America's Africa Corps
By Jason Motlagh
The United States is moving closer to setting up an Africa Command to secure the rear flank of its global "war on terrorism", with eyes trained on vital oil reserves and lawless areas where terrorists have sought safe haven to regroup and strike against its interests.
At a Monday briefing on plans to restructure US defense policy, Under Secretary of Defense Eric Edelmen disclosed that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top military brass were close to a decision over a proposal to anchor US forces on the African continent, creating a new command to encompass all security operations.
Analysts said the move would herald a fundamental shift in US policy that champions an active approach toward fledgling states prone to breed extremism, though more tangible needs are also at stake.
A Pentagon spokesman tempered the announcement with the caveat that such a move required an official process that would take time and had yet to begin. But one official noted that talks were "intense" and another stressed that internal debate was stronger than it was six months ago and appeared to be on the verge of a positive verdict.
The United States at present oversees five separate military commands worldwide, and Africa remains divided among three of them: European Command covers operations spanning 43 countries across North and sub-Saharan Africa; Central Command oversees the restive Horn of Africa; and Pacific Command looks after Madagascar. All three maintain a low-key presence, largely employing elite special operations forces to train, equip and work alongside national militaries. A perceived vulnerability to al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist organizations, however, has fueled calls for a more aggressive security posture in Africa.
"We do have a strategic interest in Africa, and we have been attacked," a leading US government Africa specialist told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. "Whether you have 1,000 people or 10,000, what we're doing requires our active presence both from training special forces, coordination and tracking down some of the extremist elements ... That requires really having a physical presence and the ability to deploy."
CentCom commander General John Abizaid last March spelled out to the Senate Armed Services Committee the burgeoning security threats facing Horn of Africa and the dire need for robust action. Emblematic of most of the continent at large, they include extreme poverty, corruption, internal conflicts, uncontrolled borders and territorial waters, weak internal security, broken infrastructure and natural disasters, among others. "The combination of these serious challenges," he said, "creates an environment that is ripe for exploitation by extremists and criminal organizations."
Just months later, the decision was made to raise the military profile in Africa in what may prove a precursor to an all-encompassing command. Washington has committed to spend US$500 million on the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI ), an expanded program headed by EuCom that provides military and development aid to nine Saharan countries deemed to be fertile ground for groups - such as the deadly Algeria-based Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) - looking to establish Afghanistan-style training grounds and carry out other illicit activities. The TSCTI represents a colossal upgrade from the Pan-Sahel Initiative, its $7 million forerunner.
But critics counter that military-centric policies could backfire and breed radicalism where it hardly exists by sustaining despotic regimes that usurp funding and military hardware to tighten their grip on power. A report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, said the Saharan region is "not a terrorist hotbed" and warned that certain Saharan governments try to elicit US aid while using the "war on terror" to justify human-rights abuses.
CentCom, for its part, operates the Djibouti-based Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, a discreet hub formed in the aftermath of the August 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that killed at least 301 people and put Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network on the map.
A number of al-Qaeda operatives are said to be hiding in the Horn, Somalia specifically, and they continue to pose a grave threat to US interests in the region, which demands the presence of some 1,800 troops tasked with detecting and disrupting terrorist schemes. US intelligence has also used the base to coordinate activities around the Horn; the Central Intelligence Agency allegedly bankrolled an alliance of warlords that were driven out of the capital, Mogadishu, by Islamist militia this summer.
Somalia, a special case, has been without a functioning government for the past 14 years and is known beyond a doubt to have harbored members of al-Qaeda. Still, the unnamed government analyst, who just returned from an extensive fact-finding mission to the failed state, insists that the vast majority of Somalis are not hostile toward the United States despite the infamous Black Hawk Down disaster of 1993 and the recent Islamist takeover. "Somalis are not anti-American by nature, they are pro-West," he said. "Engagement is vital as it helps gather better intelligence, understand people, and it's cheaper."
Other observers say that thirst for another kind of security is the driving force behind a probable Africa Command: energy.
Nigeria already stands as the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States, and energy officials say the Gulf of Guinea will provide a quarter of US crude by 2010, placing the region ahead of Saudi Arabia (other major producers include Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Gabon and the Congo Republic). A surging demand for fossil fuels in Asia and an unpredictable political climate in the Middle East prompted the administration of US President George W Bush four years ago to call West African oil a "strategic national interest" - a designation that reserves the use of force to secure and defend such interests if necessary.
The question then arises as to where exactly the new command would be best headquartered. The answer may be Sao Tome and Principe, one of Africa's smallest countries, consisting mainly of two islands at the western bend of the continent. Concerns over fanning anti-Americanism, proximity to oil reserves - some of which are said to be untapped beneath its own waters - and overall security make this the obvious choice, John Pike, director of military studies group GlobalSecurity.org, told Asia Times Online. "This island seems destined to be America's unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Guinea, much like Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and Guam in the Pacific."
Military planners like the idea of an offshore presence since its reduces the impression of a neo-colonial maneuver, Pike said, adding that so far there has been a clear preference within EuCom and CentCom to lie low and work through African institutions to train troops and strengthen security. According to Pike, the coup-wary Sao Tome government likes the idea of a US presence, and the two sides have been "playing footsie for a number of years now". The Defense Department declined comment.
While odds are against the price of oil ever going back down significantly, today it remains a freely traded commodity on the international market with no strings attached as to who owns concessions. But some experts are convinced this arrangement will come to an end in the not so distant future, making military power and leverage paramount.
"We can see how the US would want to move and make preparations for that day when it matters whom states will turn to for protection," Pike said. "When that day comes, the US wants to ensure key states are looking its way."
Jason Motlagh is deputy foreign editor at United Press International in Washington, DC. He has reported freelance from Saharan Africa, Asia and the Caribbean for various US and European news media.
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