Fresh Thinking on U.S. Engagement with Africa: Probing the Limits of Engagement

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By Charles A. Ray – June 16, 2021

The Biden administration faces the opportunity to reset U.S. policy towards Africa and possesses a variety of tools to use in doing so, including traditional diplomacy, economic statecraft, development assistance, and military engagement. With the increased militarization of U.S. foreign policy over the past few decades, there is an unfortunate tendency to default to military engagement when confronted with even remote threats to U.S. national security interests, and Africa is no exception. With vital security interests in Africa, it can be argued that military engagement should be limited in its application and targeted to those situations that do not lend themselves to solution through traditional diplomacy or development assistance.

Despite a relationship between the United States and the continent of Africa that spans over four centuries, most Americans have a limited and often myopic view of Africa, seeing it either as some idealized motherland or a primitive place that is rife with famine, disease, and civil war. Neither image is entirely correct, and neither serves as the basis for an effective U.S. approach to the region. Both are based in an American mindset, as described by former President Barack Obama, where “Africa had become an idea more than an actual place.”1

In the Spring 2021 issue of Orbis, former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster made the point, “As situations change or evolve assumptions upon which strategies are based may become invalid. We have to be prepared, then, to change or alter the core assumptions, our objectives, and our strategies.”2 This change in perception is certainly the case when it comes to Africa. Instead of the “Africa as problem” or “Africa as mythical motherland” paradigms, we need to see the continent as a place that can have a huge commercial, social, and even security impact on the United States—positive if we manage it properly, but negative if we ignore it or mishandle it.

It certainly is true that the African continent is an incubator of several global security challenges which directly impact the safety of the United States. Violent extremism, corruption and political instability, and the deleterious impacts of climate and environmental change contribute to large-scale movement of people from the continent, which in turn stresses the politics of Europe and the Greater Middle East. In addition, climate and environmental shifts increase the risk of the emergence of new viruses and diseases.

In a January 2021 CNN report, Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, who as a researcher helped discover the Ebola virus in 1976, warned of possible new pathogens that could be as infectious as COVID-19 and as virulent as Ebola. The migration crisis could help to spread them around the world.3 At the same time, economic pressures, particularly in food production, are threatening the viability of the Congo Basin rainforest. This 178-million-hectare rainforest is the world’s second largest after the Amazon, and, like the Amazonian rainforest, helps to serve as the “lungs” of the world in terms of generating oxygen and removing pollutants from the atmosphere.4

Yet, the approach in the past—viewing Africa is a source of threats and irritants that must be contained and solved by the application of U.S. power, especially the military—neglects the possibility of turning these challenges into opportunities for long-term partnerships with the states of the continent. In many ways, Africa is poised to be the continent of the future. By 2050, Africa is expected to have a population of 2.4 billion people, and two of every five children in the world will be born in Africa.5

This population growth is creating vast new potential for trade and development; already, the continent has the world’s second-fastest rate of economic growth after Asia. There is a huge potential market for all kinds of goods and services, which the United States can provide, and which can benefit American businesses and workers. On the negative side, failing to help these countries develop their economies so that they can provide gainful employment runs the risk of a growing population of disaffected people who are incentivized either to migrate or to join extremist movements. Finally, in an era of great power competition, African states that are ignored or marginalized by the West will find alternative partners, especially in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In turn, China’s capabilities, including its military, are enhanced by its growing dependence on Africa’s natural resources to fuel Beijing’s rise.5

Africa matters to the United States and the rest of the world. Its impacts can be felt far beyond the continent’s borders. If approached as a partner rather than as a patron—with a focus on assisting African nations to improve governance, build critical infrastructure, boost domestic economies, and provide essential services to all—then Africa can be a positive contributor to U.S. foreign policy objectives.

Factors Driving a Militarized Africa Policy
The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance issued by the Biden administration in March 2021 contains this section related to Africa:

We will also continue to build partnerships in Africa, investing in civil society and strengthening long-standing political, economic, and cultural connections. We will partner with dynamic and fast-growing African economies, even as we provide assistance to countries suffering from poor governance, economic distress, health, and food insecurity exacerbated by the pandemic. We will work to bring an end to the continent’s deadliest conflicts and prevent the onset of new ones, while strengthening our commitment to development, health security, environmental sustainability, democratic progress, and rule of law. We will help African nations combat the threats posed by climate change and violent extremism, and support their economic and political independence in the face of undue foreign influence.6

