AFRICOM: Just what are we doing there?

In March 2018, General Waldhauser, then commander of United States African Command (AFRICOM), testified before the US Congressional House Armed Service Committee about the command’s mission and how it plans to implement that mission after the ambush of U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger. In this piece, former U.S. Army Captain, West Point and SAIS graduate John Rugarber examines the testimony and AFRICOM’s mission and questions whether the focus is counter-terrorism, or simply countering China.

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General Waldhauser’s testimony (referred to with time-stamps throughout this article) was a very sobering affair, and raised a lot of questions about the true nature of AFRICOM’s mission and whether its goals are actually attainable. Using the General’s testimony as well as outside sources, this article will demonstrate that things are very clearly amiss and should cause the American public to actively question just what the US military is really doing in Africa.

Mission and Endstate

General Waldhauser defined the U.S. national interests in Africa as threefold: first, to contain Violent Extremist Organisations (VEOs), (Al-Shabab in Somalia, the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Uganda, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali and Niger, and Boko Haram mainly operating in Nigeria) in order to allow African security forces to prevent the VEOs from gaining the capacity to conduct operations directly against the United States (1:46:36). Second, the U.S. has an interest in containing the economic influences of China and Russia in accordance with the National Defense Strategy (NDS) on the continent, with the latter just having established a naval base directly opposite of the U.S. base in Djibouti (1:45:40). Lastly, General Waldhauser spoke of the need for rapid humanitarian response to issues such disease outbreak control given Africa’s expanding population (1:44:50). General Waldhauser then defined the end-state (mission complete) in Africa as creating space to allow for economic and political development of the continent (1:30:40) by partnering with host nation security forces and adopting a “by, with, and through” strategy as per the guidelines in the NDS (1:29:13).


First, there is the issue of the VEOs. While these organisations are troublesome for the African governments that the former wage war against, there is scant evidence that these groups represent a clear and present threat to the United States or its citizens. General Waldhauser stated that “the number of transnational VEOs were small and are concerned with regional issues and grievances with the local government, but since some aspire to be like ISIS, we have to assume that their desires to attack Americans in the region still exists (1:43:51).” Assuming something is not the same as having concrete evidence: if the United States is willing to put its armed forces in harm’s way and accept casualties, then it should do so along the line of national defence. Yet, aside from a failed attack against a Danish cartoonist and attempts to recruit fighters from Minnesota to fight in Somalia by Al Shabab as well as the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Abuja by Boko Haram, both groups attacks and interests remain regional.


The linkage between AFRICOM’s existence and China’s presence on the continent is undeniable. For example, in 2005, China’s natural resource imports from Africa did not exceed $50 billion; yet, by 2010, its imports had nearly tripled and by 2015, the figure stood at nearly $200 billion. Chinese investments in the forms of infrastructure projects and such have increased rapidly from $1 billion in 2004 to $24.5 billion in 2013. AFRICOM was created in 2008; which not only coincides with China’s rise on the continent but is years after each one of the aforementioned principle VEOs came into being—Boko Haram (2002), the Lord’s Resistance Army (1987), Al Qadea in the Islamic Maghreb (1997) and Al Shabaab (2006). It appears none of these groups were of major concern to the United States until China made its presence known and were used as a pretense to establish AFRICOM.

Before dismissing this conclusion as nothing more than a conspiracy theory, this conclusion is directly in line with the most recent version of the NDS. Congresswoman Baker stated that AFRICOM’s current conduct was in accordance with the “great power competition and not terrorism [the] primary focus” (1:32:43) of the NDS. Thus, no longer is AFRICOM’s mission a part of the Global War on Terrorism; rather it is about countering China’s attempts to secure a greater chunk of Africa’s natural resources (See Fig 1.0).

Africom and China presence in Africa

Fig 1.0 – AFRICOM and Chinese disposition in Africa

Whether or not AFRICOM can actually counter Chinese economic influence on the continent is also open to debate. One only has to only compare the Chinese Outward Foreign Direct Investment (OFDI) figures in Fig 2.0 (below) with Fig 1.0 to determine whether or not that strategy is working. Bear in mind that China has accomplished all of this without putting a single soldier on the ground prior to March of 2018, when they established a naval base directly opposite the U.S. base in Djibouti.

Chinese OFDI stock in Africa 2013

Fig 2.0 – Chinese OFDI stock in Africa (2013)

Furthermore, by General Waldhauser’s own account “we will never be able to outspend the Chinese on the continent, but our involvement and contributions can be noted [by the population]. (46:21).” He also admits that getting on the same economic playing field as China is difficult because they are not bound by the same human rights restrictions the United States is (43:25). Yet, these statements did not raise the ire of any Congressman or cause them to question AFRICOM’s ongoing mission.


