When the Bush administration announced the creation of a new Africa Command within its military forces last February, many African diplomats were horrified. Some expressed fears that the US military would follow in the colonial footsteps of Europe in establishing a military presence on the continent with an eye toward controlling Africa's vast resources.
But a few African leaders said, "It's about time."
This week, Africom – as it is known – becomes officially operational, and the man expected to be confirmed as its first commander, Gen. William Ward, will have his work cut out for him in explaining just what the US military intends to do in Africa.
"We can't be the fire department always," says Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for African affairs. "We don't have the capacity to constantly run around and solve this disaster and that disaster. Other people have to develop their own fire departments, but we can help them develop their own capacity."
Africa's ambivalence, and in some cases outright antipathy, to a stepped-up US military presence on the continent is born of a long and bitter history of past foreign interventions by British, French, Italian, German, Belgian, Portuguese, and Arab armies. But as Washington begins to understand the strategic importance of Africa – from keeping Al Qaeda from gaining new footholds to the fact that the US now imports nearly 22 percent of its oil from African countries – the arrival of an Africa Command was just a matter of time.
US now relies more on Africa for oil
"It's not just Nigeria; Ghana is also exporting, and it's sweet, light crude, so West Africa has become more important," says Richard Cornwell, senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, as the capital of South Africa (Pretoria) is now called. "This must exercise their [American] minds quite considerably."
The test of Washington's commitment to Africa, Mr. Cornwell adds, is whether it is willing to "put boots on the ground. If America sends its troops to Congo to show its commitment, or to Liberia or Sierra Leone, then we're talking something different" from its usual short-term operations, such as its humanitarian deployment in Somalia in 1992.
American military planners have been quick to point out that this is merely a "reorganization," not an expansion of military might into Africa. Until this year, US military operations in Africa, such as humanitarian airlifts or evacuation of US citizens, were coordinated by three separate commands: European Command in Stuttgart, Germany; Central Command in Tampa Bay, Florida; and Pacific Command in Hawaii. For now, the new Africa Command will remain in Stuttgart, but will have its own chain of command, and its own priorities for building military ties with friendly African countries.
While the US once saw Africa as a "good jumping off point for operations in the Middle East," Whelan says, "now we find ourselves in the post-9/11 world, and African is becoming strategically relevant to the US on its own merits."
Yet while a handful of African countries have welcomed the new Africom – Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has offered her country as a base for Africom – others have seen it as a threat. The 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) recently voted to reject it. "Africa has to avoid the presence of foreign forces on its soil, particularly if any influx of soldiers might affect relations between sister African countries," South Africa's Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota said in August, after the SADC meeting.
Libya's ambassador to South Africa, Abdullahi Alzubedi, echoed the alarm. "How can the US divide the world up into its own military commands? Wasn't that for the UN to do? What would happen if China also decided to create its Africa command? Would this not lead to conflict on the continent?"
A single HQ, but no new bases?
There are no current plans to build new military bases, beyond the current contingent of 1,500 US troops stationed at France's Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, says Whelan. "This is a reorganization of ourselves; we're looking at how we do business so we have a single headquarters looking at Africa, rather than three."
Whelan says that the US hopes to "build local capacity" through joint training exercises and through the ongoing Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership, which trains the militaries of a number of sub-Saharan African countries, from Mauritania to Nigeria to Chad, in counterinsurgency methods.
"We began to think: 'Why not do some work at the front end?' " says Whelan. "Why can't the Department of Defense contribute more to build up local national capacity before small problems become crises, and before crises become catastrophes."