WASHINGTON - The Pentagon's plan to create a US military command based in Africa have hit a wall of hostility from governments in the region reluctant to associate themselves with the Bush administration's "war on terror" and fearful of American intervention.
A US delegation led by Ryan Henry, principal deputy under-secretary of defence for policy, returned to Washington last week with little to show for consultations with defence and foreign ministry officials in Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Djibouti and with the African Union (AU). An earlier round of consultations with sub-Saharan countries on providing secure facilities and local back-up for the new command, to be known as Africom and due to be operational by September next year, was similarly inconclusive.
The Libyan and Algerian governments reportedly told Mr Henry that they would play no part in hosting Africom. Despite recently improved relations with the US, both said they would urge their neighbours not to do so, either. Even Morocco, considered Washington's closest north African ally, indicated it did not welcome a permanent military presence on its soil.
"We've got a big image problem down there," a state department official admitted. "Public opinion is really against getting into bed with the US. They just don't trust the US."
Another African worry was that any US facilities could become targets for terrorists, the official said. Economic incentives, including the prospect of hundreds of local jobs, had not proved persuasive.
Mr Henry said African officials had agreed that counter-terrorism was "a top security concern". But he added: "The countries were committed to the AU as the continent's common security structure. They advised us that Africom should be established in harmony with the AU."
The US talks with Libya appear to have been frank. "In the area of security, they are looking for Africa-only solutions," Mr Henry said. "I wouldn't say we see eye to eye on every issue."
Mr Henry emphasised that the US was not seeking to supplant or supersede African leadership but rather to reinforce it. He said the creation of Africom would not entail the permanent stationing of large numbers of US troops in Africa, as in Asia and Europe. Its overall aim was to integrate and expand US security, diplomatic, developmental and humanitarian assistance in collaboration with regional allies, not increased interventionism, he said.
Unveiling the plan in February, President George Bush said Africom would advance "our common goals of peace, security, development, health, education, democracy and economic growth". But African opposition appears to have modified Washington's approach. Mr Henry said the latest plans envisaged "a distributed command" that would be "networked" across several countries.
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