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Published: Thursday, 2/26/2009

The trouble with Africom

AMERICAN military involvement in a botched operation that led to many deaths in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the second major failure of the Pentagon's year-old Africa Command.

The first misstep involved U.S. military support of an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to overthrow an Islamist government. The Ethiopians withdrew at the end of 2008 and the Islamists are back, in greater strength, after considerable bloodshed.

The second was U.S. support of an effort in December by the Ugandan and Congolese armies to fight the Lord's Resistance Army, a tribally based force that has been in rebellion against the Ugandan government for 22 years.

The idea was that the two African armies, with U.S. help in the form of advisers, fuel, communications, and intelligence would surround a group of LRA forces and kill or capture them. The operation was badly executed, however, and the LRA group escaped and went on a rampage. Some 50 villages were destroyed, an estimated 900 civilians were killed, and terror has reigned ever since.

Although the LRA is certainly a malevolent organization, it has nothing to do with the United States or with non-local terrorism.

Years ago, some military and diplomatic officials argued that, just as the Pentagon had military commands in other areas of the world, it should have one in Africa. That view prevailed in the Bush administration, which also saw a risk of the growth of terrorism in Africa, and Africom was established last year.

The argument for it may have been good in terms of overall U.S. foreign policy. In practice, however, its bloody failures in Somalia and now the Congo - plus the tight Defense Department budget, with the Iraq war continuing, and U.S. involvement in Afghanistan escalating - suggest that it may no longer be a good idea. This marks a change in our editorial position.

The Africans have shown little enthusiasm for the new command and have declined the location in their countries of an Africom command center, which remains in Germany. An article by retired U.S. Ambassador David Passage in the February issue of Foreign Service Journal recommends that Africom and its Latin American counterpart, Southcom, be disbanded for cost and political reasons.

Based on the debacles in Somalia and the Congo, the Obama Administration should look closely at Africom and ask whether it is needed in a time of limited resources.



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