U.S. military expands role in West Africa
The USS Fort McHenry is traveling the coast – training soldiers and providing relief.
Brightly painted tattoos snake down Sgt. Joe Palko's outstretched arms as he separates two fighters in protective headgear and boxing gloves.Skip to next paragraph
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It is morning onboard the USS Fort McHenry, a 600-foot amphibious landing ship, and US Marines are teaching martial arts on the "Well Deck" deep in the ship's hull. Staff Sgt. William Sudbrock restarts the timer and a group of Liberian soldiers watch as their comrades lay into each other.
With the US military's Africa Command (AFRICOM) facing skepticism as it prepares to become fully operational in October, the activities of APS, both onboard and onshore, reveal the shape of future US military relations with Africa. "APS is a case study in the strengths that AFRICOM brings to bear," says its commander, Capt. John Nowell.
It is, says Captain Nowell, about preventing conflict from erupting by training local militaries, improving safety and security – in this case on the seas – and about "soft power" through the delivery of humanitarian support.
He points out that more than 1,200 soldiers and sailors from eight different countries have received training so far. Many of these cash-strapped countries lack either a functioning coast guard or navy, allowing an alarming rise in oil theft, drug trafficking, illegal immigration, piracy, and illegal fishing. The Fort McHenry also helped deliver food aid to Chadian refugees who fled across the border to Cameroon during a coup attempt earlier in the year.
Militarization of US foreign policy?
"The Pentagon talks of partnership and synergies and presents a humanitarian overlay which puts the Department of State and USAID under a big AFRICOM tent," says Ms. Barrigan. "What image is the US projecting when everything is facilitated by the Army?"
America now gets more than 15 percent of its oil from Africa, a figure expected to grow to one quarter by 2015, and West Africa is an oil-rich region. "We wouldn't be here if it wasn't in US interests," concedes Nowell but he argues that oil is only one component part. "Ninety percent of commerce is by sea so a stable and secure maritime environment is good for the US.