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Africa Command Gives Top Priority to Aggressive Maritime Security

By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 24, 2007 – Maritime security, which has long been overshadowed by other coalition missions in African nations, will be a top priority for the newly created U.S. Africa Command, a senior Defense Department policymaker said today.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Rwandan soldiers march onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport on their way to the Darfur region of Sudan, Oct. 20, 2007. Airmen from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., are providing airlift support to the African Union effort in Darfur. Photo by Capt. Erin Dorrance, USAF
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

“It’s something that we hadn’t really paid too much attention to for awhile, because we’ve been focusing more on the peacekeeping problem and … the political and conflict turmoil on the continent,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Theresa Whelan said. “But maritime security is an area that’s very important for the continent.”

During a conference call from the Pentagon with online journalists and bloggers, Whelan explained that African nations such as Mozambique and Tanzania typically lose more than a billion dollars a year to illegal fishing in their waters, reef destruction and species depletion.

“Maritime security is important economically to African nations. It’s also, though, important from a security standpoint, because what we’re seeing is more and more drugs being moved through Africa via maritime routes, arms (are) being moved, there’s trafficking in persons through maritime routes, and then of course there’s piracy, which is influencing or impacting negatively on international shipping,” she said. “That’s something I think that is somewhat new in some ways that AFRICOM will be focusing on and that we think is important.”

U.S. Africa Command officially became operational Oct. 1. As America’s newest unified command, it eventually will assume Defense Department responsibility on the entire African continent. But unlike three traditional combatant commands that for decades had shared the responsibility, AFRICOM will focus not on combat, but on supporting, advising and building the capacity of professional, civilian-controlled African forces.

“We are not going to be building new bases or putting troops (or) operational forces on the continent,” Whelan explained. “We will have presence on the continent, but that presence will be in the form of staff personnel in order to manage our relationship with African countries more effectively.”

Part of that relationship, Whelan noted, is identifying what tools African nations need to help themselves.

“The African countries want to try to address the security problems that they face in their own backyards,” she said. “And the challenge that they have had is just simply not having the wherewithal to do so.”

For instance, Whelan pointed out, the U.S. Air Force earlier this week used a C-17 Globemaster III to airlift hundreds of Rwandan soldiers supporting the African Union peacekeeping mission in the Darfur region of Sudan.

“This has become something that is important to the Africans, to be able to address these crises in their backyards so that they don’t necessarily spread and become larger problems,” she said. “Hopefully, we would enable the AU to better handle crises like Somalia or Darfur or Congo or Burundi -- there’s a whole host of them out there.”

In some cases, such as Somalia, which “defies the imagination” because of its incredible instability, Whelan explained, AFRICOM can be of little direct and immediate assistance, but in other countries, key partnerships already have begun.

“In most cases in Africa, actually, we will be focusing on maintaining and hopefully expanding, and deepening maybe is a better word, our existing military-to-military relations with African nations, stable African nations, and that are trying to make a greater contribution to stability in their neighborhood and in the continent,” she said. “Our actions are ultimately going to speak louder than our words.”

(David Mays works in New Media at American Forces Information Service.)

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