In developing its policy toward Africa, the Biden administration has a number of tools at its disposal, including traditional diplomacy, economic statecraft, development assistance, and military engagement. Yet, there is a danger, with the increased militarization of U.S. foreign policy over the past few decades, of defaulting to use of the military for short-term, quick fixes to the issues that arise on the continent.7

What will be critical is for the Biden team not to replicate some of the mistakes of past administrations. Some of the aspirations outlined in the interim guidance were present in the February 1996 National Security Strategy promulgated by the Clinton administration, which declared:

Africa poses one of our greatest challenges and opportunities to enlarge the community of market democracies. Significant changes have been made in Africa in recent years: multi-party systems have become more common, new constitutions have been promulgated, elections have become more open, the press generally has more freedom today, and the need for budgetary and financial discipline is better understood.…. New policies will strengthen civil societies and mechanisms for conflict resolution, particularly where ethnic, religious and political tensions are acute. In particular, we will seek to identify and address the root causes of conflicts and disasters before they erupt.8

Yet, Africans themselves felt that U.S. policy fell short of these aspirations. As Korwa G. Adar, Professor of International Studies at the University of Botswana, assesses, U.S. foreign policy towards Africa during the Clinton years was “basically reactive” but also characterized by an “unwillingness to play a more direct role in African crisis situations,” which led to what he termed a “do-it-yourselves” approach.9 This stance often manifested itself in using the military as the primary tool for engagement, especially through training and equipping missions across the continent. The continent was seen as a “limited engagement” theater,10 and the bulk of U.S. involvement would come through military activities. This approach follows what Charles A. Stevenson, Professor at John Hopkins University School of Advanced Strategic Studies, wrote in 1996, “When important but not truly vital interests are at stake, and when the costs and risks of military action are commensurate with such interests and success is likely, limited military means may be used for limited political objectives.”11

The 9/11 attacks and the inauguration of the “global war on terror” further tilted the American toolbox in Africa towards the military. In many parts of the continent, extremist and terrorist organizations found the “homes” they needed to reconstitute and maintain their operations, particularly taking advantage of poor governance, weak state capacity, and opportunities to exploit corruption and poverty.12 In the Global Terrorism Index 2020, ten African nations ranked in the top 20 nations in the world impacted by terrorism. These nations include: Nigeria (3), Somalia (5), Democratic Republic of Congo (9), Mali (11), Burkina Faso (12), Cameroon (13), Egypt (14), Mozambique (15), Libya (16), and the Central African Republic (17). Seven African countries are also included in the 21 to 40 rankings.13 With the exception of al Qaeda and ISIS, none of the terrorist groups operating in Africa pose a direct security threat to the United States. However, the perception that the continent provides many places of refuge for extremist organizations has been a major driver in the increase in U.S. military presence throughout Africa, especially with the permanent presence of the Combined/Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti and Niger Air Base 201, a drone base at Agadez in central Niger. The terror threat raised concerns about how failed and failing states across the continent, coupled with gaps in capacity, would create large ungovernable zones from which threats would metastasize to threaten the American homeland.

In 2007, President George W. Bush gave his approval for Pentagon plans to create a new “Africa Command” (AFRICOM), explicitly designed to strengthen security cooperation and to bolster the capacities of African militaries and governments to cope with security challenges. It bears noting that throughout the entire Cold War period and the existential clash with the Soviet Union, the African continent was not viewed as sufficiently geostrategically important as to merit its own separate geographic combatant command. U.S. military coverage of Africa was under three different unified commands, European Command in Stuttgart, Central Command in Florida, and Pacific Command (now Indo-Pacific Command) in Hawaii. This arrangement persisted after the Cold War ended. And, as Susan Rice, who served as assistant secretary of state for Africa during the Clinton administration, observed, “Africa has been divided up and been the poor stepchild in each of these different commands and not gotten the full attention it deserves.”14

Today, there are now more active-duty U.S. military personnel deployed across the continent than at any time since the height of World War II. Certainly, the 6,000 servicemembers present in Africa today in no way compares to those during World War II. In 1942, American ground and air units were sent to North Africa after German General Erwin Rommel defeated the British at Tobruk to participate in Operation Torch and to prepare for the invasion of Italy. The Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American air unit, trained and operated in North Africa before being transferred to Italy where they participated in the Italian Campaign. The U.S. Air Transport Command ferried lend-lease supplies to the Allies through air bases across sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, U.S. Army engineers were dispatched to the Belgian Congo to put the Shinkolobwe uranium mine into operation to ensure a supply of uranium to the Manhattan Project. If that is the point of comparison, then AFRICOM’s statement that the U.S. military footprint in Africa is “light” is accurate.15 It must be stressed that as of 2021 there is currently no “state of war” for the United States on the African continent—nor does the United States have any treaty obligations requiring it to defend an African state from outside aggression (and no such external threat to the continent exists).

