WASHINGTON - As the Pentagon begins considering major shifts in U.S. military deployments around the globe, it appears to have become more interested in sub-Saharan Africa.
On Thursday the Defense Department announced that a U.S. counter-terrorism warship, the USS Mt. Whitney, will return home from its tour off the coast of the Horn of Africa--but not before dropping off its command personnel and equipment at Camp Lemonier in the nation of Djibouti, already home to some 1,800 U.S. troops, sailors, fliers, and civilian personnel.
The announcement follows little-noticed remarks last week by NATO Supreme Commander U.S. Gen. James Jones, that Washington plans to boost its troop presence in West Africa, a troubled but oil-rich region that government estimates indicate may be the source of as much as 25 percent of U.S. petroleum imports by 2015, up from 15 percent in 2000.
"The carrier battle groups of the future and the expeditionary strike groups of the future may not spend six months in the Med(iterranean Sea), but I'll bet they'll spend half the time going down the West Coast of Africa," Jones told a Defense Writers Group breakfast in late April.
Without noting the presence of vast reserves of West African oil off-shore, Jones said the region included "large, ungoverned areas...that are clearly the new routes of narco-trafficking, terrorists' training, and hotbeds of instability."
His remarks come amid reports of plans for major changes in U.S. deployments around Eurasia in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The administration of President George W. Bush has already announced its intention to withdraw virtually all of its 8,000 uniformed personnel from Saudi Arabia, after 12 years of basing its Gulf air operations there, and moving much of it to Qatar's Al-Udeid Air Base.
The Pentagon also plans a major draw-down of forces in Kuwait, the launching pad for its invasion of Iraq, although it will retain use of naval facilities in Bahrain.
There have been a number of unconfirmed reports that the Pentagon hopes to use as many as four army and air bases in Iraq, although Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has denied that such plans exist at the present time. Immediately after the war in Iraq, Washington withdrew virtually all of its forces at the Incirlik Air base in southwestern Turkey, which was used as the base for patrolling Iraq's northern no-fly zone from 1991 until last month.
Meanwhile, however, Washington appears intent on retaining access to bases in Central Asia, notably Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which it used during the war in Afghanistan, while in Europe, it appears virtually certain that Washington will soon be withdrawing most of the 60,000 troops from bases in Germany that it has occupied for more than half a century. Romania and Bulgaria have offered much cheaper arrangements for U.S. bases located much closer to both the Caucasus and the Middle East and Gulf sub-regions.
Washington may also shift and possibly boost the 100,000 active-duty personnel that are currently stationed in the western Pacific, primarily in South Korea and Japan. In South Korea, in particular, the Pentagon wants to draw down its forces in the capital, Seoul, and close to the demilitarized zone, in favor of new locations further south. In addition, the Pentagon is considering deploying marines and naval forces to bases in northern Australia.
The purpose of the redeployments is both to reduce the U.S. military "footprint" in countries where U.S. military presence has become a political burden to host governments, and to restructure the global positioning of U.S. forces for more rapid deployment to likely trouble spots, especially Central Asia, the Gulf, and East Asia. The Pentagon is particularly interested in access to facilities where it can pre-position weapons and supplies, rather than have to rely on their transport from more distant bases.
Until now U.S. interest in East Africa and the Horn has been confined mainly to their proximity to the Arabian Gulf--particularly to Yemen, from which Al Qaeda has historically recruited heavily and which was the site of several attacks against U.S. and other western targets, including the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in October, 2000.
In addition, Washington has been concerned about the infiltration into the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia, of Al Qaeda militants after the Afghanistan campaign.
The Mt Whitney has acted as the headquarters for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) which will now move to Camp Lemonier in Djibouti. The camp, a former French base, has been home to hundreds of U.S. military personnel, including Special Operations Forces since shortly after the Sep 11, 2001 attacks.
"The movement of the CJTF-HOA headquarters ashore does not signal any change in focus for coalition counter-terrorism operations in the Horn of Africa, but rather represents a logical 'next step' in the progress of CJTF-HOA operations," the Pentagon said.
It added that the group's mission "is, and will continue to be, to detect, disrupt and defeat transnational terrorism in conjunction with coalition partners across the Horn of Africa region." It said the mission was not tied to "a fixed period of time."
In West Africa, Jones said NATO is planning to deploy a prototype quick-reaction force of between 2,000 and 3,000 units--including air, ground and sea forces--as early as October, for which Djibouti's Camp Lemonier may be a model. He did not say where such a base would be sited.
Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to the region last September, and Bush himself pledged to visit Nigeria and several other African countries later this year, after canceling a previously scheduled trip just before the Iraq war.
The tiny country of Sao Tome e Principe offered to host a U.S. navy base last year, but Washington has not yet acted on the invitation.
Aside from Nigeria, the major oil producers in West Africa include Angola, Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea, where Washington plans to re-open its embassy only eight years after closing it. In the meantime, major deposits of oil have been found off its coast, and U.S. companies have gained by far the largest share of concessions to exploit them.
The Gulf of Guinea, which runs along the coast, is believed to hold as much as 30 billion barrels of reserves.
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