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US Tentatively Re-engages with Africa

Army leaders have been publicly discussing the potential benefits of a fully-fledged military command structure in Africa.
By Fawzia Sheikh
At first sight, Africa might seem like a backburner issue on America's post- September 11, 2001 agenda.



Many Americans see the African continent as wracked by poverty, drought and tribalism - and less about al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations wishing to do them harm, despite bad memories still searing their collective brains.



It was in 1993 that 18 elite US special forces were killed and several more wounded during a battle in Somalia to capture two members of the clan of General Mohamed Farah Aidid, who rose to power following the overthrow of the military government of General Siad Barre in 1991. The battered corpses of two soldiers were dragged as trophies through the streets by angry mobs, scenes shown repeatedly on international television.



For the Americans it was a catastrophic defeat - elite units of the world's most powerful army humiliated by a rag-tag militia. Within days President Bill Clinton decided to withdraw all American forces from Somalia.



This was followed by the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in which 257 people were killed and some 4000 wounded.



Washington nowadays keeps watch over its strategic interests in Somalia and the rest of the Horn of Africa from a small-scale military and intelligence base in the tiny country of Djibouti, on the Red Sea, and from afar at various command headquarters already overseeing Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific.



But the absence of a fully-fledged American military headquarters in Africa, which has long been rumoured to be in the works, may soon change.



Over the past several months, senior military leaders have publicly discussed the potential benefits of creating a unified command in Africa, General William Ward, deputy chief of the Pentagon's European Command, told Washington reporters in January. European Command currently oversees a large portion of African affairs.



"The secretary of defence has forwarded a proposal to the White House on a potential way of redesigning the unified command plan," which divides the world into military commands, so that an African version may be created, said Ward. He was tight-lipped in response to questions about rumours that President George Bush approved the concept of an African Command in December and that Ward himself will assume control.



The Pentagon is still working on the operational details behind a possible Africa Command, including the time line, the location, participants and the specific missions it would undertake, explained Ward. Among the considerations, he said, is a need to reconcile the views of a range of players, including African nations, local organisations like the African Union, and US government agencies.



No stranger to Africa, Ward was a brigade commander from 1992 to 1993 during Operation Restore Hope, the United Nations' disaster-ridden mission aimed at preventing a humanitarian catastrophe in the wake of the Somalian military government's demise.



The US has grown wary of terrorism engulfing large swathes of Africa as wars rage in the nearby Middle East and as it tentatively becomes involved again in military operations in Somalia.



Ethiopian troops began in December to help the exiled and unelected Somalian government gain control of the country from the Union of Islamic Courts, which had established control of Somalia after defeating unpopular tribal warlords and militias and establishing a degree of peace and the resumption of limited international trade.



The US Airforce launched an AC-130 gunship attack against alleged al-Qaeda targets in Somalia on January 7, but Pentagon officials have refused to confirm that a second attack was carried out on January 22.



The mission aim was to kill three men sheltering in a southern Somalia village alleged to be responsible for the US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Spokesmen admitted that the attacks failed, although some Somali peasants unconnected with al-Qaeda died.



Washington greatly fears the expansion in influence of the Somali Islamist Courts group, which it believes has sheltered members of al-Qaeda. Somalia had been without an effective administration since 1991 before the Islamic Courts took control last year.



Despite the US military's failed mission in the country in the 1990s, Ward said fresh involvement was possible now because "what we say is that situations change".



What the US gunship attacks will not change, claimed Navy Rear Admiral James Hart, is the new American mission in Somalia to provide humanitarian assistance and create stability in the region. Hart will lead the next round of personnel to be deployed to Djibouti in February as part of the US operation to monitor the Horn of Africa.



The US strategy towards Somalia is aimed at helping citizens regain political and economic stability, launch counter-terrorist initiatives and assist in developing good governance, Hart said during a January media briefing from the US Joint Warfighting Centre in Suffolk, Virginia.



In February, Hart took up the command of 2,000 joint service personnel, coalition officers and African liaison officers at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, which has been the American military's operations base in the volatile Horn of Africa since May 2003.



Part of Washington's wider declared plan in Africa is to conduct military training

on border and coastal security, said Hart, adding that the US military has worked with different groups in the Horn and East Africa, including the Ethiopians, Kenyans, Ugandans, Djiboutians and the Yemenese, just across the Red Sea from the Horn of Africa.



The Horn of Africa is strategically-important to the American because "we are arriving there early enough with an opportunity to help shape the environment, work toward a more secure environment and hopefully allow people the opportunity to choose a direction to go in their lives that steers them away from extremism”, said Hart.



General Jason Kamiya, commander of the Joint Warfighting Centre and the US Joint Forces Command director for joint training, said, "We understand that the roots of insurgency are typically poor economic conditions, the lack of a sense of a brighter future for their children and their children's children and a lack of infrastructure."



Hart refused to comment on which extremist groups, apart from al-Qaeda, the joint task force in the Horn of Africa will pursue. But the US State Department's Office of Coordination of Counterterrorism is more open about its concerns in the region. "Sudanese and foreign nationals who transited Sudan have been captured as foreign fighters in Iraq" but significant gaps remain in identifying and capturing these individuals, said a report issued last year by the office.



The State Department report also noted that the Lord's Resistance Army rebel group in

Uganda remains a major terrorist threat to that country, to the Democratic Republic of Congo and to southern Sudan. For more than 20 years, the LRA has waged war against the Ugandan government by killing, raping and forcing children to become fighters. Many people in northern Uganda retort that the Ugandan Army, which is meant to protect them, has behaved scarcely better than the LRA.



Although there may be plenty of reasons to carve out a separate headquarters for Africa from the Pentagon's European Command, there is a drawback, said Lincoln Bloomfield, president of the Washington international consulting agency Palmer Coates.



Bloomfield noted that NATO's supreme allied commander, General John Craddock, and General William Ward, the deputy commander for the US's European Command, are "advocates for African security systems and they have big influence in the corridors of power in Washington".



However, Bloomfield went on, "Will an Africa commander be able to receive the same kind of audience? I don't know. If you now have someone who speaks for the African military engagement only, it's not clear that they will be able to pound the table as hard and get the same audience.



"Giving someone a special separate office and a special organisation is not always an empowering action."



Bloomfield was formerly the assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs under former secretary of state Colin Powell and also the principal deputy assistant for international security affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defence during the administration of former president Ronald Reagan.



Fawzia Sheikh, a former foreign correspondent in Uganda, writes on African issues in the United States for the IWPR Africa Report.