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Friday, September 01, 2006

U.S. considers new military command for Africa

The Pentagon, mindful of potential threats to U.S. security emerging from Africa, is considering creating a new military command responsible for the continent, defense officials said on Wednesday.

"The notion of setting up an Africa Command is being considered by the secretary," said Pentagon press secretary Eric Ruff, referring to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Ruff said no decision has been made and any such proposal must be approved by President George W. Bush.

The U.S. military assigns responsibility for specific parts of the world to regional commands headed by four-star officers. For example, Central Command, currently overseeing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, handles the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa.

But responsibility for Africa is divided among three of these: European Command, Central Command and Pacific Command.

With several war-ravaged regions and great expanses of ungoverned territory, Africa presents optimal conditions for extremists aiming to secure a foothold, many experts contend.

"There is certainly an increasing awareness of the strategic importance of Africa," said U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a Pentagon spokesman, "because in the post 9/11 world we have a much better appreciation for (threats emerging from) ungoverned territories."

The Horn of Africa region is of particular concern for U.S. counterterrorism officials. The State Department says Somalia and the sparsely populated Trans-Sahara region, especially Mali and Mauritania, offer safe haven for militants.


Al Qaeda, responsible for the 2001 attacks on the United States, is thought to have a presence in eastern and northern Africa, and Islamic fundamentalism appears to be increasing in some parts of the continent.

The State Department says a small number of al Qaeda operatives in East Africa, particularly Somalia, continue to pose the most serious threat to U.S. interests in the region.

Although it is unclear to what extent terrorist groups are present in western and central Africa, the department has said fund-raising, recruiting and other efforts by al Qaeda and its affiliates in South Africa, Nigeria and across the Trans-Sahara region remain a serious worry.

Carpenter said populations in certain parts of Africa are vulnerable to extremists due to ideology, poverty and disease.

"Many of the militaries in Africa desire to have interaction with the U.S. so that we can help to improve their capabilities, to defend their borders, to prevent the transit of terrorists, to be able to realize their economic potential," Carpenter added.

A U.S. military task force in the Horn of Africa, headquartered in Djibouti, has about 1,800 troops. Its mission is "preventive in nature," Carpenter said. The task force aims to detect, disrupt and defeat terrorist groups in the region, denying them safe haven and outside support, officials said.

Officials offered no timetable for a decision on an Africa Command and said no decisions have been made on where it would be headquartered or how many troops would be devoted.

"The intent of (creating an Africa Command) is not to put troops in Africa. It would be to streamline the focus and give appropriate undivided attention to the continent," a Pentagon official said.

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