Accessibility links

Global Terror Threat Prompts US to Review Importance of Military Involvement in Africa - 2004-04-19

Ten years ago, following the deaths of 18 American soldiers in a single battle in Somalia, it seemed U.S. forces could not disengage from Africa quickly enough - a policy decision that meant tragically there would be no U.S. intervention when genocide erupted in Rwanda. Now, though, the Pentagon appears firmly settled on a new course of involvement in Africa - a decision accelerated by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Ten years ago, writing for the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, then American ambassador to Somalia Daniel Simpson asked why the United States should concern itself with Africa.

"It is not easy," Ambassador Simpson wrote, "and it is sometimes dangerous as well as expensive to work there."

He went on to assert that in the wake of the deaths of American troops in Somalia in late 1993, it was clear the United States was no longer ready to expend American blood in pursuit of such policy objectives in Africa as democratization, conflict resolution and economic development.

There is still little desire on the part of defense officials to risk American lives in Africa, especially with U.S. forces strained by involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But now senior military commanders are looking at Africa as a strategic part of the world - and not just because of its vast natural resources or exploding population.

General Charles Wald told VOA in a recent interview the threat of terrorism has effectively re-awakened the United States to the importance of the continent.

"It has always had a lot of resources. It has always had a lot of people. But strategically, it has [just] been there, if you will," he said. "It has changed a lot. The terrorism issue, the whole environment of the world is changing dramatically and the fact that unstable governments and large areas of potentially ungoverned or maybe not ungoverned, but not patrolled landscape are a breeding ground for terrorism, and in North Africa in particular that is a huge issue."

General Wald is the four-star Air Force officer who is deputy commander of the European Command, which oversees military activities in most of Africa. He is a prime driver of the Pentagon's new engagement on the continent, an engagement that includes an expanded training program as well as logistical support for African militaries and, crucially, intelligence-sharing at what appears to be a greater level than ever before.

That help has in recent months led to the disruption of terrorist activities in the Sahel region as well as in the Horn of Africa.

Speaking this month at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington policy studies organization, General Wald said the United States had learned a lesson from Afghanistan, not to let ungoverned areas fester as terrorist havens.

He told the audience of academics, businessmen and diplomats the U.S. government will not let another September 11th happen.

But when it comes to Africa, General Wald made clear that while there will be greater U.S. military engagement, the focus will be on helping Africans help themselves. He says there is still no great desire to commit large numbers of American troops on the continent.

"We can not afford to send troops to Africa, the United States can not, anymore than we have before. It is too big," he said. "We got too many things going on in the world and, by the way, NATO and the rest of world needs to help with this problem."

The only place in Africa where there are a significant number of American soldiers is Djibouti, headquarters for a special military task force combating terrorism in the Horn of Africa region. More than 1,000 U.S. military personnel have been based there for about a year-and-one-half.

But their focus has been on working with regional security forces, not on striking out after terrorists on their own.

Marine Corps Major General Major General John Sattler is the former commander of the Horn of Africa Task Force and now serves as Director of Operations for the military's Central Command, the command with overall responsibility for the Horn.

Speaking recently by telephone from Qatar to reporters at the Pentagon, General Sattler said letting local forces carry out operations is what he termed a "perfect solution" from the U.S. perspective.

"If we can work in concert with our coalition partners, share the intelligence, help them do the find and the fix of the terrorists, in this case, the transnational terrorists, and then they do the finish, that is the way it should be," he said.

Senior military officials say they have encountered little resentment on the part of African authorities who might question the new level of U.S. engagement by asking, "Where have you been all these years?"

Instead, they maintain there is appreciation for the latest assistance - coupled with a new appreciation on the U.S. side for the growing capability of some African militaries.

This evolving, cooperative approach to African security appears to stem from two recognitions.

On the one hand, there is a recognition on the American side that keeping the peace in Africa "is not just the responsibility of Africans," as a recent report on Africa by the U.S. National Intelligence Council put it.

At the same time, the U.S. side also wants its African partners to recognize, as the European Command's General Wald recently put it, that while the continent needs a lot of help, its problems are not going to be solved by the United States military alone.