(FILES) This file picture taken 14 Augus
Issouf Sanogo  /  AFP - Getty Images
This file photo from August 2003 shows a U.S. soldier guarding a bridge in Monrovia, Liberia. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced on Tuesday that the Pentagon will create a new regional command for Africa to oversee U.S. military activities on the continent. 
updated 2/6/2007 12:38:12 PM ET 2007-02-06T17:38:12

Africa has moved up significantly in the Bush administration’s global game-planning. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday the Pentagon will set up a new command to oversee its operations there.

Appearing on Capitol Hill, Gates announced that President Bush approved a Defense Department recommendation that a military structure be set up to oversee missions on the continent, which U.S. officials now believe has greater strategic importance to the United States than it had before.

“The president has decided to stand up a new unified combatant command, Africa Command, to oversee security, cooperation, building partnership capability, defense support to nonmilitary missions, and, if directed, military operations on the African continent,” Gates told a congressional hearing on the defense spending that Bush proposed Monday for budget year 2008, which starts in October.

“This command will enable us to have a more effective and integrated approach than the current arrangement of dividing Africa between Central Command and European Command, an outdated arrangement left over from the Cold War,” Gates said.

Coordinating regional command
The U.S. military has a system under which each region of the world is overseen by a specific command — essentially a regional headquarters — such as the Pacific Command, Central Command and so on. Africa is now split among commands, which have been increasing activities on the continent greatly in recent years.

The Central Command, which controls the Horn of Africa, set up a task force there in attempt to catch any al-Qaida terrorists escaping from Afghanistan after the war started in late 2001. It since has expanded to humanitarian and other missions.

The European Command has sent Special Forces to do training exercises in North African countries and done humanitarian projects, medical training and other missions such as harbor maintenance in oil-producing nations in the Gulf of Guinea.

The various types of operations are aimed at building partnerships and strengthening the ability of African governments and militaries to do their jobs. The hope is that the activities will make nations there less vulnerable to the recruiting efforts of terrorists and help catch those already using it as a safe haven.

Officials say that Africa also is strategically more important because of increased efforts by China to involve itself and gain influence on the continent.

To be set up by September 2008
Gates gave no details on the new command but a military official familiar with planning for it said personnel, location of the headquarters and other details have not been finished. A transition team soon will begin working from facilities in Stuttgart, Germany, the European Command headquarters. But ultimately officials want the headquarters somewhere in Africa.

The new command will include islands around Africa and all nations on the continent except for Egypt, which will stay in Central Command, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the plans on the record.

Bush authorized the command to be set up no later than the end of the 2008 budget year — or September, 2008 — the official said, adding that he did not know the dollar amount budgeted for the plan.

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