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Africans Wary of AfriCom, U.S. motives
Associated Press  |  November 05, 2007
DAKAR, Senegal - Just a few years ago, the U.S. military was all but absent from the oil-rich waters of West Africa's Gulf of Guinea.

This year, it plans to be there every day.

Africa's strategic importance is on the rise, as the U.S. acknowledged last month with the creation of a new unified U.S. military command for the continent called Africom. Monday brings the first military mission to Africa since Africom's founding, a U.S. Navy cruiser on a half-year training exercise through the Gulf of Guinea that stops first in Senegal's capital, Dakar.

For American commanders, Africom means consolidating responsibility for a continent previously split among three other regional commands, each of which saw Africa as a secondary interest.

However, Africom's creation has provoked so much skepticism on the continent that one of the most basic questions - where it will be located - remains unresolved.

Africans are concerned the new command is an American attempt to project military might, unnecessarily bringing the global war on terror to their own backyard. They also wonder whether it is a ruse to protect America's competitive stake in African oil and other resources increasingly sought by rising powers like China and India.

"Africans have a feeling Africom represents something more than what is being sold to them," said Wafula Okumu, an analyst at South Africa's Institute for Security Studies.

"If it was packaged a different way and better explained, maybe it could be a success."

U.S. officials concede America's strategic interests come first. But Africom's deputy for military operations, Vice Admiral Robert T. Moeller, told The Associated Press in an interview that the new command would allow the U.S. "to do more with our African partners when it makes sense to do so and where it's in their interest to do so."

Moeller said there was a misconception that Africom was part of "a U.S. effort to militarize Africa, and that's definitely not the case."

Africom, he said, would bring no new U.S. military bases to the continent and no substantial changes in America's military role here for the foreseeable future. Instead, it aims to help Africans "help themselves" through military training programs and support for peacekeeping and humanitarian operations crucial to stability and preventing conflict, Moeller said.

Regional powers including Libya, Nigeria and South Africa have expressed deep reservations, partly because they believe Africom could undermine their authority, analysts said. So far, only Liberia has publicly stated it would host Africom, though even critics like Nigeria welcome the continuation of the American military training programs they say have been beneficial.

Kurt Shillinger of the South African Institute of International Affairs said the Pentagon failed to allay the concerns of Africans who see "this as a Trojan horse through which the U.S. will pursue and defend its key interests in Africa."

"Africom is being pitched as a kind of non-kinetic military command," Shillinger said, "and that seems to be an oxymoron."

With a budget of $50 million for the 2007-2008 fiscal year, Africom has responsibility for 53 countries in Africa and the island nations surrounding it - everything, essentially, except Egypt, which will remain under U.S. Central Command because of its proximity and importance to the Middle East.

Led by Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward, it is expected to be fully operational within a year, spending this one getting ready.

Africom has two deputies, one of whom is a civilian charged with overseeing civil-military affairs and coordinating with other U.S. government agencies, a first among America's global combat commands. Africom officials say the distinction highlights the importance of humanitarian operations to U.S. goals in Africa, but even that has spurred controversy.

"Why should they be using the military to promote development when they already have institutions within the U.S. government that are better capable and more acceptable?" Okumu said.

Other analysts said there has been criticism within the U.S. government itself, notably from State Department officials concerned the authority of diplomats could be confused or usurped. Shillinger said some officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development are also concerned their humanitarian programs could be "stigmatized" by direct links with the military, which has melded aid programs with combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan - wars unpopular in most of Africa.

Moeller, Africom's military operations deputy, emphasized Africom's relationship with Africa and other U.S. government agencies would be "collaborative." Africom, he said, would "not be taking the lead" in humanitarian operations or U.S. foreign policy. Rather, it would support them by making available a massive military infrastructure that could help both.

The U.S. military is already well-entrenched on the continent, spending around $250 million per year on military assistance programs, said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Since 2002, about 1,800 American troops have been stationed in Djibouti as part of efforts to stifle terrorist networks in the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia. Money is also being poured into the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, which has focused on training armies in west and northern African nations from Algeria to Nigeria.

And in the Gulf of Guinea, the U.S. Navy presence - measured by "ship days" in the region - has increased by over 50 percent since last year, said the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet Naples, Italy-based spokesman, Lt. Brian Badura. From just a handful of days in 2004, the Navy expects to have a daily presence into next year.

Africa - including Algeria and Libya in the north - supplies the U.S. with more than 24 percent of its oil, surpassing the Persian Gulf at 20 percent, according to statistics from the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration. Of that amount, 17 percent comes from the Gulf of Guinea and Chad, which runs a pipeline to the Atlantic Ocean through Cameroon.

Moeller said increasing security in the Gulf of Guinea was partly an issue of open markets. The U.S., he said, would work with "African partners to make sure the resources that emanate from the continent are available to the global community."

An internal conflict in Nigeria has sporadically disrupted the local flow of oil there, and offshore platforms throughout the region are little-protected and highly vulnerable because most countries have only tiny navies.

For now, the U.S. command numbers just over 200, and Moeller said where it is established is an issue to be decided with "our African partners." Instead of one central headquarters, there may be smaller bureaus in five separate regions, each with one or two dozen staff, officials said.

Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Theresa Whelan estimates 80 percent of the command's eventual staff of around 800 will live outside the continent.

The U.S. Navy ship now in the region, the USS Fort McHenry, has the luxury of skirting the issue. The self-sustaining, helicopter-equipped vessel can serve as a mobile sea base on which American forces can train Africans on maritime security - and move on.

"Having a presence on the continent in some form is certainly a goal," Moeller said. But "ultimately it has to be agreed to by the Africans."

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