The founding commander of the U.S. military's Africa Command has retired after a nearly 40-year military career, saying the role of militaries in the current North African unrest is evidence of the value of building the kind of relationships the command was established to promote.
It was an emotional ceremony for General William Ward as he completed more than three years at Africom. He told several-hundred people at the change-of-command ceremony that his operation has expanded military cooperation with many African countries, including new joint military exercises.
In recent weeks, Africom has been engaged in its first operational assignment, helping to evacuate foreigners from Libya and delivering humanitarian supplies to refugees in Tunisia. The command has also had a key role in preparing what officials call a "full range of options" in case President Barack Obama orders military intervention in Libya.
But General Ward said the routine work in Africa by U.S. troops - training and humanitarian assistance - has convinced many African skeptics the new command would not be a threat. He said what he called "sustained engagement" has proved its value dramatically in recent weeks.
"There is no greater evidence of that today than what's going on the northern tier of this continent. Where we have had those sustained relationships, we see militaries behaving in a way that contributes to the stability of a society as opposed to not,” Ward said. “And where that has not been the case, militaries are contributing to that additional instability."
Ward was apparently referring to Egypt, where a military very close to the United States acted with restraint and facilitated a smooth transition, and Libya, where a military cut off from the United States has fractured, and some units are firing on their own people.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the gathering General Ward and his team demonstrated the creation of Africa Command would not result in more U.S. military action on the continent or cause the militarization of U.S. policy toward Africa. He also referred to the uprisings in the North.
"In North Africa, we see people fighting for political change from a revolution in Libya to Southern Sudan, a new nation coming into being. Throughout the region, nations are struggling to give their fast-growing populations liberty, basic necessities and greater opportunities while fighting the scourges of terrorism, corruption and piracy. Africom must continue its role in promoting this progress, preventing conflict and bolstering basic stability," Gates said.
The new commander of Africa Command, General Carter Ham, said he intends to maintain the approach General Ward established. "The longer I serve, the more I believe relationships with our partners are what really matters and really enables us to achieve our objectives. I believe we are most successful when we help find African solutions to African security challenges. And I know we will face many challenges. Some of those we can see very clearly today, while others will emerge in unexpected ways and in unexpected places," he said.
General Ham has been the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe for the past two-and-a-half years, and has had a variety of command and Pentagon assignments.
Most recently, he co-led the defense department's analysis of the potential impact of allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military. That process led to the approval of a law that is expected to lift the ban this year, once the military services have conducted a planned training program.
Africa Command supervises all U.S. military engagement in Africa, except for Egypt, but it has no operational troops assigned to it, as other U.S. regional commands do. It borrows troops from other areas, particularly Europe, when it has training or other missions to perform. It is also responsible for the joint U.S. military task force in Djbouti.
The command has a unique military and civilian structure, designed to enable multi-disciplinary interaction with the continent's 53 countries. The command has about 2,000 people, half of them civilians, and only 100 stationed permanently at cooperation offices in African countries.