While the U.S. military’s response to the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa was instrumental to the containment of that disease, the vast majority of the 4000 soldiers sent to places like Liberia were not stationed in Africa; rather they were based out of Fort Campbell, KY with Headquarters AFRICOM (based in Stuggart, Germany), and U.S. Army Africa playing a staging and managerial role. Despite the distances, members of the 101st Airborne, who have a global quick reaction force role, were able to establish themselves quickly and contain the virus. Having forces already on the continent appears to have played little role in the actual containment of the virus, as they were too few and lacked the resources to combat the crisis.

When asked by a member of Congressional Arms Committee about what made AFRICOM’s mission better than that of the UN, who has conducted humanitarian and development operations in Africa long before AFRICOM’s existence, General Waldhauser responded “the ability to conduct offensive operations” (21:43). While it is true that the UN does not conduct offensive operations, there is little evidence that AFRICOM offensive operations in South Sudan or the Central African Republic have done anything to quell the atrocities committed there nor have they made Somalia any less volatile. Futhermore, General Waldhauser did not link any offensive operation conducted by AFRICOM to facilitating or supporting humanitarian operations: rather, he continued to restate AFRICOM’s solution to the problems on the continent as being to “support [its] political and developmental systems,” (1:30:40) which is not at all different than the missions of the UN or African Union. Despite all this information being open sourced, none of the lawmakers on the Committee pressed General Waldhauser to this level of detail concerning AFRICOM’s emergency response role, which should again give the American public concern.


General Waldhauser’s end-state should give the American public pause and cause them to question whether it is attainable. In both Somalia and Nigeria, which are the areas Boko Haram and Al Shabab typically operate, the U.S. has struggled to build effective governments. In Somalia, the United States has tried nearly everything to curb terrorism from humanitarian operations and the subsequent counterterrorism operations of the early 1990s to sponsoring the Ethiopian takeover of the country in 2007: none of these operations have brought stabilisation to Somalia. General Waldhauser even joked to the Committee that although he required all of his command team to read the master thesis of the current President of Somalia about clan dynamics in Somalia, his command team still probably does not understand the clans in Somalia (1:11:06). Rather than question the General about whether U.S. forces are being sucked into another tribal war a-la Afghanistan, the lawmakers simply chuckled and remained silent on the issue.

Additionally, in February 2018, BBC News in the United States reported that Nigerian Armed Forces had Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Sheku, surrounded in a hideout in the Sambisa forest. However, rather than allow the Army to enter the hideout and either arrest or kill Sheku, the Army was ordered by the Nigerian government to hold its positions for three days, which subsequently allowed Sheku and the followers he had with him to escape. When Nigerian forces were finally given permission to enter the hideout, they found nothing but warm leftover food and garbage. Yet, explanations as to why or who specifically gave the order for the Army to stand fast were never given…nor were they asked for by the reporter. While evidence of the Nigerian government playing a double game with the United States is not clear, corruption remains pervasive and the total elimination of Boko Haram could cause U.S. military and developmental aid to decrease since the threat has been eliminated. Thus, both case studies should set off alarms to the American public about the feasibility of AFRICOM’s mission.

Perhaps most troubling of all was General Waldhauser’s definition of success. He clearly stated that AFRICOM “could never defeat organizations like Al-Shabaab…the only thing it could do get them to a situation where Somali National Defense forces can handle them and we can leave” (1:42:10). However, as pointed out earlier in this article, that has proved thus far to be impossible, regardless of how many partnered and unilateral operations are conducted. Again, Americans need to ask themselves if they are comfortable with spending both blood and treasure on countering yet another VEO, which its commanding General clearly admits it cannot defeat.


The United States public need to have an honest discussion with themselves about AFRICOM’s mission. If we are are comfortable with having our sons and daughters placed into harm’s way in another forever war over resources guised under the cloak of the Global War on Terrorism, then it should continue to support AFRICOM’s mission. But if it is not, then perhaps the time has come for the people to say enough is enough: stop engaging its citizens in a racket against China that does not directly benefit the vast majority of its citizens and only favours American business interests on the continent. If the United States was truly interested in minimising the threats that the VEOs pose to the regional governments that they operate in, then it should use its vast resources and organisational skills to take the lead on the UN’s plagued African support operations and work with the African Union to truly develop African solutions to African problems rather than peruse an alternative and wasteful course-of-action of self interest.

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John Rugarber is a former United States Army Captain and graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point with multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. John is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in Conflict Management, and focuses on Europe, Russia and the former Soviet Union states.

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Photo credit: U.S. Army Africa