Yet, the U.S. military has often been assigned the lead by the White House; or assumed the lead by default because of lack of State Department resources; in tackling non-military problems in Africa. As Elizabeth Shackelford, a former American diplomat who now works for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, concluded in assessing U.S. policy towards Africa, “A testament to how entrenched military primacy is in our foreign policy toolbox that one would automatically conclude that a plethora of non-military problems must be solved by a bigger military footprint.”16 This reasoning, then, is reflected in a disproportionate deployment of military personnel to the region over civilian diplomats and specialists.17 With the difficulties of operating in Africa—especially in terms of infrastructure and support networks, as well as problems like corruption—the private sector and the civilian agencies of government are less inclined to deploy and work in the continent. When faced with a series of challenges in Africa, Shackelford says, the United States often is motivated by a “reflexive desire to fill voids with our military.”18

Limits of Military Engagement
The military has an important role to play in achieving foreign policy objectives, but, short of waging and winning the nation’s wars, operations in places like Africa should be conducted within certain limitations. These operations must always be conducted within the broader framework of U.S. interests in individual countries and on the continent overall, and under the authority of the senior U.S. government official in a country, the ambassador or the chief of mission (COM). There are a number of appropriate roles for the U.S. military to play in any Africa policy.

The protection of American citizens and American diplomatic missions is a primary obligation of our government and a vital interest. When local security forces are unable or unwilling to provide the necessary assistance, the U.S. government must be prepared to use whatever force is necessary, as quickly as possible, to move Americans out of harm’s way. Assistance to official and nonofficial Americans overseas in the form of noncombatant evacuation operations (NEO) or personnel recovery (PR) operations should be among the primary noncombat missions of the U.S. military. Depending upon the security environment and degree of control exercised by the foreign government over a country, such operations might need to be conducted under nonpermissive conditions.

In cooperation with the international community, including the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU), and other multilateral and private organizations, humanitarian assistance is providing much-needed relief to those displaced by natural disaster, economic problems, and violence. The United States is also working with these organizations to address issues of population growth and displacement, disease, environmental degradation, and the role of women in African societies. Yet, deployment of U.S. military units for humanitarian missions, while consistent with our professed national values, can be fraught with peril, as proven by the army’s deployment to Somalia from 1992 to 1994 to help with famine relief when that country was in the midst of a civil war. While mass starvation was averted, the U.S. forces allowed themselves to be caught up in the internecine power struggles between Somalia’s warring clans, resulting in dozens of our soldiers being killed or wounded in fighting on the streets of Mogadishu. We will still no doubt respond to humanitarian crises in Africa, but such deployments must be undertaken with care and with clearly defined rules of engagement.

With the increase in terrorist activity in Africa over the past several years, a need remains for U.S. military training assistance to defense forces on the continent. The International Military Education and Training (IMET) and Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) programs managed through U.S. embassies offer tactical training to individuals and units in select countries. In addition to counter-terrorism training, counter-smuggling training is offered through the West Africa Training Cruises (WATC), as well as training in fisheries protection, oil spill cleanup, and anti-piracy operations. Many of these issues affect several countries or regions, calling for increased multilateral training programs and programs working with multilateral or regional organizations.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones are increasingly used in military operations, especially counter-terrorism operations. U.S. military operations of drones in Africa across national borders should be coordinated with the American embassies, and except for operations against individuals or groups who pose a direct threat to U.S. security interests, should be confined to reconnaissance missions. All military information operations should be coordinated with the embassy in the country where they are to be employed to ensure consistency with overall foreign policy objectives.

We should heed former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen’s warning about the ways in which U.S. counter-terrorism programs can have unexpected and even counterproductive effects. In assessing the track record, he notes that extremist organizations and insurgencies on the continent “use counter-terrorist responses to rally the people to their cause. When African militaries attempt to crush insurgencies with an overwhelming and repressive response, they often end up exacerbating the problem. The presence of international troops can act as a means for extremists to rally locals against a perceived foreign threat.”18

Since the 9/11 attacks, U.S. military actions in Africa have tended not to have been fully coordinated 

with relevant COMs. This tendency should be resisted. Based on my own experiences and those of my colleagues, I would propose the following guidelines, in keeping with existing U.S. government practice and the 1997 Memorandum of Understanding between the Secretaries of State and Defense:

  1. COMs should have authority over all military activity in Africa, especially drone operations that involve crossing national borders.
  2. With due regard to adequate force protection, military rules of engagement should be coordinated with the relevant COM.
  3. Military information operations, which usually have short-term objectives, should be coordinated with COMs to ensure compatibility with long-term public diplomacy objectives.
  4. Counter-terrorism operations should be coordinated with COMs to ensure that the underlying conditions that give rise to extremist movements are addressed.

