (the kind of training that might have helped stabilize, rather than aggravate, an urban crisis like Monrovia’s Ebola outbreak), has been a consistently underfunded and under-developed aspect of military re-structuring.

It is a problem exacerbated by the tendency to focus not on training African forces in their entirety, but on elite commandoes. Special forces and anti-terror units have received advanced training in specialties like urban warfighting and counter-insurgency at the expense of training the bulk of African partners in skills such as non-lethal crowd control or disease tracking.

“By helping Africans help themselves,” said Maj. Albert Conley III of USARAF’s Counter Terrorism bureau, “it means that we don’t have to get involved ourselves. If Africans are solving African problems, then the U.S. government doesn’t have to use the U.S. Army to solve African problems.” What exactly solving African problems means is generally left unstated in that oft-repeated slogan. But the West Point cordon sanitaire may well be its inevitable, logical conclusion. African military partners are regularly promoted as “forces for good” whose writ is to deal with all manner of threats. But if in practice military partnerships are designed primarily to combat the spread of terrorist networks, to keep Africa’s perceived chaos in its place, then urban warfare tactics like the armed cordon will be the only response to every problem – human, environmental, or pathogen.

  • This is part of a series of essays that emerge from a project based at the University of Washington exploring “partnership” as a programmatic priority and affective ideal in initiatives between the United States and African countries. We consider the politics of partnership in three different realms of US-Africa relations: military training and disaster relief, reproductive health initiatives and study abroad programs.

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