I was surprised at a forum on strategic counter-terrorism last Friday when some panelists expressed a less-than-positive attitude about the Defense Department’s new Africa Command (Africom).
Several panelists at last week’s session at the Brookings Institution, considered a left-leaning Washington think tank by itself, spoke about the need for the next administration to take a new approach to counterterrorism.
Brookings fellow Daniel Benjamin, who has just written a policy paper on the topic, called for widening counterterrorism policies to include restoring “American leadership and respect in the world.”
He urged policies that build international cooperation to tackle not only terrorists, but nuclear proliferation, climate change, pandemic disease, and energy security.
Veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering, who has served as ambassador to Russia, India, Israel and El Salvador – among other places – said the priorities facing the next president would include clusters of related issues such as poverty, economic development, food, health and their relationship with trade. Another cluster includes disarmament, non-proliferation and terrorism.
Dept. of Defense photo
During the question and answer session I figured the panel would have something interesting to say about AFRICOM, the Bush administration’s plan to combine assistance with civil reconstruction, humanitarian aid and other – traditionally non-military – tasks under a joint military and diplomatic leadership.
What surprised me was how negative most of the comments were: Pickering, once the No. 3 official at the State Department and who is thought to be a contender for the department's top job in an Obama administration, called Africom "a serious mistake.”
He said Africom was “a solution in search of a problem.”
After spending eight years in Africa, Pickering says “the military portion of our interest in Africa is very small. I think it' important to do things like peace-keeping training and to help friends, but I don’t feel we should turn it into a military problem.”
Paul Pillar, a former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, now a visiting professor at Georgetown University, said he was neutral on Africom itself, but “winced somewhat” at how civilian and military parts of the government “try to get in on the counter-terrorism action, whether it’s the most appropriate way to respond or not.”