Security assistance and counter-terrorism assistance, therefore, must be closely coordinated with the other foreign policy tools that are supervised by the relevant Ambassador or Chief of Mission if it is to be successful in bringing stability, peace, and prosperity to the continent over the long term. Defense programs such as those described in foregoing paragraphs provide excellent vehicles for providing skills training and professionalism to many people. At the same time, coming into contact with professional U.S. military personnel of all ranks during IMET or WATC offers an example of how professional military personnel operate, which, hopefully, will help in redirecting their behavior in an appropriate direction.

An important issue related to U.S. military engagement in Africa is that of the role of African militaries in development on the continent. Across the countries of the continent, nascent democratic rule has begun to develop. If these democracies are to be sustained, they will, in addition to their own political will, need continued international support if they are to grow and endure. Insufficient attention has been paid to the often-negative role that African militaries have played in exacerbating the conditions that plague the continent. In too many countries, the “national” militaries are larger than legitimate defense needs can justify, even with the increase of extremist activity, and represent a significant drain on national economies. Many of these forces are poorly trained and possess little understanding of the proper role of a military in society. Few have ever had to cope with significant external threats. Sub-Saharan African military forces have often been used mainly to counter internal threats to regimes, to support unpopular autocratic regimes, or, in many instances, have completely taken over governments.

Consider, for example, Sierra Leone, a country that had a population of approximately 4.5 million in 1996; the military numbered 5,000 men. While the country had been involved in a civil war against a rebel force supported by the autocratic ruler of neighboring Liberia beginning in 1990, at no time was more than half the country’s army actively involved in fighting the rebels. During the period from 1993 to 1995, underpaid soldiers of the Sierra Leonean army often were reported to be engaged in as many attacks upon the civilian population as those against the rebels. These attacks, along with rebel attacks, displaced as much as a quarter of the population and brought the country’s economic activity to a virtual standstill. The country’s military budget drained 25 percent of the already strapped national treasury.

Sierra Leone is just one example of the destabilizing role often played by the military in Africa, a problem that U.S. military engagement can play a role in addressing. Given the complexities of the agendas of various African leaders and the vastness and diversity of the continent, this task will not be easy. It is not, however, a problem that can be solved by military engagement alone. It will also require traditional diplomacy, targeted development assistance, and economic statecraft.

Thinking Beyond the Military
Stability and security are only one part of the agenda: economic growth and prosperity are also key ingredients for achieving U.S. national security goals on the continent.

The United States originally passed the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2000 and extended it in 2015 to run through 2025. It was designed to give African entrepreneurs a leg up in the U.S. market. AGOA expands market access for companies from eligible African countries, especially in textiles and clothing, and has helped to develop new markets for African produce and flowers, automobile components, and steel in the United States. But African businesses also need an influx of U.S. investment and technology—especially to be able to meet U.S. safety standards—and so we must find a way to incentivize U.S. companies to take the plunge and commit to work in the continent.

Actually, the Department of Defense may be able to help jump-start new U.S. investment in Africa. The Pentagon is concerned about American overreliance on China for rare earth minerals, which are essential for producing the high-technology defense systems on which U.S. national security rests. The Defense Logistics Agency is interested in helping to find alternate sources of supply in Africa, including from countries like Malawi and Burundi—and in making connections between U.S. business that can provide technology and finance and African suppliers.19

The United States needs to consider Africa not simply as a provider of raw materials, but as an adjunct to our high-technology and service sectors. There is an emerging opportunity to base more computer help centers in Africa, which in terms of the time difference with the United States, is more aligned with our business day than the centers based in India, and which has a growing population base that has the skills to do these jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic also has raised the question of more processing of raw materials and resources into finished goods “on site” in Africa, instead of raw materials exported from Africa to manufacturing centers in East Asia. For instance, African-sourced rubber could be processed in Africa into personal protective equipment. Alexander Demissie, managing director of Africa Rising, notes, “Supply chains are moving closer to these factories. At the end of the day, this is what will be creating jobs and making things more successful in the future.”20 This process would be aided by a deliberate U.S. approach designed to get American companies invested in the right places on the continent—and nations like Botswana, Kenya, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Ghana are all promising prospects.

