Exclusive: The Pentagon Plans for an African Command

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In what may be the most glaring admission that the U.S. military needs to dramatically readjust how it will fight what it calls 'the long war,' the Pentagon is expected to announce soon that it will create an entirely new military command to focus on the globe's most neglected region: Africa.

Pentagon sources say that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is close to approving plans for an African Command, which would establish a military organization to singlehandedly deal with the entire continent of Africa. It would be a sign of a significant strategic shift in Administration policy, reflecting the need to put more emphasis on proactive, preventative measures rather than maintaining a defensive posture designed for the Cold War.

The Pentagon has five geographic Unified Combatant Commands around the world and responsibility for Africa is awkwardly divided among three of those: European Command, Pacific Command and Central Command — which is also responsible for running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Creating an African Command would be an important structural move to coordinate U.S. defense policy for the continent, as well as provide a single military organization for agencies like the State Department and the CIA to work with in the region.

A defense source says the new command, which is part of Rumsfeld's ongoing worldwide reassessment of the military's division of labor, may be headed by Gen. William "Kip" Ward, a respected officer who is the Army's only four-star African-American general. Ward has boots-on-the-ground experience in Africa: he was a commander during the U.S.'s ill-fated mission in Somalia in 1993 and also served as a military representative in Egypt in 1998. Ward is currently the deputy commander at European Command, and as such oversees U.S. military relations with 43 African countries.

But a former military officer who thinks highly of Ward nonetheless says creating an entirely new command compounds an existing problem. "The size and number of headquarters already is skewed too far in favor of 'tail' at the expense of warfighting 'teeth.' Want to increase 'boots on the ground?' Eliminate or downsize some of these staffs, don't create more," says this observer.

Many military experts have long advocated paying more attention to Africa. While Central Command has had a small military contingent based in Djibouti (called Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa or 'CJTF-HOA') for several years, intelligence agencies and military officers have warned that the US should be spending more time and money in Africa.

Gen. John Abizaid, the Centcom commander, laid out a laundry list of concerns to the Senate Armed Services Committee last March. While Abizaid spoke about the Horn of Africa, the threats stretch across much of the continent. "The Horn of Africa is vulnerable to penetration by regional extremist groups, terrorist activity, and ethnic violence. Al-Qaeda has a history of planning, training for, and conducting major terrorist attacks in this region, such as the bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The volatility of this region is fueled by a daunting list of challenges, to include extreme poverty, corruption, internal conflicts, border disputes, uncontrolled borders and territorial waters, weak internal security capabilities, natural disasters, famine, lack of dependable water sources, and an underdeveloped infrastructure. The combination of these serious challenges creates an environment that is ripe for exploitation by extremists and criminal organizations."

Abizaid did point out that the small operation in Djibouti has produced bang for the buck: "Working closely with U.S. Embassy personnel in the region, CJTF-HOA assists partner governments in building indigenous capacity to deny terrorists access to their territory. This not only includes training local security and border forces, but also involves assisting with low-level civic projects throughout HOA such as digging wells, building schools and distributing books, and holding medical and veterinary clinics in remote villages." These efforts, Abizaid said, engender goodwill and help "discredit extremist propaganda and bolster local desires and capabilities to defeat terrorists before they can become entrenched."