LIBREVILLE, Gabon | When uniformed medical teams from the U.S. Navy warship Nashville arrived recently at the ramshackle single-story children’s shelter in this sweltering capital, the roughly two-dozen children at the facility panicked and hid.
U.S. Embassy humanitarian liaison Gabriela Escudero explained that many of the children were survivors of a slave trade that still persists in West Africa more than a century after it was banned in the West. In an area where human trafficking is rampant, uniforms mean guns, and guns mean trouble, she said.
With coaxing, the children warmed to the unarmed Americans who had come to do medical and dental checkups - the first ever for many of the children - and hand out toothbrushes and toothpaste.
By the time the Nashville’s ranking officer, Capt. Cindy Thebaud, commodore of the Africa Partnership Station, arrived for an inspection, the children were behaving like children again, running and yelling and trying to steal plastic examination flashlights from Navy physician Dennis Amundson. When the Americans departed, the children seemed sad to see them go.
The day’s outreach was typical for the Virginia-based vessel and its crew during a six-month tour that included calls at six West and Central African nations: Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe and Senegal.
The mission was to deliver military training and humanitarian assistance to new U.S. allies on what has been, for Washington, a historically neglected continent.
“Helping to enhance and develop maritime safety and security capability and capacity in West and Central Africa is really the genesis of this initiative,” Capt. Thebaud said.
Using a single ship and a few hundred sailors, Washington hopes to help build up native forces to secure the region’s waters. If successful, the effort could lead to a crackdown on smuggling, illegal fishing and human trafficking before the crimes balloon into full-fledged international crises.
It’s part of a strategy that has gained wide support after eight expensive years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. To prevent what defense industry analyst Jim McAleese called “another trillion-dollar war,” American officials are looking for ways to root out the seeds of conflict before they grow.
“We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military,” Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said in 2007. He called for a more sophisticated mix of diplomacy, foreign assistance, humanitarian outreach and military training to promote and protect U.S. interests.
The notion of “soft power” - coined by Harvard academic Joseph Nye nearly two decades ago - also has been embraced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who redubbed it “smart power” and has emphasized the need for stronger international alliances to bolster U.S. efforts.
“The best way to advance America’s interest in reducing global threats and seizing global opportunities is to design and implement global solutions,” she said during her confirmation hearings. “This isn’t a philosophical point. This is our reality.”
In October, a new military command was established to oversee African operations and apply this strategy. Africa Command, or Africom, with its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, is designed “to prevent or mitigate the effects of conflict” rather than just wage war, according to a command fact sheet.
Compared with the Pentagon’s other regional commands, which are heavily uniformed, Africom is stacked with civilians and even has a civilian second-in-charge. Nashville’s deployment is one of Africom’s first major initiatives and, as such, a preview of the emerging way of war prevention.
The vessel’s deployment is the second major iteration of a naval mission called Africa Partnership Station. The first, by the USS Fort McHenry in late 2007, took place before Africom’s formation.
Three years ago, when the Pentagon announced its intention to form Africom, many African nations responded with suspicion. In West Africa, however, that suspicion has begun to fade, thanks to programs such as Africa Partnership Station.
Lt. Cmdr. Mourinha Anjinho Mourinha, a Portuguese navy officer assigned to the Nashville for its African deployment, uses the Nashville as a mobile schoolhouse. At ports across West Africa, he has taught lessons in fisheries enforcement to local naval and coast guard personnel.
“If these countries lose some of their alimentary security that come from fisheries,” he said, “it is likely that maybe some of the populations will engage in other kinds of activities that can damage security.”
Today, many West African nations are not allowed to export certain goods by sea to the United States because they don’t have reliable oversight of their own seaborne economies. Washington bars fish imports from Cameroon, for instance, because Cameroon can’t prove that it meets U.S. standards for turtle-safe fishing nets.
Fisheries enforcement is a major focus of Africa Partnership Station. There’s even a civilian scientist, Augustus Vogel, assigned to the Nashville to advise West African governments on methods for better monitoring their fishing fleets.
Improved fisheries enforcement can help break down trade barriers, better integrating West African nations into the global economy. Greater economic co-dependency means more incentives to talk through disagreements rather than resorting to force. In that way, fisheries enforcement is a global security concern.
“It benefits everybody,” Mr. Vogel said.
Smart-power initiatives are founded on exhaustive analyses by many of the Western world’s leading strategic thinkers. But there’s a hitch: Smart power hinges on local cooperation, and local cooperation is impossible if the locals aren’t trusting.
It’s a problem that has vexed Africom since the new command was announced. The national media of Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa railed against what they labeled the return of Western colonialism. Try as it might, the Pentagon could not totally assuage this fear.
“You can’t avoid it,” said Theresa Whalen, the Pentagon’s top civilian official for Africa, of the widespread fear regarding Africom.
Nashville’s Lt. Will Phillips has faced that mistrust head-on. He heads an on-the-job training scheme for African sailors called the “ship-rider” program.
Volunteers from African navies, 80 in all, joined Nashville’s 500-strong crew for a few weeks or months. Each ship-rider is assigned to a U.S. counterpart. The African shadows the American, learning by osmosis what it takes to operate a large, sophisticated warship sailing far from home.
Most of Nashville’s African ship-riders represent the cream of their respective navies. Generally speaking, they’re better educated, more highly skilled and more professional than their peers. Most speak good English. Even so, some of the ship-riders have echoed the same accusations Africom has faced in local media, Lt. Phillips said.
“You have to be willing to listen to tough questions trainees might have,” he said.
Africa’s suspicion of U.S. intentions has a long history, the Pentagon’s Ms. Whalen said.
“Throughout the 1990s, we were accused of building a secret air base in Botswana,” she said. “We just could not kill that rumor. We kept trying to say that, but [the African media] wouldn’t listen. It’s very difficult to prove a negative.”
Public relations challenge
She laid much of the blame for misconceptions regarding Africom on the African media, which she called “not particularly sophisticated.” Yet a number of senior U.S. officials shared some of the African media’s basic reservations.
Last summer, Mr. Gates warned about the “creeping militarization” of U.S. foreign policy. “Broadly speaking, when it comes to America’s engagement with the rest of the world, it is important that the military is and is clearly seen to be in a supporting role to civilian agencies,” he said.
In the beginning, the Pentagon considered locating Africom’s headquarters on the African continent. However, when the depth of the opposition became clear, the command decided to keep its headquarters in Germany.
Today there is just one major U.S. military base in all of Africa, in Djibouti, north of Somalia. That base accounts for most of the roughly 2,000 U.S. military personnel stationed permanently in Africa.
All others, just a few thousand at a time, deploy by air or sea from the United States or Europe for discreet missions. Every U.S. military mission in Africa, with the possible exception of air strikes on suspected terrorists in lawless Somalia, requires an invitation from a host government.
Despite the deep undercurrent of fear, “no one is pushing us away,” Ms. Whalen said. “At least, very very few are.
“Ultimately, what it’s going to come down to is what we do on the ground,” Ms. Whalen said. “It’s trite, but our actions speak louder than our words.”
• David Axe can be reached at .