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African Officials Express Concerns About US Africa Command Plan

23 April 2007

A senior U.S. official says he encountered some resistance to the plan to create a new U.S. military command for Africa during a recent visit to six countries on the continent. But the official, Undersecretary of Defense Ryan Henry, says he believes that once the African leaders heard the specifics of the U.S. plan, they were more supportive. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Undersecretary Henry says he encountered "varying degrees of frankness" during his meetings last week in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana and Senegal, and with African Union officials.

"With every group we met with there were a number of misconceptions, and I think the discussion changed quite a bit, as we were able to correct some of those misperceptions. As we eliminated misperceptions - lots of rumors out there on what the United States was doing and why it was doing it - and we went from rumors to facts, the nature of the conversation becomes much more cordial," he said.

Secretary Henry says he stressed to the African leaders that the creation of Africa Command will not result in increased U.S. military activity on the continent. Rather, he says, it will serve as a focus for a broad range of U.S. government efforts to help African countries improve their security and improve the living conditions of their people. But he also said it will not necessarily mean a sharp increase in U.S. resources devoted to the continent.

He says that like the delegation he led, Africa Command, or AfriCom, will be an inter-agency effort involving the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other civilian organizations, as well as the military. He says one of the deputies to the senior military officer who will lead the command will be a civilian.

"I think we have an understanding. We were not aware of any specific resistance to the idea. We do have a sensitivity though that AfriCom will be better by conducting consultations such as this, getting the Africans' opinions, and, obviously, will be much more acceptable to the Africans, if we do it that way," he said.

Henry says African leaders also expressed concern that the AfriCom plan is designed mainly to fight terrorists in Africa, counter Chinese diplomacy on the continent and gain access to Africa's natural resources, especially oil. "While some of these may be part of the formula, the reason that AfriCom is being stood up is Africa, again, as we've mentioned, is emerging on the world scene as a strategic player, and we need to deal with it as a continent," he said.

The undersecretary of defense for policy says AfriCom will be created by this September as a sub-unit of U.S. European Command, which now has responsibility for most U.S. military activity in Africa. He says AfriCom will stand on its own by September of next year. Henry says a commander will be named soon and that an AfriCom headquarters of several hundred people will be established on the continent as soon as possible. He could not say where that will be. President Bush announced the creation of Africa Command in February.

Ryan Henry says AfriCom will be so different from other U.S. regional commands that it might not even supervise U.S. forces if they become involved in any conflict in Africa. Rather, he said, AfriCom will be involved in training African forces and helping them reach the goals the continent's governments and the African Union have set.

"We've learned, I would say, both in Somalia and Darfur and in Liberia, and in other places that we've been involved in, and seeing what happened over a decade ago in central Africa, that Africans have the indigenous capability to meet their own security needs, and they'd be able to have a deployable force that they can move within the continent, which is African, but not foreign, can make a big difference in stemming some of these problems," he said.

Henry says part of the goal is to anticipate security problems, and help African nations address them before they become serious.

He says there will be more consultations with the countries he visited last week, as well as others on the continent, as the plan for Africa Command is finalized.

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