Op-Ed: Emerging US Africa Policy focuses on security issues

American support for democracy, development and health may no longer be policy cornerstones as they have been for all post-Cold War presidents, Democratic and Republican. At the White House, a former Pentagon Africa counterterrorism director has been chosen as senior Africa policy aide. No choice has yet been made for the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the State Department. By R. Kramer for AllAfrica.com

Little has been said about Africa policy by the new US president or his administration, but recent announcements and appointments provide an emerging outline of an approach that gives priority to security concerns.

Support for democracy, development and health may no longer be policy cornerstones as they have been for all post-Cold War presidents, Democratic and Republican.

On March 30, the Pentagon announced President Donald Trump’s approval of revised combat rules for US forces fighting the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab in Somalia, reducing protections for civilians as the US military launches an intensified assault in east Africa. Earlier this month, the White House announced a budget blueprint that includes a $54-billion rise in overall military spending, alongside deep cuts for the State Department and international assistance.

At the White House, a former Pentagon Africa counterterrorism director has been chosen as senior Africa policy aide, continuing the president’s choice of career military officers for key foreign policy posts.

According to three sources with personal knowledge of the selection, White House National Security Adviser HR McMaster has chosen Rudolph Atallah, a retired lieutenant-colonel who spent 21 years in the US Air Force, to be senior director for Africa at the National Security Council (NSC). Atallah has been a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre, a Washington DC think tank, as well as CEO of a security consulting firm.

The selection has not been confirmed by the White House, which has announced only one NSC appointment since McMaster took the NSC post in February – that of Dina Powell as a deputy national security adviser for strategy.

Africa watchers also are eager to see who will head the Africa Bureau at the State Department. Sources tell AllAfrica that leading candidates for the Assistant Secretary of State position include Jeff Krilla, vice president for government affairs at Kosmos Energy — who served as deputy secretary in the State Department’s human rights bureau under President George W Bush — and Charles Snyder, a retired Army officer who has held senior military and State Department posts.

The same sources, who do not want to be identified publicly, say two others who have been considered are James R Dunlop, a senior adviser at the consulting group led by former George HW Bush national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, and J Peter Pham, who heads the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council.

Military experience could prove an advantage for Krilla, who is an officer in the Naval Reserves, and Snyder, who spent 22 years in the Army, retiring in 1991 with the rank of Colonel, and served as the CIA’s National Intelligence Officer for Africa before joining the State Department.

While Africa policy was not debated during the 2016 Presidential campaign, Trump as candidate and president has consistently emphasised his commitment to fighting terrorism. Speaking to Congress last month, he pledged to “demolish and destroy” the Islamic State and has directed the Pentagon and other agencies to draw up a plan to make this happen.

Career military officers he has appointed to key posts – in addition to McMaster, a lieutenant-general in the Army – are Defence Secretary James Mattis, a recently retired Marine Corps general and NSC senior director for counterterrorism, Christopher P Costa, a retired Special Forces intelligence officer.

Atallah, the presumed Africa director choice at the White House, retired from the Air Force in 2009 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. From 2003 to 2009 during the George W Bush administration, he was Africa Counterterrorism Director in the Office of the Secretary of Defence, according to his Atlantic Council biography. He previously served as defense attaché accredited to six west African countries and director of the Sub-Saharan Africa Orientation Course at the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which coordinates the global US military campaign against terrorism.

Fluent in Arabic and French, Atallah was born in Beirut, according to his biography on the website of the consulting company he has headed, White Mountain Research.

Atallah is the second person chosen as NSC Africa director. Robin Townley, who was named to that post by Lt-Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first NSC head, was unable to take the job after his security clearance was rejected by the CIA.

Before being forced out of office after less than a month amid controversy over his Russian ties, Flynn restructured NSC responsibilities. He added to the Africa portfolio four north African countries that have been in the NSC’s Middle East portfolio since the early 1970s, when Henry Kissinger was both national security adviser and Secretary of State. The four are Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Only one African nation, Egypt, remains assigned to the Middle East portfolio rather than to the Africa policy team.

In a strategy paper submitted to the Trump transition team in December, the Atlantic Council’s Peter Pham advocated reassigning the four north African nations “so that the responsibility for Africa aligns with the Department of Defence’s combatant command areas of responsibility”. Pham also criticised assignment of north African nations to the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, rather than to African Affairs:

“While Egypt’s placement is understandable, given its importance as a lynchpin of the Middle East balance of power, and should not be changed,” Pham wrote, “the reality is that, on most political, security, and economic issues, the other four Maghrebi nations have more to do with Africa than with the Middle East – threats to security, trade, and even flows of migrants move along a north-south axis, reaching from the Mediterranean across the Sahara.”

The US’s Africa Bureau is currently led by a career foreign service officer, Peter H Barlerin, who took over as acting assistant secretary following the retirement on March 10 of Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career ambassador who served in the post since 2013. Sources say Barlerin is scheduled to be replaced by Carol O’Connell, who has been tapped to become the top deputy assistant secretary for Africa and will serve as acting assistant secretary until a Trump nominee is confirmed by the Senate.

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By Reed Kramer

Picture credit: Senegalese soldiers take part on a large annual military exercise, known as Flintlock, in Thies. The exercise has been bringing together African, European and US counter-terrorism forces every year for the past decade. Seyllou/Getty Images.