September 30, 2008
NAIROBI, Kenya — The U.S. Africa Command, the Pentagon’s first effort to unite its counterterrorism, training and humanitarian operations on the continent, launches Wednesday amid questions at home about its mission and deep suspicions in Africa about its intentions. U.S. officials have billed the new command, known as Africom, as a sign of Africa’s strategic importance, but many in Africa see it as an unwelcome expansion of the U.S.-led war on terrorism and a bid to secure greater access to the continent’s vast oil resources. Several countries have refused to host the command, and officials say Africom will be based in Stuttgart, Germany, for the foreseeable future.
U.S.-based aid groups and some in Congress have expressed worries that Africom will tilt U.S policy in Africa away from democracy-building and economic development and toward security objectives such as stemming the growth of militant Islamist groups in Somalia and North Africa, some of which have ties to al Qaida.
U.S. covert operations in Somalia and elsewhere have fueled the controversy. In late 2006, the U.S. military provided intelligence to help Ethiopia topple a fundamentalist Islamic regime in Somalia, an invasion that’s fueled a violent Islamist insurgency.
U.S. forces have since launched several strikes on suspected terrorist targets in Somalia. While one of the strikes killed a top militant commander, Aden Hashi Ayro, in May, Somalis say the attacks also killed and badly wounded civilians.
Underlining the skepticism in Washington, the House of Representatives voted last week to provide $266 million to fund Africom’s first year of operations — $123 million less than President Bush had requested. The House Appropriations Committee said the reduction was due partly to “the failure to establish an Africom presence on the continent.”
The fledgling command’s image problem, at home and abroad, is cause for concern because of Africa’s growing importance to the United States.
The Department of Energy says that 17 percent of U.S. crude oil imports now come from Africa, more than the U.S. gets from Persian Gulf countries. But rising powers such as China have strengthened their ties with Africa and become a powerful counterweight to American influence.
Pentagon officials reject claims that Africom is about oil or China, but those perceptions remain strong in Africa.
“Obviously the U.S. is concerned about China’s influence, security, oil, counterterrorism, hunting down al Qaida suspects,” said Erin Weir of Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group that’s opposed Africom. “Africans read the newspaper just the same as we do, and they know what drives U.S. interests now.”