Increasing U.S. energy reliance on sub-Saharan African oil exporting countries could pave the way to expanded security cooperation between the Bush administration and select African governments.
Islamic oil producing countries in the Middle East suspend energy exports to the United States, hoping to use oil as a weapon to weaken American support for Israel. The move forces energy-hungry Washington to rely more heavily on oil exporters elsewhere, including Africa.
But along the oil-rich coast of West Africa, militants seize offshore rigs owned by U.S. multinationals. Because local naval forces are extremely small with most ships in poor condition and many effectively abandoned, there is no quick military response.
These are mere fictional scenarios. But they reflect the kinds of concerns prompting Pentagon planners to evaluate potential actions aimed at bolstering the security of America's energy sources in Africa.
They also explain a terse and almost-cryptic line by Michael Westphal, the Pentagon's top African affairs official, during a recent news conference.
"We're also working to identify an African as well as U.S. awareness in the importance of African energy reserves."
In the year 2000, the United States imported oil from seven African countries. The principal African sources were Nigeria and Angola, both in the top 10 of all U.S. foreign oil suppliers. The other African sources, in order, were Gabon, Congo Brazzaville, Congo Kinshasa, Cameroon and Ivory Coast.
Mr. Westphal says Africa already holds a significant share of the U.S. market and its share is likely to grow. "To begin with, 15 percent of the U.S.'s imported oil supply comes from sub-Saharan Africa. This is also a number which has the potential for increasing significantly in the next decade."
For the moment, U.S. military-to-military relations with African countries are extremely limited, both in scope and funding. The biggest program of recent years has seen the training of several thousand select African army soldiers in peacekeeping and crisis response. That program is currently being redesigned. But Africa experts at the Defense Department are already looking ahead to an expanded military cooperation program.
Sources suggest this could include a first-ever naval assistance plan linked to improving security for offshore African oil fields. Under this plan, the United States might work to improve African naval capabilities in the Gulf of Guinea, perhaps providing oil exporting countries in the region with patrol vessels as well as training in a host of naval and coast guard type tactics.
This could not only enhance security at offshore or coastal oil installations, an issue of economic importance to the United States, but it could also help African countries enforce their sovereign rights at sea, cracking down on illegal fishing operations and interrupting the flow of illegal drugs, weapons and slaves.
The concept has not yet taken on a formal shape nor has it been presented to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for consideration. But Pentagon sources appear to believe military relations with African countries now stand their best chance ever of expanding, given such factors as the Bush administration's concerns about Middle East stability and the past energy industry connections of such senior officials as Vice President Dick Cheney, a former Defense Secretary.
Expanded military ties could in turn lead to a re-evaluation of America's Unified Command Plan, under which senior generals and admirals have been been assigned command responsibilities spanning the globe.
But Africa has no independent command of its own. Responsibility for the continent in military matters is shared mainly by the U.S. European Command and the Central Command, which focuses chiefly on the Middle East and South Asia. Pentagon officials say Africa has not merited its own command because while it is an area of interest to the United States, it is not an area of "vital" national interest.
The growing importance of African oil could change that assessment.