Student examines U.S. interest in Africa

Concerns related to the global war on terrorism, natural resources, and competition with China — and not solely traditional humanitarian issues — have encouraged America to increase its involvement in Africa, Robert Berschinski ’02 GRD ’08 said Tuesday.

Berschinski — who worked for the U.S. Army War College — outlined his ideas on America’s relationship with Africa while presenting his research on the United States Africa Command, or AFRICOM, a recently established U.S. agency that will act as a liaison between the Department of Defense and all 53 countries on the African continent.

Students discuss oil, terrorism, and the future of U.S. security in Africa during a presentation on the United States Africa Command.
Charles Francis
Students discuss oil, terrorism, and the future of U.S. security in Africa during a presentation on the United States Africa Command.

The sharing of responsibilities between the State Department and the Department of Defense-led AFRICOM is a result of perceived terrorist activity in Africa and China’s increased dependence on African oil, Berschinski said. African oil made up one third of Chinese oil imports and 22 percent of U.S. oil imports in 2006.

“We are paying more attention to the continent because China is paying more attention to the continent,” Berschinski said.

Berschinski’s research, “AFRICOM’s Dilemma,” also suggests how AFRICOM can best respond to terrorism in Africa. The United States is currently looking at the situation solely through the lens of the “global war on terrorism,” he said. Past American policy towards African terrorism has largely been based on a theory of aggregation, under which North African terrorist groups were considered part of a “pan-Islamic jihad,” he said.

But AFRICOM should abandon this policy if it wants to be successful, Berschinski said.

“U.S. involvement in terrorist activities in Africa based on the process of aggregation has caused long-term harm,” he said. “The theory of disaggregation, of separating the ideology of jihad from African terrorism, is key.”

AFRICOM has come under criticism because of its perceived “militarization” of American diplomatic efforts in Africa, he said. But AFRICOM’s purpose is to serve as an umbrella organization for diplomatic operations in Africa, preventing potential conflict with the State Department, Berschinski said. AFRICOM is also planning to train soldiers in the African Standby Force, which will be an African military reserve, he said.

But Kathrin Daepp GRD ’08 said she thinks training will allow soldiers to become more capable of human rights abuses.

“A Western military perspective in Africa is dangerous because they don’t understand exactly what’s going on,” she said.

Many African nations are also concerned with the presence of AFRICOM, and African leaders have said it resembles colonialism, Berschinski said.

She said African leaders are more than aware of U.S.-China rivalry and see AFRICOM as a reincarnation of the Cold War against China.

“There is a perception that U.S. actions after the Cold War have been sporadic and ineffective and that the U.S. is looking for a resource-grab,” Berschinski said

Paul Rubinson, a Yale predoctoral fellow in security studies, said he agreed with the sentiments of African leaders who say the United States is protecting its own interests in Africa.

“I personally believe current U.S. policy is about oil and economic interests,” he said.

Teresa Williamson GRD ’08 said she thinks AFRICOM can only help America’s understanding of African politics.

“AFRICOM will allow U.S. diplomats to have greater knowledge of what’s going on in the region because they will actually be there,” she said.

The U.S. government should be concerned by its lack of diplomatic investment in Africa, Berschinski said. He said AFRICOM presents an excellent opportunity for the U.S. government to work with African governments and the African Union and resolve this problem.

AFRICOM reached its initial operating capacity Oct. 1 and is now a full-fledged agency of the Pentagon.

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