Strengthen stability in Africa

Michael E. O’Hanlon

 The United States should, with a focused effort and in partnership with other states, make a significant push to improve security in Africa. No massive deployments of U.S. troops would be needed, and in fact no role for American main combat units is required. But we should step up our game from the current very modest training efforts coordinated through Africa Command (AFRICOM).

The continent is too big for a comprehensive approach or one-size-fits-all initiative. However, the United States could make a major difference by deploying several thousand Americans to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and several hundred trainers to Libya. In the case of the DRC, by supplementing the U.N. mission that has achieved some recent battlefield successes against rebel forces, Americans could help train and mentor a DRC army so that it can gradually replace the U.N. while establishing control over much of the country’s interior (especially in the east). The Congolese war has probably been Africa’s most lethal over the last 15 years; success here could be game-changing.

Libya is a much different case. While NATO forces took the initiative to help overthrow Mohammar Qaddafi in 2011, the country is sinking into factionalism verging on anarchy. A modest U.S. effort could likely stabilize a state from which many terrorist recruits have emanated for conflicts in Iraq and elsewhere in recent years.

If other states continue to step up their efforts in places such as Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic and perhaps in the future Nigeria, the international community could collectively build on some recent hopeful trends on the continent as Africa moves gradually, if fitfully, on a path towards greater stability.

At a time of national war fatigue and fiscal austerity, it may be counterintuitive to propose increasing American involvement, particularly if it involves military commitment, abroad. But, for a modest investment, the United States and other countries may be able to make major strides towards improving the prospects for peace and stability on the continent. With the number of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan rapidly declining from a peak of 200,000 half a decade ago to 35,000 by early 2014, the American military could undertake a modest engagement in Africa, even as U.S. armed forces and their budgets downsize.

I recommend that the Obama  administration order deployment of either an advise-and-assist brigade or a security force assistance brigade (SFAB), a total of roughly 5,000 U.S. troops, to the DRC to beef up the existing U.N. peacekeeping force of just under 20,000 and give it the capacity to help the DRC get on its feet. The SFAB concept, developed in Iraq and Afghanistan, minimizes the combat role for U.S. forces while maximizing their mentoring and training roles (they can also help with logistics support). The US should also deploy up to several hundred Americans as part of a coalition team to train and mentor Libyan security forces so that Libya, which seemed a successful part of the Arab spring when Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011 but has since descended into chaos, can return to a more successful path.


America’s military role and experiences in Africa have been generally unhappy. The 1993 “Black Hawk Down” tragedy in Somalia was the most notorious case and contributed to President Clinton’s decision to stay out of Rwanda’s genocide in 1994, with much regret.

Over the last few years, however, several hopeful signs have emerged in Africa. Health care has progressed, with tangible progress against HIV/AIDS. Continent-wide, the annual economic growth rate has averaged four percent in real terms for a decade. Roughly a third of the continent’s countries show significant progress in democratic and economic reforms. Civil wars have subsided; estimates of overall death rates from conflict on the continent are at their lowest since the 1970s. Even Sudan and Somalia have shown progress of late, albeit limited and fragile.

But serious problems remain. Islamic extremism threatens Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation. Terrorism recently struck at Kenya. Libya has fallen backwards. Mali’s progress after the French intervention is tenuous. The same is true in Somalia and Sudan, where a return to general civil warfare cannot be ruled out. A coup and counter-coup are driving Central African Republic toward civil war and ruin. The DRC’s conflict in the east is not as bloody as Syria’s, but the overall human toll has been calamitous, due largely to the breakdown of the state and economy, and the resulting increases in mortality from disease. Many of these problems pose serious spillover risks to other states.

There nevertheless is an opportunity to connect the region’s growing number of positive stories into a broader community of countries moving in the right direction. The continent is not quite ready to become a zone of peace, but it may be on the verge at least of becoming a zone of hope. And a number of countries are helping. Beyond the impressive French role—the French have intervened successfully in Ivory Coast, Mali and Central African Republic—African states are stepping up to the plate, as the efforts by Ugandan and Kenyan forces in Somalia demonstrate.

The United States has already deployed a small contingent to help Uganda pursue the Lord’s Resistance Army while maintaining special operations forces in Djibouti to pursue al Qaeda. The focus of this expanded U.S. effort should work through AFRICOM to build capacity in African states through programs such as the Global Peace Operations Initiative and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership.

Targeted efforts are warranted in specific countries. The case is strongest in the DRC and Libya. In the DRC, despite the creation of a rapid reaction brigade in recent months to strengthen the U.N. presence and take on militias such as the M23 group, Congolese forces remain weak. The general absence of the state will continue to compromise the quality of life and very survivability of vulnerable groups such as the young, women having children, the elderly and the diseased. The best path towards a more hopeful future is a systematic effort by the United States and other outside powers to strengthen and reform Congolese security forces. Given the enormous distances and logistics challenges involved, this requires more than a few dozen trainers in traditional missions, but a deployed force on the ground such as an advise-and-assist brigade or SFAB to complement the nearly 20, 000 U.N. forces, mostly from other African states, now in place.

In Libya, the real strategic loss has been a missed opportunity to help strengthen and stabilize the new Libyan government. The new proposed mission need not be large or costly. But the minimalist approach that the international community has followed to date has left the country worse off than it was under Qaddafi. Militias roam the streets; oil production and national GDP are way down; and institutions, including those providing education and health care, are barely functional. As part of a larger international effort, several hundred American troops in a training role could make a major difference. In so doing, they could also help reduce the spillover risks posed by renegade and extremist groups to neighboring countries like Mali, Tunisia and Algeria.

There are, of course, risks from any such increased American role in African conflict zones. But this country’s general casualty aversion is not what it was in 1993, when tragedy in Somalia led to the rapid end of a U.S. military role there. Going forward, the political stakes in such a mission would appear to be less-as, admittedly, would the political reward for any successes that U.S. forces helped achieve. But in a broader historic sense, helping make Africa a “zone of hope” could prove a durable and notable accomplishment. And after the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has created advisory capacity of a type it never had before that could make a major contribution elsewhere.


A modest U.S. military presence in Africa could pay significant dividends in promoting stability. To be sure, any stepped-up military involvement—by U.S. forces and/or other countries—needs to be carefully designed and implemented. But in countries such as the DRC, the United States and the international community have a chance to make a major difference for the better at modest cost and risk.

 Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and intelligence and Director of research for the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. Addis Standard received the article from Brookings Institution.

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