This article was concurrently published on Items, the SSRC’s digital essay forum, a space for engagement with the Council’s work and with the social sciences more generally.

Monrovia, Liberia. August 20, 2014 ― Early in the morning, the Ebola Task Force, a joint operation led by the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), institutes a surprise cordon sanitaire around West Point, Monrovia’s oldest, poorest, and most densely populated slum. Following evidence that Ebola is spreading in the neighborhood, armed personnel barricade streets and position boats along the shore. West Point has long been associated with the political opposition. Not surprisingly, many West Pointers read the cordon as political—and as a death sentence. When groups of residents protest, the AFL responds with beatings and live ammunition, killing at least one person. The cordon is widely considered a disaster, and days later it is called off with an apology from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Monrovia, Liberia. Late September/October 2014 ― Under orders from US president Barack Obama to assist in the efforts to stop the spread of Ebola, US Army personnel assigned to Operation United Assistance (OUA) begin deployments in Liberia. In an unusual arrangement, the US State Department, rather than the Department of Defense, is the lead agency in the operation. Its stated mission is to build Ebola Treatment Units and to assist with logistics, training, and public awareness. At its height, OUA involves approximately 3,000 uniformed personnel in-country, meaning that the US contingent significantly outnumbers the entire Liberian army. The 101st Airborne Division officially “cases its colors” and departs Monrovia at the end of February 2015, months ahead of schedule.


These two events—the AFL’s failed cordon and the US Army’s humanitarian deployment in Liberia—are useful starting points for understanding the strange new intersection of disaster assistance, armed force, and military-to-military partnerships in contemporary Africa. Assuming the negative impacts of climate change, resource scarcity, urbanization, extreme poverty, and organized crime will only become more pronounced in Africa in the years to come, observers both in and out of the US security sector worry that armed first responders are the new normal of humanitarian interventions. Critics of United Assistance and other noncombat military operations have argued that placing the US military at the fore of a complex emergency response is at best cynical, dangerous, and ineffective. At worst, it represents a neocolonial form of occupation, the militarization of global health, and the securitization of disease.1Gian Luca Burci, “Ebola, the Security Council and the Securitization of Public Health,” Questions of International Law 10 (2014): 27-39,

The focus on uniformed US intervention, however, obscures a subtle but more significant point. The US soldiers deployed to Liberia were primarily medical and logistics personnel under the direction of civilian authorities. For the United States, OUA was a massive logistics exercise. By contrast, the AFL’s early response to this humanitarian crisis in the country’s most populated city was a politically charged, and ultimately, lethal urban warfare campaign against its own population. The militarization of the Ebola crisis, in other words, was materialized not in the actions of US forces but in those of their domestic counterparts. For social scientists and policymakers struggling to understand the increased military footprint in development, disaster relief, and noncombat emergency response, the relationship between US forces and so-called partner militaries should therefore be at the center of debate.

Such scrutiny shows that the differences between AFL and US Army interventions at the height of the Ebola epidemic belie the many ways in which they are connected. By the time it implemented the West Point cordon, the AFL had received more than a decade of restructuring assistance from US military agencies and US-funded private security contractors. (Liberia’s series of civil conflicts, and the wider regional war of which they were a part, ended in 2003 with the ouster of warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor.) Such partnerships are routinely touted as efforts to make African militaries “a force for good” in dealing with all manner of challenges, from natural disasters to postwar reconstruction. The reality in Africa, however, is that military partnership has become synonymous with the outsourcing of low intensity warfare designed primarily to keep perceived African threats from spreading beyond the continent. As in Monrovia, the result can be strange and deadly when African armies become proxies employing combat tactics in a “counterinsurgency” against even nonhuman enemies like a raging disease.

