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Policy Dialogue Allows U.S., African Officials to Address Security Issues

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WARRENTON, Va., March 28, 2008 – The U.S.-Africa Defense Policy Dialogue that ended here today, was a chance for officials on both continents to speak, to listen and to move forward, said Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs.

Whelan’s office sponsored the three-day conference, in which representatives from more than 40 African nations took part. Whelan said the dialogue helped defense policy people and officials serving within the U.S. Africa Command understand what is important to African allies.

“There is a great deal of congruence in thinking between the United States and African militaries on the issues of security sector reform and transformation, and the importance of military professionalism,” Whelan said during an interview yesterday.

The officials also discussed terrorism, and Whelan said that was the issue of greatest divergence. There are some nations in Africa that have similar outlooks on terrorism as the United States, she said, but there are others that have entirely different takes.

“Understanding where the divergences are is helpful to us and will make it easier for us to work with these countries in other issue areas,” she said.

The most important responsibility for the African affairs office and U.S. Africa Command is to listen and understand the concerns of African nations.

“This has to be a two-way conversation,” Whelan said.

African nations have a responsibility to understand the full breadth of U.S. support to the continent, Whelan said, noting that the vast majority of American aid to African nations is civilian.

Whelan said the United States does not want permanent bases on the continent, and the establishment of the command does not mean a militarization of diplomacy, Whelan said. She also pointed out that she feels the command has been the subject of too much attention.

Whelan said AfriCom is just one tool in DoD’s chest. “It’s a new tool and hopefully a more versatile tool, but tools don’t build things by themselves,” she said.

Whalen said the dialogue itself focused on more than just AfriCom. The dialogue process focused on a couple of key issue areas such as maritime security, security sector reform, preparation of forces for peacekeeping and counterterrorism.

“What we’ve been trying to have a discussion here with the Africans is their perspectives on the global security challenges in the 21st Century and how they apply in an African context,” Whelan said.

Seminar leaders solicited African viewpoints on those issues and the juxtaposed them with American viewpoints. They then asked the participants to compare and contrast the viewpoints and note both areas of divergence and areas of convergence.

“The idea being that those where we converge would be most successful in working in partnership with the Africans through using our various tools,” she said.

Americans need to understand something as basic as how the Africans regard security. Africans from all parts of the continent believe that human security is supremely important.

“What they mean by that is the sense of security that an individual has so that he or she can essentially go about their daily business with a reasonable level of surety that they will be able to live their lives without being beset by some great calamity of war or the ability to survive and thrive because they’re beset by endemic disease or poverty,” she said.

These are things that Africans feel on a more personal level than people in the West, “because we take that for granted,” Whelan said. “We take for granted that we are going to go home tonight and we’re going to have a great meal and we’re not going to have some thug group come and bang the doors down on our house and burn it and pull us out. We see that stuff in the movies and on the news, but for Africans that’s a fact of life.”

Africans have hard security concerns, but they are overlaid by these human security aspects. The United States government will continue to work to support human security – development, rule of law support, education and health issues. “That’s where the preponderance of U.S. help in Africa has been,” Whelan said.

U.S. government officials have assured African leaders that the United States’ focus will remain in these civilian areas.

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Theresa Whelan

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