U.S. military expands role in West Africa

The USS Fort McHenry is traveling the coast – training soldiers and providing relief.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Ready, fight! A marine gives two Liberian soldiers a martial arts lesson last month aboard the USS Fort McHenry.
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Brightly painted tattoos snake down Sgt. Joe Palko's outstretched arms as he separates two fighters in protective headgear and boxing gloves.

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.

For the past five months, the Fort McHenry has been visiting countries on the coast of West Africa's Gulf of Guinea as part of a new initiative called the Africa Partnership Station (APS).

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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?

These arguments, however, do not convince Frida Berrigan, an analyst at the Washington-based New America Foundation, who sees AFRICOM as part of a broader 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.

"More importantly after [9/11] what [we] recognized is that we ignore economic prosperity and stability and security anywhere in the world at our own peril," he adds.

Building wells and roads, delivering aid

In March, the Fort McHenry was moored off the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Onshore vets, doctors, and dentists helped out at local clinics while teams of Navy engineers set to work refurbishing schools and building roads. The military drove convoys of camouflaged Humvees through the streets to deliver $3 million in medical supplies and took onboard 40 Liberian soldiers for training that included leadership skills and martial arts.

In a makeshift clinic overlooking the sluggish brown Meserado River military veterinarian Capt. Brian Smith had just finished vaccinating 60 cats and dogs against rabies when a man wandered in with a baby chimpanzee clinging to his waist. Bemused, Captain Smith took a quick snap on his digital camera, injected the chimp and sent it and its owner on their way.

Besides the medical support provided while the Fort McHenry was in Liberia, a team of 25 Seabees – the Navy's construction battalion – are staying in Monrovia until June carrying out $90,000 worth of health clinic, school, and road repairs.

One morning at the D. Twe Memorial High School US Navy volunteers worked alongside paid local people to repaint the walls and halls. Outside during a break, Liberian children ran rings around the soldiers during an impromptu game of soccer.

All this is helpful but it is also an important public relations exercise for AFRICOM's backers who did not anticipate the hostility that followed Defense Secretary Robert Gates's announcement to Congress in February 2007. Many in Africa argue that it is simply about securing resources, countering China's growing influence in Africa and extending the war on terror.

Regional powers such as South Africa, Libya, and Nigeria have rejected outright the idea of more US troops on African soil (there are already 1,500 at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti) and the question of which country might play host to a headquarters with at least 1,000 staff has dominated the AFRICOM debate.

Only Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has lobbied to host AFRICOM in the hope that it would bring security and economic benefits to her poor and battered country. She welcomed the US military enthusiastically last month even braving the lurching waves to become the only head of state to go onboard the Fort McHenry during its deployment.

Back onboard the Fort McHenry a setting sun cast long shadows through the open stern doors one evening last month.

Inside, a group of Liberian and American soldiers played basketball together, shouting and sweating. Asked what he thinks he is doing here in Africa, Petty Officer Steve Joachim answers with a smile, "I'm just making friends and showing them America's not bad."

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