Forces for Good

Most US military engagement in Africa comes in the form of assistance and capacity-building programs for African “partner” militaries. Of US Africa Command’s (AFRICOM’s) twelve self-defined categories of operation in Africa, ten are described as partnerships with African armed forces. (Only weapons sales and veterinary services are described otherwise.) And in no country has the US military/partner relationship been as extensive as in Liberia. The peace agreement that ended the Liberian civil war called for the dissolution of the national army and its complete reconstitution under US supervision. Beginning with the private security contractors DynCorp and Pacific Architects and Engineers, then AFRICOM, and finally the Michigan National Guard, the United States has spent more than a decade recruiting, restructuring, and training the new AFL. The stated goal, as a 2015 Michigan National Guard report puts it repeatedly, is to make the AFL “a force for good” in the nation. On paper the writ is expansive. The original agreement that outlined the goals of the AFL stated that the armed forces should work “against both internal (armed) and external threats, respond to natural (and other) disasters, assist in the reconstruction of [Liberia] and support and participate in regional and international peace.” This broad approach to the AFL has, at least in theory, meant training an army to do more than defend its borders from foreign invasion. The Michigan National Guard, for example, has sent public affairs officers, lawyers, medical teams, and engineers along with its combat trainers. And Liberia has participated in a range of multi-nation AFRICOM institution-building programs, including (ironically) an initiative launched in 2008 to help African militaries plan their response to pandemic disease outbreaks.

It is an approach that seems to match the general sense in the security universe that African partners confront a litany of destabilizing plagues that pose greater risks than invading armies: extreme poverty, mass urbanization, government corruption, climate change-induced flooding or droughts, and disease outbreaks. From the official Quadrennial Defense Review to RAND Corporation think pieces and the bulletin of the US Army chief of staff’s Strategic Study Group, there is a remarkably consistent portrait of a continent coming undone. In a context in which it is assumed that no other institutions have either the functional capacity or the resources to meet these challenges, it is primarily the military that will address this broad constellation of threats to human security.

Human Security and Counterinsurgency

And yet in Liberia, as elsewhere across the continent, the broad human security approach to partnering across militaries has in practice been subsumed by preparing for the “kinetic” demands of counterinsurgency. In a September 2016 interview with African Defense, Brigadier General Donald C. Bolduc, head of US Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAFRICA), neatly summarized the amorphous African threat environment that has seemed to emerge on the continent since September 11, 2001. “The Gray Zone, or the spectrum of conflict between war and peace, is where we operate every day in Africa,” Bolduc said, using a term (“the gray zone”) that has come to represent both an uncertain operating environment and unconventional opponents. However, Bolduc then goes on to make clear that these disruptive forces facing African partners are simply threat multipliers for the most pressing concern: that “violent extremist organizations” (VEOs) will make use of Africa’s chaos to recruit disaffected youth (especially young men). “Threat groups,” as Bolduc puts it, “are able to move relatively freely to areas of instability to exploit a lack of governance and recruit from under-served populations.… We are not at war in Africa—but our African partners certainly are.” In other words, the broad human security mandate, to which African partner forces are supposedly being supported to fulfill, is, in the end, only of concern to the extent that it enables the more pressing problem of fighting a very human enemy. When I asked an AFRICOM staff member in 2016 how the United States’s Africa region-aligned forces were thinking about future disease outbreaks and climate-related natural disaster response, he laughed. The only thing they think about, he answered bluntly, is fighting Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. That, he argued, is all members of the US Congress want to hear about, and the only thing they will fund.

Prioritizing VEO recruitment as the major threat facing the continent—a worldview in which disease, poverty, corruption, and natural disasters are problems primarily because they can be exploited by human enemies—continues to prioritize war fighting as the ultimate skill set for both US and partner forces. And, it has structurally undermined efforts to make the AFL more than a combat-ready institution. Sean McFate, one of three DynCorp contractors hired to design and implement the first AFL restructuring programs, described the gutting of civil/military relations classes from the earliest days of the program. Noncombat peacekeeper training has been a consistently underfunded and underdeveloped aspect of military restructuring. One former trainer described the efforts to prepare the AFL for possible peacekeeping duties in Mali (a training regimen that would presumably include nonlethal crowd control techniques that might have been employed at West Point) as a public relations stunt.

