Africom’s Still Undefined Future

When the United States Africa Command – AFRICOM – was created in 2007 and was formally activated the following year, many considered it to be the epitome of “smart power” – a carefully blended mix of hard and soft powder.  Like other U.S. military commands, it would possess formidable combat capability, but its signature ingredient was a soft power component. 

To the dismay of some civilian officials who saw their role being usurped, AFRICOM was defining itself in terms of conducting diplomacy and development as well as traditional military duties.  A career diplomat was appointed deputy to the commander for civil-military activities, and the commander, General William “Kip” Ward said, “AFRICOM recognizes the essential interrelationship between security, stability, economic development, political advancement, [and] things that address the basic needs of the peoples of a region….” The structure and goals of AFRICOM reflected the mandate issued by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as a survey of English-language African press quickly found. The dominant view was that AFRICOM was just a manifestation of neo-colonialism – a heavy-handed attempt to stake a claim to Africa’s increasingly sought-after natural resources – and so was decidedly unwelcome.  Given this reaction, AFRICOM headquarters remained in Stuttgart, Germany and the command kept a low profile on the continent.

U.S. military activity in the region was at first limited, emanating mainly from a base in Djibouti that concerned itself primarily with terrorist threats emanating from nearby Yemen.  But although “soft” operations such as providing medical assistance moved forward, demands for pure military muscle also increased.  In 2011, American troops were dispatched to Uganda There was nothing soft about these ventures: in Uganda, U.S. Special Operations troops on the prowl; in Libya, air strikes, cruise missiles, and enforcement of a no-fly zone.

So, what happened to the soft side of AFRICOM?  Abiodun Williams1 observed that “public diplomacy is too important to be left entirely to civilian agencies, particularly as the actions of the U.S. military critically affect the way other countries and their citizens view the United States.”  Could the military not handle public diplomacy tasks? 

Long-term answers to such questions are yet to be formulated, and these matters need to be addressed at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House.  The appropriateness of a primarily hard power entity, such as the Defense Department, assuming soft power responsibilities needs to be debated further. 

Credibility is an important factor in determining the success or failure of public diplomacy, and it may be that the U.S. military will not possess this kind of credibility during the foreseeable future, particularly as limited interventions, such as that in Uganda, are likely to become more frequent.

But the concept should not be abandoned.  Fears about the “militarization of foreign policy” have some validity, but the redesign of military capability and mission should reflect the realities of a world in which smart power may prove a humane and efficient backbone of foreign affairs.  The door remains open to this kind of change.


  1. Abiodun Williams, “The U.S. Military and Public Diplomacy,” in Philip Seib (ed.), Toward a New Public Diplomacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 217.

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