“The Libyan conflict of 2011 was the first war actually commanded by Africom.”
“The less they see of us, the less they will dislike us.” So remarked Frederick Roberts, British general during the Anglo-Afghan war of 1878-80, ushering in a policy of co-opting Afghan leaders to control their people on the empire’s behalf.
“Indirect rule”, as it was called, was long considered the linchpin of British imperial success, and huge swaths of that empire were conquered, not by British soldiers, but by soldiers recruited elsewhere in the empire. It was always hoped that the dirty work of imperial control could be conducted without spilling too much white man’s blood.
It is a lesson that has been re-learned in recent years. The ever-rising western body counts in Iraq and Afghanistan have reminded politicians that colonial wars in which their own soldiers are killed do not win them popularity at home. The hope in both cases is that US and British soldiers can be safely extricated, leaving a proxy force of allies to kill opponents of the new regime on our behalf.
And so too in Africa.
To reassert its waning influence on the continent in the face of growing Chinese investment, the US established Africom – the “Africa Command” of the US military – in October 2008. Africom co-ordinates all US military activity in Africa and, according to its mission statement, “contributes to increasing security and stability in Africa – allowing African states and regional organizations to promote democracy, to expand development, to provide for their common defense, and to better serve their people”.
However, in more unguarded moments, officials have been more straightforward: Vice Admiral Robert Moeller declared in a conference in 2008 that Africom was about preserving “the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market”, and two years later, in a piece in Foreign policy magazine, wrote: “Let there be no mistake. Africom’s job is to protect American lives and promote American interests.” Through this body, western powers are resorting to the use of military power to win back the leverage once attained through financial monopoly.