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POLITICS-AFRICA: Critics Target U.S. Military Command

Analysis by Lawrence Delevingne

NEW YORK, Jun 2 2008 (IPS) - In just a few months, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) – Washington's latest military oversight structure for the continent – is expected to be fully operational.

Streamlining the image of the command is proving every bit as demanding as putting personnel and equipment in place, however. Controversy has surrounded AFRICOM on both sides of the Atlantic since the start of the initiative, and appears unlikely to fade any time soon.

The fledgling command, set to be up and running by October, was announced by the Department of Defense in February 2007 as a new body to co-ordinate U.S. military and security interests on the continent; previously, these interests were managed by three regional commands. AFRICOM has been operating under the United States European Command since October 2007, for the transition.

What officials portrayed as a simple organisational realignment, many African and U.S. observers saw as the start of an increased U.S. military presence in Africa to secure resources, check China's rising power and bolster counter-terrorism efforts.

The United States imported nearly 21 percent of its petroleum from Africa in 2007 – more than came from the Persian Gulf – according to data from the Energy Information Administration, the United States' official source of energy statistics. The National Intelligence Council, a government think tank, estimates that figure will rise to 25 percent by 2015.

"There's a steady flow of African countries that are exploring (for) oil" that creates a "pull factor towards Africa and push factor away from the Middle East," said Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), noting technological advances in offshore drilling and the discovery of new oil deposits in certain countries. These include Ghana, Mauritania and Chad.

FPIF is a liberal think tank headquartered in Washington that has been vocal in its opposition to the command.

China is now the world's second largest consumer of oil after the United States, and has aggressively expanded its presence in Africa to secure natural resources. In 2007 trade between China and Africa was valued at 73 billion dollars – up substantially from two billion dollars in 1999 – and is expected to hit 100 billion dollars by 2010, said Khalid Malik, the United Nations resident co-ordinator for China. His comments were made during a speech delivered in April at the China-Africa Business Forum, held in Tanzania.

Vince Crawley, the head of public affairs for AFRICOM, acknowledged that oil is a motivating factor in creating the command, but said the potential for a direct role for the U.S. military in protecting oil supplies is greatly exaggerated. So too, he said, is the idea that the command would counter the efforts of China.

"I don't wake up thinking about how to counter China," Crawley observed. "If there are interests that are consistent, like good governance or security, there's no reason we (the United States and China) can't work together."

The establishment of AFRICOM is a more ominous development for other observers, such as those under the umbrella of 'Resist AFRICOM', a coalition against the command formed by U.S.- and Africa-based organisations. AFRICOM is described on the coalition's website as "…a piece of a broader shift in U.S. foreign policy – a foreign policy that places an emphasis on defense above diplomacy."

The command has vigorously rejected such assertions. "What's happened with AFRICOM is it put the spotlight on the U.S. military in Africa, but it (the military) was there already. It's fairly boring and bureaucratic when you look at it," said Crawley.

U.S. military officials initially indicated that AFRICOM would combine military assistance with humanitarian efforts, a novel role for a U.S. military command.

However, this development left certain analysts more troubled than reassured.

Beth Tuckey, associate director of Program Development and Policy at the Africa Faith and Justice Network, a Washington-based advocacy group, has concerns about "…the blending of military and civilian agencies and the overreach of the Department of Defense" that she believes could be brought about by AFRICOM.

Woods, in turn, sees AFRICOM as "putting a velvet glove of humanitarian aid over the fist of the military."

To others, these concerns are misplaced. "The Pentagon (the headquarters of the defense department) is not trying to take over other agencies. It's trying to learn from mistakes and trying to use AFRICOM as a test for better integration," said Mauro De Lorenzo of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-minded think tank in Washington.

Still, the U.S. government has since minimised the humanitarian role the command will play, emphasising AFRICOM's involvement in military co-operation and downplaying associations with aid work.

Ostensibly, the U.S. military will now focus on training African security forces to deal with terrorism and other concerns. This could, for example, enable the African Union's (AU) African Standby Force (ASF) to intervene more effectively in conflicts, or help Nigerian security forces prevent militants from disrupting oil flow in the troubled Niger Delta.

But certain analysts have not ruled out the possibility of AFRICOM taking a more active part in the affairs of African countries.

"Sending in the Marines to ensure oil supply is the next logical step," said Daniel Volman, director of the African Security Research Project in Washington – and the author of numerous articles on U.S. security policy and African security issues.

"The U.S. would very much prefer for Nigeria and other countries to handle this on their own, just like humanitarian disasters, but there's an understanding that that may not work."

Few welcome mats

The possibility of an AFRICOM headquarters on the continent has also proved controversial, even though, said Crawley, "Neither the U.S. Department of Defense nor U.S. Africa Command have asked any African nation to host any element of the command."

African countries have apparently understood the headquarters to involve putting more U.S. troops on the ground, this despite AFRICOM envisaging the creation of an administrative centre.

Even traditional U.S. allies like Ghana and Nigeria rejected hosting the headquarters, and several African states have publicly renounced the U.S. military presence in Africa, although they continued to collaborate with Washington on security programmes.

Shehu Barde, a spokesman for the Nigerian embassy in Washington, said Abuja would prefer that the U.S. instead support regional military co-operation initiatives, like the AU's ASF.

"Nigeria is not among the countries that have called for the physical presence of AFRICOM on its territory, but would certainly wish that going forward whatever decision prevails on the subject reflects the consensus of the African countries," he noted.

For its part, the Southern African Development Community indicated in an August 2007 statement that "it is better if the United States were involved with Africa from a distance rather than be present on the continent."

Some commentators were even more direct. "U.S. military involvement in Africa has historically proven inimical to the interests of the African people," said Ezekiel Pajibo, director of the Center for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE), citing U.S. support for Liberian dictator Samuel Doe in the 1980s and 1990s and recent U.S. backing of Ethiopian troops in Somalia. "It would be a disaster for any African country to host AFRICOM."

CEDE is a non-governmental organisation that operates from the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

These views notwithstanding, Liberia said it would be willing to host the headquarters, an offer Washington never officially responded to but is believed to have declined because of widespread regional opposition to hosting AFRICOM, especially from Nigeria.

"The prevailing mood on the continent is to keep AFRICOM out," said Wafula Okumu, head of the African Security Analysis Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, based in the South African capital – Tshwane. "Due to this overwhelming opposition, the U.S. has decided to host AFRICOM in Stuttgart for now."

Camp Lemonier – a 1,500-person outpost in Djibouti that was established in 2003 – remains the sole U.S. military base in Africa.

During his five-country tour of Africa in February, U.S. President George Bush found himself having to allay fears about U.S. military activities in Africa.

"I know there's rumours in Ghana, 'All Bush is coming to do is try to convince you to put a big military base here'," he told journalists in the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

"That's baloney."

But then came a hint that AFRICOM may yet establish a centre on the continent: "That doesn't mean we won't develop some kind of office somewhere in Africa. We haven't made our minds up. This is a new concept."

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