The United States military’s new Africa command went into action on Wednesday, but hostility and cynicism have forced it to shelve plans to be based on the continent.
The command, known as Africom, was carved out of three other commands previously responsible for Africa, but it will remain for now based in Stuttgart, using facilities previously occupied by the European headquarters.
President George Bush first announced plans for the command, including a base in Africa, in February 2007, but since then officials have backpedalled following hostile African reaction, including from regional heavyweights South Africa and Nigeria.
Washington is now at pains to deny plans for new bases and reject widespread suspicion that the real motive is to counter growing Chinese influence and control oil supplies from the Gulf of Guinea, expected to supply 25% of US needs by 2015.
”There is no hidden agenda,” Africom commander General William Ward told the BBC, adding that it was a ”myth” that Washington wanted to build new bases in Africa. Bush called the idea ”baloney” during an African tour earlier this year.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for African Affairs Theresa Whelan said: ”The fact that we created a new organisational structure to implement security strategy in Africa hasn’t changed any of the rules that governed the old organisational structures.”
She said Africom’s leadership, half of it civilian agencies including the State Department, will be ”more cautious about looking for military solutions to problems in Africa”.
The stated aim of Africom is to build the capacity of African countries to face everything from disasters to terrorism and make the continent more stable.
”Unlike traditional Unified Commands, Africa Command will focus on war prevention rather than war fighting,” Africom’s website says. A spokesperson said the command was expected to reach its full strength of 1 300 by the end of 2009, from 1 000 at present.
The only major US base on the continent is in Djibouti, where a force of between 1 500 and 1 800 is based in the strategic and unstable Horn of Africa.
But the Americans have for years also trained African forces in the vast and remote Sahel region where myriad armed groups operate, including nomadic Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda’s North African wing, which has staged a growing number of attacks from Mauritania to Algeria since 2006.
Jackie Cilliers, director of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, said the original debate on Africom was politicised because of the US war on terror, provoking negative reaction that was aggravated by heavy-handed and unsuccessful American policy in Somalia.
Washington first backed discredited Somali warlords who were defeated by an Islamic Courts movement, then supported an invasion by Ethiopia that overthrew the Islamist forces and installed a weak interim government.
That government and the Ethiopians are now bogged down in an Iraq-style insurgency while Somali suffering has increased.
Cilliers said that on an operational level there was close cooperation between several African countries and the Pentagon, particularly in the Sahel and the Horn.
”There seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the political statements that have come from South Africa and a few others and the reality of collaboration,” he told Reuters.
He said that since the negative initial reaction Washington had ”changed the whole focus of Africom so that it is much more orientated to support of the African [Union] standby force and so on and that is a step in the right direction”.
Mark Schroeder of the Stratfor geopolitical analysis company also said Africom was currently intended to consolidate existing Pentagon activities rather than taking bold new initiatives.
He said Washington had not had the capacity this year to overcome African resistance to basing Africom on the continent. ”A lot of other more pressing issues have arisen. Most immediately we have the financial crisis but beyond that there is Russian resurgence, trying to scale down in Iraq and boost operations in Afghanistan and trying to keep a handle on what is going on in Pakistan,” he told Reuters.
”There just isn’t the bandwidth for Africa right now.” — Reuters