Africa, long beset by war, famine, disease, and ethnic tensions, has generally taken a backseat in Pentagon planning – but US officials say that is about to change.
One of Donald Rumsfeld's last acts before Robert Gates replaced him last month as Defense secretary was to urge President Bush to let the Pentagon create a new Africa Command to pay more attention to the troubled continent. Mr. Bush is said to have agreed to the idea and is expected announce it early this year.
The creation of the new command will be more than an exercise in shuffling bureaucratic boxes, experts say. The US government's motives include countering Al Qaeda's known presence in Africa, safeguarding future oil supplies, and competing with China, which has been courting African governments in its own quest for petroleum, they suggest.
The expected new command "speaks to the fact that Africa now matters to the US government as it never has in the past," says Melvin Foote, chief executive officer of Constituency for Africa, a nonprofit group devoted to strengthening US relations with African governments.
The idea of an Africa Command has been discussed for years, but Mr. Foote says it has taken on new urgency in light of recent events.
•Islamists took over Somalia last June and ruled until this week, when Ethiopian troops drove them out of power.
•China hosted a conference of African presidents in Beijing last year – and made about $5 billion in deals to build infrastructure in Africa for oil.
The US gets about 10 percent of its oil from Africa, notes Foote. Some experts say it may need to rely on the continent for as much as 25 percent by 2010. "With all the instability in the Middle East, there's some thought that we had better build partnerships in Africa," he says.
A senior Pentagon official, who requested anonymity because announcing the decision is the president's prerogative, said current events have less to do with the move than does Africa's instability. "Africa's a place with a lot of crises," this official says. Bush is "on record saying he doesn't want another genocide on his watch. This is a way of ensuring that there's a military command, a four-star, paying attention."
Currently, responsibility for Africa is divided among three of the Pentagon's five regional "unified commands," each headed by a four-star general or admiral who reports to the president.
The European Command, responsible for Europe and Russia, oversees US defense activities for most of continental Africa. The Central Command covers largely Arab northeast Africa as part of its oversight of the Middle East and sections of Central and Southwest Asia. The Pacific Command is responsible for Madagascar and the waters off southeast Africa.
Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a Pentagon spokesman, says the division of labor "causes some difficulty in trying to ... execute a more streamlined and comprehensive strategy when it comes to Africa."
The Pentagon official who requested anonymity says the new command will exclude Egypt, a major player in Middle East politics. And Central Command will retain responsibility for the Horn of Africa for about 18 months while the Africa Command gets set up, the official says.
After the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon created a Horn of Africa joint task force under Central Command that is headquartered in Djibouti, but the senior official said the Africa Command's headquarters will be in Stuttgart, Germany, where the European Command is based, for the time being.
The Horn of Africa task force includes about 1,500 troops whose mission is to detect and defeat transnational terrorism, primarily through offering military training and humanitarian aid to friendly governments. Those troops constitute the bulk of the US military presence in Africa.
African countries won't see much difference in the US military presence on the ground under the new command, says Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of State for African affairs under the first President Bush. "They're already getting a lot of attention from the US military," he says. The Defense Intelligence Agency "has built up its offices throughout Africa in US embassies. Right after the cold war, they reduced a lot, but they've built back up."
The new Africa Command is "long overdue," says Susan Rice, assistant secretary of State for African affairs under President Bill Clinton. Sept. 11 "did what common sense should have done earlier, which is to elevate the understanding ... in the Pentagon of our strategic stake in Africa," she says. "Africa has the preponderance of the world's weak and failed states, and we ignore it at our peril."