It is a problem exacerbated by the tendency to focus not on training African forces in their entirety, but to concentrate on the development of elite commandoes. Anti-terror units, presidential guards, and special forces have repeatedly been singled out for advanced training. The result is a relative paucity of preparation for most soldiers in how to deal with unconventional challenges like nonlethal crowd control or disease tracking, and the creation of highly armed and independent units whose sole mission, counterterrorism, has in several African countries led to coup attempts and to a strengthening, rather than weakening, of insurgencies.2For example, both the leader of the 2012 coup that destabilized Mali and the leader of the 2014 coup in Burkina Faso received US military counterterrorism training. More broadly, in a paper examining case studies from the 1970s to 2009, Jesse Dillon Savage and Jonathan Caverly have concluded that foreign military training increased the propensity for domestic coups d’état. See Dillon and Caverly, “Human Capital Against the Capitol: Foreign Aid in the Form of Training and Military-Backed Coups,”

The language of partnerships with African forces has largely supplanted the language of “host nation” relationships that characterized counterinsurgency doctrine developed during the Iraq occupation of the 2000s. But the linguistic shift is not necessarily a paradigm shift. Indeed, the US Army counterinsurgency field manual’s outline of how to train and advise host nation forces still seems the guiding principle for African partnerships. And, in that counterinsurgency paradigm, civil-military operations are cast as “armed social work,” as tactical efforts to defeat (human) enemies who will take advantage of instability and uncertainty. “There is no such thing as impartial humanitarian assistance or CMO [civil-military operation] in COIN. Whenever someone is helped, someone else is hurt, not least the insurgents.”3US Army, Counterinsurgency, Department of the Army FM 3-24 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2006), 299-300.

Conclusion: The Paradigm of Containment

As the Ebola outbreak response becomes a case study in military humanitarianism, the counterinsurgency mindset appears even more fixed. The US Army’s lessons learned literature on the anti-Ebola effort repeatedly resorts to the language of defeating “the enemy,” referring not only to the disease but to the potential ensuing chaos that would allow VEOs and other insurgents to operate and flourish. That one of its partner forces in Africa should therefore conflate “armed social work” during a disease outbreak with urban warfare, addressing Ebola through the same tactics it would use to fight an urban guerrilla war, is therefore hardly surprising.

“By helping Africans help themselves,” said Maj. Albert Conley III of the US Army Africa’s Counter Terrorism bureau, “it means that we don’t have to get involved ourselves. If Africans are solving African problems, then the U.S. government doesn’t have to use the U.S. Army to solve African problems.”

By all indications, the vision from Washington of what African partners should be doing to solve their own problems is trending ever narrower and more militaristic. As Helene Cooper reported in the New York Times, the most pressing concern of the new Trump administration toward Africa is clear from a transition questionnaire circulated to the State Department and Pentagon Africa specialists that asks: “How do we prevent the next Ebola outbreak from hitting the U.S.?” Containing perceived threats—environmental or human—is not likely to result in mass deployments to Africa of US combat troops. But it will be cold comfort if US military intervention enables another West Point instead.

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  • 1
    Gian Luca Burci, “Ebola, the Security Council and the Securitization of Public Health,” Questions of International Law 10 (2014): 27-39,
  • 2
    For example, both the leader of the 2012 coup that destabilized Mali and the leader of the 2014 coup in Burkina Faso received US military counterterrorism training. More broadly, in a paper examining case studies from the 1970s to 2009, Jesse Dillon Savage and Jonathan Caverly have concluded that foreign military training increased the propensity for domestic coups d’état. See Dillon and Caverly, “Human Capital Against the Capitol: Foreign Aid in the Form of Training and Military-Backed Coups,”
  • 3
    US Army, Counterinsurgency, Department of the Army FM 3-24 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2006), 299-300.