Any talk about business dealings in Africa inevitably brings up the question of the Chinese role and “competition with China.” Our policy cannot be predicated on forcing African countries into a “them-or-us” situation. It should instead be grounded on this understanding: The United States has certain things that we can bring to the table that China cannot. Beijing has certain things that it can bring to the table that we will not, especially in terms of financing and supporting major infrastructure projects. Thus, it makes sense to try to find ways that those things reinforce and support each other. The competition then is that the country looks and decides: “Whose do we like better, the Chinese or the Americans?” The American focus should be on developing a relationship with that country based on their needs, not based on getting them to be unfriendly with China.

Ultimately, whether the challenge is terrorism or climate change, economic growth or stemming the migration crisis, the solution to Africa’s problems will have to be solved by Africans. The United States and the international community must remain actively engaged in Africa, but only Africans can solve the problems of ethnic conflict, political marginalization, and corruption that plague the continent. In addition to the internal actions that countries need to take, there needs to be greater regional cooperation in all spheres. Yet, in assisting this process, Cohen’s conclusion is correct: It is “in America’s best interests to bring more than its military” to African affairs.

Charles A. Ray, a member of the Board of Trustees at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), is the Chair of its Africa Program. He served as U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Republic of Zimbabwe.  

1 Adekeye Adebajo, “Obama’s visit to Kenya is like all his African policy—merely symbolic,” The Guardian, July 21, 2015,

2 See H.R. McMaster, “Smarter Strategies for the Twenty-First Century,” Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs, vol. 62, no. 2 (Spring 2021), p. 207.

3 Sam Kiley, “Doctor who discovered Ebola warns of deadly viruses yet to come,” CNN, Dec. 22, 2020,

4 Dominique Vu, “The Lungs of Our Planet are Under Threat,” Discovery, June 22, 2020,–lungs-of-our-planet–are-under-threat.5 “Africa will be home to 2 in 5 children by 2050,” UNICEF Report, UNICEF, Aug. 12, 2014.

5 Abdi Latif Dahir, “Belt and Road Africa Mineral Rich Nations Export Mostly to China,” Quartz Africa, April 26, 2019,

6 President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, White House, March 3, 2021, p. 11,

7 These questions were explored in Gordon Adams and Shoon Murray, eds., Mission Creep: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy? (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2014).

8 A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement, White House, Feb. 1995, pp 43-44.

9 Korwa G. Adar, “The Clinton Administration and Africa: A View from Nairobi,” Issue: A Journal of Opinion, vol. 26, no. 2, (1998), p. 72.

10 Richard G. Catoire, “A CINC for Sub-Saharan Africa? Rethinking the Unified Command Plan,” Parameters, Winter 2000-2001, pp. 102-117.

11 Charles A. Stevenson, “The Evolving Clinton Doctrine on the Use of Force,” Armed Forces & Society, Summer 1996.

12 For a discussion of this process, see, Ray Takeyh and Nikolas K. Gvosdev, “Do Terrorist Networks Need a Home?,” The Washington Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 3 (Summer 2002), pp. 97-108.

13 “Measuring the Impact of Terrorism,” Global Terrorism Index 2020, Institute for Economics & Peace, Sydney, Nov. 2020,

14 Susan E. Rice, “On the Record: Africa Command Could Boost U.S. Efforts,” Brookings Institution, Feb. 13, 2007,

15 Kathryn Watson, “Where does the U.S. have troops in Africa, and why?” CBS News, Oct. 23, 2017,

16 Elizabeth Shackelford, “U.S. Engagement in Africa Should be Led by Civilians Not the Military,” Responsible Statecraft, June 16, 2020,

17 Gordon Adams, “The Institutional Imbalance of American Statecraft,” in Gordon Adams and Shoon Murray, eds., Mission Creep: The Militarization of U.S. Foreign Policy (Georgetown University Press, 2014), p. 42.18 Shackelford, “U.S. Engagement in Africa Should be Led by Civilians Not the Military,”

18 Herman J. Cohen, “Pulling Troops Out of Africa Could Mean Another Endless War,” War on the Rocks, May 13, 2020,

19 Ernest Scheyder and Zandi Shabalala, “Pentagon eyes rare earth supplies in Africa in push away from China,” Reuters, June 5, 2019,

20 Mary Ann Russoon, “Coronavirus: How Africa’s supply chains are evolving,” BBC News, June 25, 2020,

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