U.S. Steps Up Its Military Presence in Africa

Article excerpt

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. …