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U.S. Africa Command trims its aspirations

The U.S. Africa Command, designed to boost America's image and prevent terrorist inroads on the continent, has scaled back its ambitions after African governments refused to host it and aid groups protested plans to expand the military's role in economic development in the region.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The U.S. Africa Command, designed to boost America's image and prevent terrorist inroads on the continent, has scaled back its ambitions after African governments refused to host it and aid groups protested plans to expand the military's role in economic development in the region.

Africom, due to begin operations Oct. 1, will now be based for the foreseeable future in Stuttgart, Germany, with five smaller regional offices planned for the continent on hold while the military searches for places to put them.

Nonmilitary jobs, created within Africom to highlight new cooperation between the Pentagon and the State Department, have been hard to fill and will initially total fewer than 50 of 1,300 headquarters personnel. Plans to broaden the military's more traditional overseas training and liaison responsibilities to include development and relief tasks were curbed after U.S.-funded aid groups sharply objected to working alongside troops.

"I think in some respects we probably didn't do as good a job as we should have when we rolled out Africom," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said recently, adding that "I wasn't there" when the command was conceived by his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, and approved by President Bush.

"I don't think we should push African governments to a place they don't really want to go in terms of relationships," Gates said.

'Pre-conflict' situations
Planning for Africom began in early 2006, when the Bush administration designated Africa an area of "strategic concern" and policymakers cited a number of "pre-conflict" situations there. Based on lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. military is deeply involved in civil affairs and economic development efforts, Africom was fashioned as a template for a new interagency structure that would coordinate "hard" and "soft" U.S. power.

U.S. Agency for International Development personnel were assigned to Africom, and a senior State Department diplomat was named one of two command deputies under Army Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward. Not only would Africom help make Africa secure, Bush said when he unveiled it in February 2007, it would help promote "development, health, education, democracy and economic growth."

Africa has always been an orphan in the U.S. defense establishment, divvied up among the Pentagon's four regional "Unified Combatant Commands" -- European, Central, Southern and Pacific -- that manage U.S. military relationships and operations overseas. Of the four, only Eucom, established in post-World War II Germany, is based overseas. Pacom handles Asia from its headquarters in Hawaii; Southcom, responsible for Latin America, and Centcom, in charge of operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, are both in Florida.

No one consulted the Africans
Under Africom, one command will consolidate military responsibility for all of Africa, excluding Egypt. Although it encompasses the volatile Horn of Africa and the U.S. Navy's forward operating base in Djibouti and will take over training tasks on the continent, it has no other dedicated troop components. "There are very few scenarios which would create a U.S. military intervention" in Africa, said one Africom officer who was not authorized to speak on the record. "Arguably, there are no scenarios."

With its headquarters on the continent, liaison groups of 20 to 30 military personnel established in key countries and U.S. units brought in to help with development and relief tasks, the command was envisioned as an example to Africans of how their own armed forces and civilians could work together for the good of their nations.

The trouble was, no one consulted the Africans. "Very little was really known by the majority of people or countries in Africa who were supposed to know before such a move was made," said retired Kenyan army Lt. Gen. Daniel Opande. Worry swept the continent that the United States planned major new military installations in Africa.

"If you know the politics of Africa," said Opande, who has headed U.N. peacekeeping forces in Sierra Leone and Liberia, "you know there are certain very powerful countries who said, no, we are not interested in having a headquarters here." South Africa and Nigeria were among them, and their resistance helped persuade others.

Over the past seven years, the administration has more than tripled U.S. assistance to Africa, to about $9 billion annually, nearly half of which is spent on prevention and treatment for HIV-AIDS. U.S. military training for African forces has steadily expanded, and U.S. troops have undertaken humanitarian missions in several countries -- digging wells, building schools and providing medical care. Africom's budget request for 2009 is about $400 million.

But despite the promise of new development and security partnerships, many Africans concluded that Africom was primarily an extension of U.S. counterterrorism policy, intended to keep an eye on Africa's large Muslim population.

"I think everyone thought it would be widely greeted as something positive," the Africom officer said. "But you suddenly have wide publics that have no idea what we're talking about. . . . It was seen as a massive infusion of military might onto a continent that was quite proud of having removed foreign powers from its soil."

U.S. 'equates terrorism with Islam'
The United States "equates terrorism with Islam," senior Kenyan diplomat Bethuel Kiplagat said, and few African governments wanted to be seen as inviting U.S. surveillance on their own people.

Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations African affairs subcommittee, thought Africom was "something that would show real respect for Africa." But there was no question, Feingold said, that the concept had "a neocolonialist feel to it."

The subject was at the top of African leaders' agendas when Bush visited in February. "The purpose of this is not to add military bases," he told reporters after meeting with Ghanian President John Kufuor. By Bush's own account, Kufuor confronted him, saying, "You're not going to build any bases in Ghana." Bush told reporters that the very idea of establishing such bases was "baloney. Or as we say in Texas, that's bull."

At home, major U.S. nongovernmental aid organizations protested that what might work in the Iraq war zone -- where government civilian-military "provincial reconstruction teams" operate together under heavy security to build local governing capacity and infrastructure -- was ill-suited for non-conflict zones. Not only would a military presence draw unwanted attention and increased risk for development workers, they argued, the military had neither the training nor the staying power for effective development.

'Baseball cap or a helmet?'
"Is the face of America in Africa a baseball cap or a helmet?" asked Samuel A. Worthington, president of Interaction, the Washington-based umbrella for many development and relief organizations. "We told the military -- do what you're good at. Stay in your lane."

Since last year's announcement, senior U.S. officials have been trying to make up for what they acknowledge was a bad beginning. There has been a "retooling" of the mission, the Africom officer said, away from development and toward "peacekeeper training, military education, a counterterrorism element -- programs that have been going on for some time."

"I'll be candid with you: There was a misunderstanding of sorts," said Ward, Africom's commander. African governments he has visited since his confirmation last fall, he said, wanted to know "were we going to be establishing large bases, bringing in large formations of troops, naval bases and air squadrons? My answer was no."

To USAID and other U.S. government development partners, worried that the military's vast human and financial resources would overshadow them, Ward said he has explained that "we absolutely have no intention of being the leader in doing development on the continent of Africa. It is not our job, not our lane. We have no intention of taking over."