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Officials Weigh Need for Africa Command

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 6, 2006 – Defense Department officials continue to examine the idea of establishing a U.S. Africa Command, a top DoD official said here this week.

A team of DoD officials is looking at all options in examining the need for a new combatant command, Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, said in an interview.

Responsibility for U.S. military operations in Africa is currently divided among three combatant commands. The area from Kenya to Egypt is part of U.S. Central Command. The rest of the continent falls under the auspices of U.S. European Command. The eastern island nations are in U.S. Pacific Command’s area of operations.

“We are looking at different ways of organizing DoD for doing business in Africa,” Whelan said. “The different circumstances and threats have caused us to take a step back and look at the way we’re doing business.”

There is no set date for a decision on establishing a new command or finding another means for handling operations in Africa, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said today. Officials are working to decide on the best course of action: to stick with the status quo, to establish a subordinate command, or to stand up a full out combatant command, on par with European Command and Central Command.

The group will make its recommendations through the Joint Chiefs of Staff before presenting them to the chairman and the secretary for a decision.

Whelan said the security environment in Africa has changed fundamentally in the last decade. “You have a situation where the threats are not confined to state actors or geographically confined,” she said. “You don’t have to look to a state that has a large military to find an entity that can threaten U.S. security in a serious way.”

She said the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, brought that home in a very stark and tragic manner. “Africa is an environment that has the potential to be used by these non-state actors to achieve or at least move closer to their ends,” she said.

Africa has seen its own attacks. Al Qaeda attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing hundreds of innocent people, most of them local citizens. Other terrorist organizations have been regionally focused in the past, but now are expanding their interests and jumping on the al Qaeda bandwagon, Whelan said.

The United States military always has paid attention to the continent. In the past, the U.S. military has had bases in Ethiopia, Libya, Liberia and Morocco.

Poor governance, wars and population pressures are some of the human-caused problems on the continent, but natural threats need to be dealt with as well, Whelan said. “There are clearly challenges in terms of disease -- AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis -– are major threats,” she said. “Your issue is you have these major demographic changes caused by disease and the untimely death of the working-age population. The African population in many countries is now very young or very old, Whelan said.

A U.S. Africa Command would work at “preventing problems from becoming crises and crises from becoming catastrophes,” Whelan said. “Instead of the United States being reactive, … we want to be more proactive in promoting security, to build African capacity to build their own environments and not be subject to the instability that has toppled governments and caused so much pain on the continent.”

She likened it to a fire department. Instead of waiting until a fire breaks out, U.S. Africa Command would be like firefighters who work with the community to promote fire safety or help businesses install sprinklers. “It may prevent a fire or lessen the magnitude of damage,” she said.

If officials decide to go ahead with a U.S. Africa Command, “you would clearly want to have it based on that continent.” But, she said, there are a lot of ways to “skin that cat.”

The command may have its main headquarters in the United States, but forward operating bases in Africa.

The command would not necessarily have a large number of people. The needs are so great in Africa that a little can go a long way, she said. The command would coordinate training teams, advisory teams, civil affairs teams, medical and veterinary aid to the continent. It would also help interface with other government agencies and non-governmental aid groups in efforts on the continent.

In short, it would not look like other U.S. combatant commands. “Africa Command will not be a cookie-cutter organization,” Whelan said. “If we go this way, it will be something different.”

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