Since its infancy, America has been getting in and out of the African continent. Africa was the site of our fledgling nation's first foreign military success -- and shame.
After winning independence, the United States no longer enjoyed the protection of the British flag. Washington soon realized it would have to build its own navy to protect the American merchant fleet from the Barbary pirates.
The USS Enterprise was a proud addition to America's fledgling fleet. In 1801, she squared-off against the pirate vessel Tripoli. After a fierce sharp battle, the Tripoli struck her colors, handing the U.S. its first victory at sea.
In 1803, America's Mediterranean fleet also included the 36-gun USS Philadelphia. Patrolling the coast of Tripoli, the Philadelphia ran aground on an unchartered reef. The entire crew was captured and made slaves of the Pasha. It was a national humiliation.
The Navy's Mediterranean fleet remained on station for decades. Then, as the pirate threat diminished, so did the American military presence.
Over the centuries, U.S. boots on the ground waxed and waned among the nations on the continent. Civil War veterans from both sides served as mercenaries and military advisers in Egypt. During World War II, the U.S. march to Berlin started in North Africa. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviets engaged in proxy wars there. And so it went.
And, now the U.S. military is back -- and just in time. In 2007, the U.S. announced the establishment of a new military command -- Africa Command. AFRICOM is one of six regional commands, each responsible for overseeing all U.S. military activities in its "area of operations."
From the start, AFRICOM has been a maligned flag. Critics complained its presence presaged a wave of Yankee imperialism, a resource war with China or militarization of American policy toward countries from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sahara. All of that rhetoric was either misinformed or intentionally overhyped.
AFRICOM was created to accomplish the exact opposite of what detractors alleged. Rather than grow the U.S. military footprint on the continent, the goal was to increase situational awareness so Washington could identify sensible, practical and feasible alternatives for addressing U.S. security concerns without direct intervention. It is also charged with ensuring that any military activities we might undertake would be consonant with our nonmilitary efforts to promote safety, freedom and prosperity in this part of the world.
Still, AFRICOM has been criticized for spending too much time helping African nations build their capacity to deal with terrorist threats. What rubbish. Transnational terrorism is the single greatest destabilizing force in the region. It must be addressed.
Yet indifference, inattention and ineptness in the administration's foreign policy and counterterrorism strategy have left gaps that have let al Qaeda jump back into the African game. After taking down Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, desultory U.S. engagement there created space for the near moribund al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to spring back. The group has links to the attack in Benghazi, Libya, the Islamist insurgency in Mali and the recent hostage-taking bloodbath in Algeria.
AFRICOM has its work cut out for it. The command now operates under an incompetent grand strategy from Washington and uncertainty about future resources threatened by the looming sequester of defense funds.
It's important to get Africa and AFRICOM right. The alternatives are either ceding some states' progress toward peace and prosperity to violence and deprivation, or having more foreign boots intervene in places like Mali. Neither outcome serves U.S. interests. What AFRICOM needs desperately is proactive and prudent leadership from Washington.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is vice president for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.