January 28, 2008 / 11:55 PM / 11 years ago

U.S. defers sensitive Africa HQ decision for now

STUTTGART, Germany (Reuters) - A year after President George W. Bush approved its creation, the new U.S. military command for Africa is finding its feet but has quietly dropped talk of basing itself on the African continent.

Largely carved out of U.S. European Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany, the new Africa Command (Africom) will stay there for now as its leaders try to switch the debate away from the controversial headquarters issue and on to the “added value” it aims to bring to Africa.

“In the near to mid-term, and for the foreseeable future, we’re going to be here and from here we can do all the activities that we need to do with our African partners,” Africom’s deputy commander, Vice Admiral Robert Moeller, said in an interview on Monday in Stuttgart.

Where U.S. officials once spoke confidently of plans to base the command in Africa, shared between several countries, they now stress the multiple conditions that would need to be fulfilled.

“If it’s in the desire and the interests of our African partners in that regard then we’ll look for an opportunity to do that where it makes sense to do so, but only obviously where we’re invited,” Moeller said.

The caution stems from the unwelcoming reaction of several African nations, including regional powers South Africa and Nigeria, to the notion of Africom setting up on their patch.

Africom found itself having to justify its ambitious mission — in Bush’s words, to promote peace, security and “our common goals of development, health, education, democracy and economic growth in Africa” — in the face of widespread opposition and skepticism.

THIRST FOR OIL?

Critics have suggested its real motives are thirst for oil — West African producers are expected to supply a quarter of U.S. consumption by 2015 — and the desire to counter growing Chinese influence on the continent.

Moeller rejected such charges, saying “there’s been a lot of misperception out there” and acknowledging that Africom had much work to do on its strategic communications. He reiterated that Washington was not looking to base more troops in Africa, beyond the 1,800 it already has stationed in Djibouti.

While visiting U.S. forces will combine training exercises with humanitarian work like building hospitals and schools, they will not supplant the role of aid agencies, he said.

From around 300 staff now, Africom is set to expand to around 1,300 by the time it moves from its transition phase to full operating capacity on October 1 this year. Moeller said European countries including France and Britain had expressed interest in seconding officers to it.

Around 40 percent of staff will be civilians, including development specialists and officials from the U.S. State Department, Treasury and departments of homeland security, justice, agriculture and commerce.

The vice admiral said training African countries to improve maritime security was likely to play an increasing part in Africom programs.

He cited piracy off Somalia, and West African concerns about protecting offshore oil installations, combating drug smuggling from South America and safeguarding fisheries.

A U.S. warship, the Fort McHenry, is currently part-way through a six-month mission to train West African navies to fight narcotics trafficking and other threats.

“I think based on the desires of the Africans we’ll probably look to increase some of that activity over time,” Moeller said.

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