What Matters in 2015?

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The longest war in Amer­i­can his­tory is com­ing to an end next year. As of Decem­ber 31, 2014, the last con­ven­tional com­bat trooper is going to be with­drawn from Afghanistan and a new era of U.S. engage­ment with that coun­try will begin.

Of course, that engage­ment does not have a sta­ble shape yet: the Afghan gov­ern­ment has for­bid­den spe­cial oper­a­tions forces, a key force to remain behind for coun­tert­er­ror­ism mis­sions, from oper­at­ing in a key province right by the capital.

The U.S. still needs to work out its rela­tion­ship with Afghanistan. But it needs to work out its rela­tion­ship with a lot of places. Early in the Obama admin­is­tra­tion, defense offi­cials sig­nalled their inten­tion to stop obsess­ing with the Mid­dle East and South/Central Asia through the famous “Pivot to Asia.” This pivot has resulted in a 15-fold increase in intel­li­gence assets in… Africa.

Over the past two years, the Pen­ta­gon has become embroiled in con­flicts in Libya, Soma­lia, Mali and cen­tral Africa. Mean­time, the Air Force is set­ting up a fourth African drone base, while Navy war­ships are increas­ing their mis­sions along the coast­lines of East and West Africa.

Focus is not just a func­tion of num­bers — there are only about 5,000 U.S. troops across the entire African con­ti­nent while around 28,000 remain in South Korea. In terms of aid, bud­getary pri­or­i­ties, even acqui­si­tions and research, Asia seems to be where it’s at. But it’s not: it’s in Africa.

Those 28,000 troops in South Korea, for exam­ple, don’t really do any­thing; they are there mainly to serve as a trip­wire guar­an­tee­ing Amer­i­can involve­ment should the Korean war reignite. The troops in Japan don’t really do much either beyond pro­vid­ing easy access for the Navy and Air Force to keep things sta­tioned on the other side of the Pacific. The enor­mous troop pres­ence in Ger­many is sim­i­larly there for pres­ence and state­craft more than a direct secu­rity concern.

It’s dif­fi­cult to escape the con­clu­sion that Africa is going to be the pri­mary focus of the U.S. in the next decade, even if every other area of the planet receives more troops, money, and sup­port. Africa is where the geopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion is most in flux, where ter­ror­ists have the great­est free­dom to oper­ate, where states seem weak­est, and where eco­nomic growth and devel­op­ment are the most promis­ing. In many ways, Africa is the future, the new fron­tier… not Asia (and not Europe or Latin America).

But what does this mean? Africa is the one place left on earth where state­craft, mil­i­tary diplo­macy, government-funded aid, and even new eco­nomic devel­op­ment can be applied cre­atively. It’s not hard to imag­ine a new form of U.S. pol­icy, where the State Depart­ment takes the lead instead of the Pen­ta­gon. Where secu­rity mat­ters are placed in their polit­i­cal and eco­nomic con­texts, rather than see­ing “al Qaeda” and going to red alert and flood­ing a coun­try with weapons and mili­ti­a­men. Where eco­nomic devel­op­ment is not just USAID enrich­ing Chemon­ics through the local royal fam­ily, or even Exxon­Mo­bil fight­ing off river delta mil­i­tants while try­ing to top off LNG tankers, but really locally focused invest­ment in small and medium busi­nesses to cre­ate a sta­ble busi­ness base for growth.

None of these approaches look par­tic­u­larly likely right now: the U.S. is busy fig­ur­ing out seques­tra­tion, fight­ing its left­over cul­ture wars and polit­i­cal bat­tles, and try­ing to redis­cover its pur­pose in life. More­over, each region of Africa has a painful, recent his­tory of West­ern med­dling in its affairs, which means any pol­icy — what­ever its form — should be dis­crete, small, and respect­ful. With any luck, the U.S. con­trac­tion, com­bined with the need to walk lightly, will coin­cide into some­thing smart.

But it’s almost with­out ques­tion that “Africa,” the con­ti­nent most con­fused as a coun­try by peo­ple speak­ing about it gen­er­ally — as I am here — is what will really mat­ter in 2015. Europe, South Asia, East Asia, even Latin Amer­ica are going to be in much the same state then that they are now. Africa is the only region dynamic enough to present new oppor­tu­ni­ties… and challenges.

The real ques­tion, then, is are we going to be smart enough to see it?