Pentagon scales back AFRICOM ambitions

Opposition in Africa means the new command's headquarters will more likely be in US or Europe.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Soft power: A US sailor volunteers to help paint the D. Twe Memorial High School in Monrovia, Liberia, as part of US efforts to boost security and support in the region.
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When Pentagon strategists sought to create a new military command to oversee Africa, they believed they could build one that deemphasized military might and would serve as an exemplar of what so-called US soft power could do around the world.

But in recent months, the Pentagon has had to scale back its ambitious vision to adapt Africa's political terrain, military officials acknowledge, adding they remain committed to the original idea of a military command to promote peace in the region.

For now, officials have ruled out basing the headquarters anywhere in Africa and may in fact locate it on the East Coast, a senior defense official says. They have also backed away from selling the new command as a full "interagency" organization that spans military and nonmilitary entities.

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"We sort of admitted all along that we were building something that we'd never built before," says one senior defense official, on how the command has changed. "So you gotta start somewhere, you gotta take a stab at it."

As the US Africa Command – or AFRICOM – works to stand on its own by October, the change in plans illustrates the limits of the US trying to use the military to try to broaden its influence across the globe.

The creation of AFRICOM represents a major reorganization of the Defense Department's family of six regional commands, and recognizes the strategic, security, and economic interests the US has begun to confront in Africa.

In addition to the continent's vast oil reserves, the US is wary of China's continued investment there. Military officials also believe the porous borders of many African countries allow havens for terrorist training and smuggling.

As the symbol of the new command's stature, the location of the headquarters has long been a source of controversy, with even some strong US allies refusing to host the command.

Countries like Liberia were privately receptive, say defense officials, who had launched an extensive lobbying effort to counter the notion that the US was trying to establish military bases on the continent. The effort even included a high-profile visit in February by President Bush.

Still, they were unable to sway opposition in African countries, where many viewed the new command as a neocolonialist move to secure US oil interests and counterbalance China's influence. American officials could not overcome the "paranoid rhetoric," said a defense official.

The headquarters will now either stay at its current home in Stuttgart, Germany, or be moved to the East Coast of the US. Technically, AFRICOM remains under European Command until its official launch October 1.

Officials have had to make other adjustments. Initially billed as a "whole of government" approach to solving the region's problems, the new, hybrid command had sought to marry military and civilian expertise.

"To make it more effective, we want to incorporate other nonmilitary US players working in Africa so the security piece is optimized," says Col. Pat Mackin, a spokesman for US Africa Command. But, he adds, "There is no government mechanism to create a true interagency headquarters."

The command of about 1,300 people will still be half civilian and half military, and agencies such as the US State Department will be given senior positions.

But the military will likely remain in the driver's seat. "They are significantly walking back from interagency," says Kathleen Hicks, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "What they're now saying is that they will more efficiently and effectively deliver military programs."

At the same time, officials now recognize that one entity can't do it all. Gen. William "Kip" Ward, AFRICOM's commander, has tried to soften a typically aggressive military approach and instead take a more deliberative tack.

General Ward has also sought to lower the command's public profile, notes Ms. Hicks, to focus on showing what it can do and move it away from controversy.

For example, Navy officials recently completed the first deployment of a program called the Africa Partnership Station, conducting training programs in more than a dozen nations. Capt. John Nowell Jr., commodore of the naval ships in the program, says the project is about "the maritime safety and security piece. And we think we do generate a lot of goodwill and in many cases come up with projects where we can combine the two, but we're not just out there for goodwill."

The command has also begun taking a different approach to public relations.

Its website hosts a chat room where people can post their views, a stark contrast to the stodgy sites of most military commands. One man, identified as Kuol Mangar, wrote in: "It is clear to me that General Ward would be seen as acting like those ancient Africa chiefs who sold the continent to the white man."

But several others countered his views. Stephanie, who identified herself as Kenyan by birth, wrote, "We always complained the US government did not pay Africa any attention, now they are listening and responding we still hear complaints from a few ignorant [people] that don't take the time to research and learn what the organization like AFRICOM is trying to do for the continent."

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