- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007

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 earlier this month. “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, Germany-based 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 Al-Jadid, said at a conference in Chad last week 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 reportedly 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 large-scale 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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