By Seth J. Frantzman
US Africa Command has not only been the most recent addition to America’s method of dividing the world into various areas of responsibility for military operations, but also one of the least well-known.
Unlike CENTCOM that ran the war in Iraq, and Pacific Command (USPACOM) that has to contend with China, the unfair perception is that the US doesn’t do much in Africa. In recent months, AFRICOM seems to have tried to reverse that perception by stressing the growing role of Russia in Libya.
On July 24, AFRICOM again underlined how Russia was sending weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, to Libya. Russian “mercenaries” linked to the Wagner group were also in Libya, the command says. “It is assessed that the Russian Federation continues to violate UN Security Council Resolution 1970 by actively providing military equipment and fighters to the front lines of the conflict in Libya.” Images showed Russian planes and weapons at Al-Khadim air base in Libya.
Libya is divided in a civil war between the Turkish-backed Government of the National Accord in Tripoli and the Egyptian-backed Libyan National Army in Benghazi. Russia backs the LNA; Qatar backs the GNA. It is a complex proxy war that has escalated after an LNA offensive on Tripoli in 2019 and Turkey sending Syrian mercenaries and weapons to Libya.
The US military is clearly sending a message here. Back in June AFRICOM also published new evidence of Russian aircraft in Libya. It showed off Russian MiG-29s. It was photographed near the city of Sirte, a key battleground in Libya’s civil war. “Russia’s sustained involvement in Libya increases the violence and delays a political solution,”
US Marine Corps Brig.-Gen. Bradford Gering of AFRICOM said in June. Another press release from the command in mid-July highlighted the role of the Wagner group of military contractors.
AFRICOM IS responsible for dealing with all of Africa – except Egypt, which is linked to CENTCOM. It’s important to highlight that despite the perception that US policy should be run as a top-down operation, it tends to function in capsules, with the Department of Defense having one policy, the US State Department having another policy, and the White House, National Security Council and CIA even having a third policy.
For instance, in Syria this dysfunction was paramount. While CENTCOM found, trained and supported the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US State Department actively supported Turkey against CENTCOM’s partners. The White House then worked directly with Ankara to undermine both the State Department and CENTCOM in October 2019, rubber-stamping a Turkish invasion that attacked America’s own partners.
Even worse, the US European Command, apparently hoping to work more closely with NATO partner Turkey, had celebrated Turkey’s demands for a security zone along the Syrian border and was hoodwinked into its support which was actually a cover for Ankara’s offensive. It was unclear if EUCOM and CENTCOM were even talking to eachother over what each side knew about the other’s efforts along the Syrian border. This is because Turkey is part of EUCOM and Syria is part of CENTCOM’s area of operations.
Why might AFRICOM be hyping Russia’s involvement in Libya? There are already numerous US operations in Africa, not least of which are the special operations and drone bases from which Washington operates to hunt terrorists from Niger to Somalia.
Since 2019, the US has been re-assessing its role in Africa. Although US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has denied that America is “withdrawing” from Africa, the reality is that the US wants to reduce its footprint.
Pointing out increased Russian involvement in Libya gives AFRICOM something to do. It also dovetails with the State Department’s attempt to frustrate Moscow’s ambitions in the region. For instance US-Syria envoy James Jeffrey, a major supporter of Ankara’s regional ambitions, has said that the goal of the US is to make Syria a quagmire for Russia. It’s not clear if US President Donald Trump, who doesn’t even seem to speak to Jeffrey, agrees with this assessment.
The US embassy in Libya, which had reduced its role in the country after the murder of US ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012, has been upping its rhetoric, demanding the end of foreign interference in the country. What America means by this is unclear. Both Turkey and Russia and others interfere in Libya. The US appears to support Turkey more, but Egypt has also complained to the US about Turkey’s role.
The increased US attention on Libya from the State Department and AFRICOM appear to represent a slow shift in US policy. Trump has also spoken to Ankara numerous times as Turkey’s leader tries to get the US to do more in Libya. But the same Turkish leader who claims to oppose Russia in Libya is buying Russian S-400s. This puts Washington in a bind. Nevertheless, for AFRICOM, monitoring Russia’s role in Libya – basically in its own area of operations back yard – is a new mission and gives the command a way to emphasize its role.
Seth J. Frantzman is Oped Editor and Middle East affairs analyst at The Jerusalem Post. He has covered the war against Islamic State, three Gaza wars, the conflict in Ukraine, the refugee crises in Eastern Europe and also reported from Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Senegal, the UAE, Ukraine and Russia.
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