The Pentagon's New Africa Command Raises Suspicions About US Motives

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McClatchy Newspapers

The Pentagon's New Africa Command Raises Suspicions About US Motives

by
Shashank Bengali

NAIROBI, Kenya - The U.S. Africa Command, the Pentagon's first
effort to unite its counterterrorism, training and humanitarian
operations on the continent, launches Wednesday amid questions at home
about its mission and deep suspicions in Africa about its intentions.
U.S. officials have billed the new command, known as Africom, as a sign
of Africa's strategic importance, but many in Africa see it as an
unwelcome expansion of the U.S.-led war on terrorism and a bid to
secure greater access to the continent's vast oil resources. Several
countries have refused to host the command, and officials say Africom
will be based in Stuttgart, Germany, for the foreseeable future.

U.S.-based
aid groups and some in Congress have expressed worries that Africom
will tilt U.S policy in Africa away from democracy-building and
economic development and toward security objectives such as stemming
the growth of militant Islamist groups in Somalia and North Africa,
some of which have ties to al Qaida.

U.S. covert
operations in Somalia and elsewhere have fueled the controversy. In
late 2006, the U.S. military provided intelligence to help Ethiopia
topple a fundamentalist Islamic regime in Somalia, an invasion that's
fueled a violent Islamist insurgency.

U.S. forces have
since launched several strikes on suspected terrorist targets in
Somalia. While one of the strikes killed a top militant commander, Aden
Hashi Ayro, in May, Somalis say the attacks also killed and badly
wounded civilians.

Underlining the skepticism in
Washington, the House of Representatives voted last week to provide
$266 million to fund Africom's first year of operations - $123 million
less than President Bush had requested. The House Appropriations
Committee said the reduction was due partly to "the failure to
establish an Africom presence on the continent."

The
fledgling command's image problem, at home and abroad, is cause for
concern because of Africa's growing importance to the United States.

The
Department of Energy says that 17 percent of U.S. crude oil imports now
come from Africa, more than the U.S. gets from Persian Gulf countries.
But rising powers such as China have strengthened their ties with
Africa and become a powerful counterweight to American influence.

Pentagon officials reject claims that Africom is about oil or China, but those perceptions remain strong in Africa.

"Obviously
the U.S. is concerned about China's influence, security, oil,
counterterrorism, hunting down al Qaida suspects," said Erin Weir of
Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group that's
opposed Africom. "Africans read the newspaper just the same as we do,
and they know what drives U.S. interests now."

Witney
Schneidman, who served as deputy assistant Secretary of State for
African Affairs in the Clinton administration, said: "In many parts of
Africa it is perceived as the U.S. bringing its war on terror to
Africa. That is not what Africom is about, but that is how it has been
seen."

While the public face of the U.S. military in
Africa has been that of a benign partner, human rights activists say
that the Bush administration's focus on terrorism has fueled suspicion
of Africom.

"Anything to do with the U.S. military evokes
some level of anxiety," said Hassan Omar, a member of the independent
Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. "There is a strong feeling
that America would overlook a crisis within a government or violations
by certain governments if only they could secure more cooperation on
matters of security."

After Bush announced the creation of
Africom in February 2007, the Pentagon began issuing mixed messages
about its mission, with some officials suggesting that the new command
would help "coordinate" U.S. policy in the region. Experts immediately
questioned whether U.S. troops would participate in humanitarian
programs and other non-combat operations that have long been run by the
State Department and U.S. embassies.

Pentagon officials
have acknowledged mistakes in marketing Africom, and they no longer
list humanitarian projects as part of its mission. Instead, they say
that Africom will support other U.S. government agencies and focus on
helping bolster African militaries.

"Africom will support,
not shape, U.S. foreign policy on the continent," Teresa Whelan, Deputy
Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, told a
congressional hearing in July.

About 1,300 people, divided
roughly evenly between civilian and military positions, are expected to
staff the Germany headquarters, but no additional soldiers will be
deployed in Africa yet. Instead, Africom will take charge of small U.S.
military teams that are already on the continent training national
militaries and maritime agencies, providing immunizations, drilling
wells, rebuilding schools and conducting other projects.

Africom
will assume control over the largest U.S. military base in the region,
the 1,500-strong Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, housed at a
former French Foreign Legion facility in the tiny eastern nation of
Djibouti.

Despite the questions about its mission, experts
say that Africom will raise Africa's profile in the Pentagon.
Currently, three separate regional "combatant commands," which manage
overseas U.S. military operations, share responsibility for Africa. The
U.S. Central Command oversees seven countries in East Africa, Pacific
Command has three Indian Ocean island nations and European Command
handles 42 other African countries from Morocco to South Africa.

Now
all the countries - except Egypt, which will continue to be grouped
with Middle Eastern nations under the Central Command - will fall under
Africom's jurisdiction. As with the other regional commands, Africom's
commander, four-star Army Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward, reports to
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

"One of the basic
problems of U.S. engagement with Africa historically is there's been a
lack of a long-term, sustained and steady commitment," said Abiodun
Williams, a Sierra Leonean who's vice president of the Center for
Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the United States Institute of
Peace in Washington. "One of the positive things about Africom is this
might finally be changing."

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