US military HQ in Africa put on the back burner

Controversy surrounding the United States military’s new Africa Command has forced the Pentagon to put plans for establishing a headquarters in the continent on a slow track, US defence officials said on Friday.

The Pentagon still hopes to have a command headquarters in Africa, but officials acknowledge it will take time to overcome negative regional perceptions.

“I think what we’re talking now is the pace. I think that the initial thinking was that the pace would be fairly quick,” said a US defence official who asked not to be identified.

The problem became evident when General William Ward, the head of Africom, toured the region after assuming his post in October and found that Africans were convinced the United States wanted to establish bases and send troops to the region.

The Pentagon insists it has no plans for either permanent bases or garrison troops in Africa, only a more focused effort to help train and
equip African militaries.

“But the image that was portrayed was it was an intervention force onto the continent and that’s what had to be repelled. No matter how often we tried to explain, it didn’t seem to matter,” said the official.

Domestically, some US critics fear that Africom is a military intrusion into foreign policy, traditionally the preserve of the civilian State Department.

Those suspicions were raised because the military had touted Africom as a new kind of military-civil command, designed to prevent conflicts through security assistance synchronized with economic, political and development efforts.

A diplomat was appointed as Africom’s deputy commander, and civilian experts were enlisted from other government agencies.

“We probably didn’t do as good a job as we should have when we rolled out Africom,” US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said last month in remarks to a foreign policy groups.

“My view at this point is that deeds are going to count for more than words.
And I think we need to take it a step at a time.

“I don’t think we should push African governments to a place that they don’t really want to go in terms of these relationships. I think we start with those that are interested in developing relationships,” he said.

Africom, headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, becomes fully operational October 1. It will stay in Germany for at least several years, defence officials said.

The Pentagon is reviewing options for command headquarters beyond 2010, including the possibility of moving Africom to the US East Coast, officials said.

But defence officials said the military has not given up on its original concept, which was to establish lightly manned regional military headquarters in countries that also host Organisation of African Union offices.

The bulk of the command’s 1 300-member headquarters staff would remain outside the region.

With few strategically located African countries willing to host the headquarters, Africom is now looking instead at building up about a dozen existing defence cooperation offices that the military maintains in Africa.

If the Africans see a benefit to the increased US security assistance “they will want this regional presence”, the defence official said.

“That will take some time and we’re in no rush to do that. And we’re not going to rush to the continent to help people if they don’t want to be helped,” he added. - AFP

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