U.S. force aims to se­cure Africa; seen as haven for ter­ror­ists

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Ja­son Mot­lagh

The United States hopes by year’s end to es­tab­lish an Africa Com­mand that will an­chor mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions across a con­ti­nent seen to be of in­creas­ing strate­gic im­por­tance and threat­ened by transna­tional ter­ror­ists.

The new force, known in­for­mally as AfriCom, will pre­side over all coun­tries on the con­ti­nent ex­cept Egypt and is ex­pected to be op­er­a­tional by the fall, ac­cord­ing to Pen­tagon of­fi­cials. They say it is needed to se­cure vast, lawless ar­eas where ter­ror­ists have sought safe haven to re­group and threaten U.S. in­ter­ests.

“Part of the ra­tio­nale be­hind the de­vel­op­ment of this com­mand is clearly the grow­ing emer­gence of the strate­gic im­por­tance of Africa from a global [. . . ] se­cu­rity and eco­nomic stand­point,” Rear Adm. Robert Moeller, head of the Africa Com­mand Tran­si­tion Team, said on April 19. “This al­lows us to work more closely with our African part­ners to [. . . ] en­hance the sta­bil­ity across the con­ti­nent.”

Plans for such a force were first dis­closed in April 2004, but it was not un­til Fe­bru­ary this year that De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates laid out the scope of the new com­mand.

AfriCom will ini­tially op­er­ate as part of the Stuttgart, Ger­many­based Euro­pean Com­mand be­fore be­com­ing in­de­pen­dent at the end of 2008. It will be a “uni­fied com­bat­ant com­mand” that in­cludes branches of the mil­i­tary along with civil­ians from the de­part­ments of De­fense, State and Agri­cul­ture, among oth­ers, ac­cord­ing to Adm. Moeller.

The force will deal with peace­keep­ing, hu­man­i­tar­ian aid mis­sions, mil­i­tary train­ing and sup­port of African part­ner coun­tries. A head­quar­ters lo­ca­tion has yet to be de­ter­mined.

The United States now main­tains five mil­i­tary com­mands world­wide, with Africa di­vided among three of them: Eu­Com cov­ers 43 coun­tries across North and sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa; Cen­tral Com­mand over­sees East Africa, in­clud­ing the restive Horn of Africa; and Pa­cific Com­mand looks af­ter Mada­gas­car.

In 2001, CentCom es­tab­lished a task force in the Horn to track down al Qaeda ter­ror­ists and mon­i­tor in­sta­bil­ity in So­ma­lia. It has since ex­panded to con­duct hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sions in the re­gion.

Eu­Com di­rects a seven-year, $500 mil­lion coun­tert­er­ror­ism ini­tia­tive that pro­vides mil­i­tary and de­vel­op­men­tal aid to nine Sa­ha­ran coun­tries deemed vul­ner­a­ble to groups look­ing to es­tab­lish Afghanistan-style train­ing grounds and carry out other il­licit ac­tiv­i­ties.

The main tar­get of U.S. Spe­cial Forces train­ing African troops has been the Al­ge­ria-based Salafist Group for Call and Com­bat. The group with­ered af­ter a crack­down by Al­ge­rian au­thor­i­ties and a state-spon­sored amnesty pro­gram, but a new al Qaeda-linked off­shoot claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the April 11 Al­giers sui­cide bomb­ings that killed more than 30 peo­ple.

U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials say there is ev­i­dence that a quar­ter of sui­cide bombers in Iraq are from North Africa. Other ji­hadists are said to have trav­eled as far as Afghanistan to re­ceive train­ing be­fore re­turn­ing home to Africa to sow trou­ble.

How­ever, the ini­tia­tive is not wel­come in ev­ery African coun­try. Libyan leader Moam­mar Gad­hafi, quoted in the Libyan daily Al-Fajr AlJa­did, said at a con­fer­ence in Chad two weeks ago that such a force was nei­ther wanted nor needed.

“We told [the Amer­i­cans] we do not need mil­i­tary air­craft fly­ing over, nor do we need mil­i­tary bases,” he re- port­edly said. “We are in need of eco­nomic el­e­ments and an eco­nomic sup­port. If your sup­port to us is mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion, then we do not need you, nor your help.”

Some West­ern crit­ics worry that a mil­i­tary-based pol­icy on the con­ti­nent could breed rad­i­cal­ism where it scarcely ex­ists by sus­tain­ing despotic regimes that usurp fund­ing and mil­i­tary hard­ware to tighten their grip on power.

A 2005 re­port by the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group, a Brus­sels-based think tank, said the Sa­ha­ran re­gion is “not a ter­ror­ist hot­bed,” and warned that some gov­ern­ments try to elicit U.S. aid while us­ing the “war on ter­ror” to jus­tify hu­man rights abuses.

U.S. of­fi­cials in­sist the new AfriCom will not re­sult in a largescale de­ploy­ment of U.S. forces on the con­ti­nent. In­stead, they want to place “a greater mix of diplo­matic, de­vel­op­men­tal and eco­nomic ex­perts” on the ground. Cur­rent es­ti­mates are for about 1,000 per­son­nel, on par with other re­gional com­mands.

“The goal is for AfriCom not to be a U.S. lead­er­ship role on the con­ti­nent,” said Ryan Henry, deputy un­der­sec­re­tary of de­fense for pol­icy, who spoke with re­porters in Wash­ing­ton last week af­ter re­turn­ing from a “fact-find­ing” trip to Africa.

“We would be look­ing to com­ple­ment rather than com­pete with any lead­er­ship ef­forts cur­rently go­ing on.”

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