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African Reactions Mixed on New American Military Presence

03 October 2007

When the United States officially launched a new military command for Africa, this week, several countries on the continent reacted positively to the new post. Liberia even offered its own territory as a possible base. But other countries, especially in the southern part of Africa, are positioning themselves against heightened U.S. military presence, which they view as unnecessary and intrusive. From Dakar, Kari Barber has more on why AFRICOM may be facing resistance and what American officials say the purpose of the new command will be.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has invited the new Africa U.S. military command to set up headquarters in Liberia, a historical ally of the United States.

Liberian Minister of Information Lawrence Bropleh says he is hopeful the American presence can help the country rebuild infrastructure devastated in recent civil wars and bring employment.

"For Liberia, we see it as a 'win-win' situation, because we are coming out of war and the presence of a U.S. military outfit will represent a possibility where our country will feel more secure. Development and security will be the way for our post-war-conflict success story," said Bropleh.

Botswana President Festus Mogae has said he is not closed to the possibility of cooperating with the United States on the new command, but says he is just not sure what it will look like.

"It is our understanding that they have, in fact, visited many African countries to consult about the project, but, otherwise, we are still not very sure, ourselves, as to what the proposal is. Our own position is that we do not have any position at this point," explained Jeff Ramsay, spokesman for President Mogae.

Others have been forthright in their opposition to the new Africa Command.

The countries that make up the South African Development Community, known as SADC, have pushed for unified resistance to the command.

Senior Pentagon official Ryan Henry says he is trying to get the message out that the new command is not about increasing military presence in Africa, but is about restructuring what already exists.

"We did have consultations with South Africa and, at that point, we made it clear that Africom is not about bases and it's not about new forces, so we really do not see that as an issue there has never been any plans to put any forces in South Africa, in the SADC countries or anywhere new on the continent," said Henry.

Responsibility for American military involvement in Africa has been divided among three commands. With the unification, officials say they hope efficiency will be improved.

Analysts say the establishment of AFRICOM reflects the growing importance of Africa to U.S. security and economic interests.

Senegalese human rights lawyer Ibrahima Kane says African nations have been working hard, in recent years, to make the continent more independent. He worries the command could mean increased foreign influence.

"I think that is the best way to deal with African issues, [is] giving African countries an authority to deal with those issues, but if we included other countries and actors that do not have the same objective, I think it will be damaging for the whole continent," said Kane.

With the U.S. war on terror, Africa has become a strategic security interest, as many people see it as a potential safe haven for terrorist groups.

Kane says he worries close involvement with the United States military may cause African nations to become wrapped up in conflicts that are not their own.

Analysts have also expressed concern that the military goals of Africom could become mixed with U.S. government humanitarian efforts.

Analyst for Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies Jakkie Cilliers says this is not what the continent needs.

"Our concerns are developmental concerns. They are poverty and they related to the absence of functioning states on the continent and there is very little military forces can really do to deal with those major challenges," said Cilliers.

Cilliers says in South Africa, an economic and political powerhouse on the continent, many people do not see this as a means for America to help Africa, but rather America looking out for its own interests.

"The history of U.S. engagement will be that this is about U.S. interests and the U.S. will do whatever it wants to do in its interest. And, Africa, as is often the case in the past, will be a spectator," added Cilliers.

Criticism and resistance to the new command were expected, says defense analyst J. Peter Pham of the U.S.-based Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs. But Pham says the United States could gain support, even from its staunchest critics, if it works closely with bodies such as the African Union, and if it treads lightly on African soil.

"American personnel, American material and such should be limited to what is necessary to help Africa stand up for itself. As long as it is on that premise, then I think you will get buy-in [participation] and you will get the partnership," said Pham.

American military officials say details about how AFRICOM will work still need to be worked out, but they say they plan to establish an estimated five bases in the continent.

The Africa Command, temporarily housed in Stuttgart, Germany, is expected to be fully operational by late 2008.

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