Friday, June 26, 2009

The US military in Africa

Analysis, BBC World Service
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Last broadcast on Monday, 23:41 on BBC World Service (see all broadcasts).


In a few weeks, President Obama will be off to Ghana - on his first visit to Africa since taking office. Our Africa editor Martin Plaut looks at Washington's little discussed military relationship with the African continent.


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Transcript by Nana Akyea Mensah, the Odikro...

Analysis now, and in a few weeks, President Obama will be off to Ghana - on his first visit to Africa since taking office. Our Africa editor Martin Plaut looks at Washington's little discussed military relationship with the African continent.

Martin Plaut: There is much excitement in Ghana and speculation in the Ghanaian media that there is more to this visit than meets the eye. Some suggest President Obama might be looking for a base for military operations on the continent for the United States' Africa Command or AFRICOM.

It's a suggestion categorically rejected by its spokesman Vince Crawley:

Vince Crawley: "We absolutely are not seeking bases in Africa right now. We have one base in Djibouti which the United States has had for a number of years. And I have seen the same press reports coming out of Ghana. And the purpose of the Obama trip is to engage with sub-Saharan Africa with a very reliable partner nation, but ... Africa Command has no interest in seeking bases in that region at this time."

Martin Plaut: Announced by President Bush in February 2007, Africom was the result of ten tears of planning to bring together all of America's military assets relating to the continent.

At first there was a suggestion that AFRICOM would have a headquarters in Africa, an idea South Africa vigorously resisted. Henri Boshoff is a military specialist of South Africa's Institute of Strategic Studies in Pretoria:

Henri Boshoff: "South Africa, especially the Defence Minister, Mr. Lekota was very much against it. I think it's the way that it was packaged and announced by AFRICOM. It came as a quite a surprise to the Africans. I think that position is now slightly changing. And I think there is a better understanding but still there is an unease about it"

Martin Plaut: The US was forced to retreat sending its generals on missions to Africa to explain what their plans really were. Daniel Volmann of the School of International Service at the American University in Washington believes President Obama sees a clear role for AFRICOM:

Daniel Volmann: "He sees its primary role as a major instrument for America's prosecution of the global war on terrorism on the African battlefield. But I also think he sees it been useful for a number of other tasks including peace-keeping operations, humanitarian relief, building up the military capabilities of friendly African regimes to act as surrogates or proxies for the United States, as well as to protect US access to oil and other natural resources from Africa."

Martin Plaut: And these aims have been reinforced with cash. President Obama sought substantial increases in military spending on Africa in the budget he submitted to Congress in May this year. And despite Washington denying they have a current interest in obtaining a base in Africa, there are mixed feelings on the continent about the entire project. Knox Chitiyo is the head of the Africa Programme at the Royal United Services Institute here in London:

Knox Chitiyo: We have various thinkings on it. I think civil society is perhaps worried about AFRICOM propping up authoritarian regimes. That's a governance issue and a number of civil society groups are very anti-AFRICOM because of this perception. But I think overall, in terms of purely the security aspect, the militaries in Africa would like to see AFRICOM really participate in the African stand-by brigades which are supposed to be set up by next year"

Martin Plaut: The stand-by brigades are supposed to be Africa's answer to its apparently endless cycle of coups and civil wars. The aim is to provide the African Union with an ability to deploy troops rapidly to an emergency, to stamp out the kind of conflicts that have so disfigured Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, Somalia, and the rest. They would be a replacement for the United Nations Peace-Keeping Forces now scattered across Africa, holding fragile states together.

But the African stand-by brigades are critically deficient in two areas: one of these is training. [gun shots from a machine gun in the background] American troops in Chad putting soldiers through their paces:

[Voices of US soldiers:

First Voice: "Yeah, they're gonna get two, they're gonna get three, they're gonna get twenty five rounds per... that's three nights in changes for each round."

Second Voice: "Yes that's right." Gun shots in the background.

Voice: "Community Two, directment, arms sous chargé... ]

(Please Note! transcription problem: not sure at all I understood what they were saying here!)

Martin Plaut: United States have been involved in training African troops for a good many years, but there is another key element that the new stand-by brigades lack: the ability to airlift their forces into the field in times of crises. And this is somewhere that the AFRICOMS's Vince Crawley is happy to assist:

Vince Crawley: Absolutely. It will have to be case by case, of course, but whenever it makes sense, for both sides, we would assist and transport peace-keeping forces or peace-keeping equipment. You know, for example in January, the United States military, African Command, assisted in transporting some heavy equipment from Rwanda to Darfour region of Sudan.

Martin Plaut: But, argues Daniel Volman, it will be wrong to see the United States' role in Africa, as just facilitating what Africa does for itself. Washington may not be seeking a headquarters for Africom for the moment, but it does have real military assets on the African soil, in addition to its small base in Djibouti.

Daniel Volman: The Unites States has also dramatically increased its naval presence off the coast of Africa particularly off the oil-rich coast of Guinea. And in addition, the United States has negotiated base-access agreements with countries all over the African continent to ensure that whenever the United States decides that it needs to deploy its own forces, in combat in Africa, it will have access to bases, anywhere it needs them, around the continent.

Martin Plaut:
One little understood role played the US military in Africa
and America involves the on-going fight against Al Quaida. It is reported that the US gave intelligence information to Ethiopia during its intervention in Somalia. And America is actively involved in helping states across the Sahara fight Al Quaida in the Maghreb. Vince Crawley:

Vince Crawley: We have operation Enduring Freedom Trans-Sahara which is very much involved with the United States working with ten nations in the North
and Trans-Sahara African regions to help with information sharing and with cross-border security, so that neighbours who might not be as warm as they could be, are able to have the confidence to cooperate across borders to pursue enemies and extremists and illegal traffickers of all kinds.

Martin Plaut: The image being put out by AFRICOM, first under President Bush and now under President Obama, is of an organisation working alongside African forces from the deserts of Darfour to the waters of the Gulf of Guinea. But the US has interests of its own, a quarter of all imported oil arriving at American ports, is now shifting from Africa. Something no administration can ignore. And then there are the dangers of engagements with Africa. Daniel Volman believes that in certain circumstances any American President would send troops into Africa.

Daniel Volman: Two main scenarios that one might envision. One of them is enormous chaos in a major oil producing country. I am sure the nightmare scenario for American military planners is the descent of Nigeria into such chaos that it is not even possible to produce oil and to export it from that country.
One other scenario that you can conceive of is attacks on American civilians or even more likely to incite an American response, attacks on American service personnel in Africa because as American military personnel go over there to Africa conduct training exercises and a variety of other activities, they are obviously in danger. and there has been a number of very close calls where American servicemen have come under fire from insurgents in countries like Niger and Mali. And if an American serviceman is killed in Africa, there will be a very, very dramatic response
so I think there would be a lot of pressure on any American President to take military action in response to that.

Martin Plaut: Africa, once a backwater for the United States, is now critical to its future. American energy needs and American investment have combined with concerns by the large and increasingly vocal African-American community, to force Washington to take the continent far more seriously.

President Obama with his roots in African soil is unlikely to resist.

Analysis was written and presented by Martin Plaut. And you are reminded you can hear it again on-line at BBC World Service dot com. And in tomorrow's programme we would be looking in greater detail at the situation in Iran asking whether the authorities are in the position to assert full control. That's Analysis at this time tomorrow. You are listening to the BBC...


Nana Akyea Mensah

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