The major policy document issued by the U.S. Defense Department last week contains several references to Africa, particularly regarding counter-terrorism operations and cooperation with foreign military forces. The document is designed to chart U.S. defense policy for the next 20 years.
One of the major headlines from last week's report was a 15 percent increase in U.S. Special Forces - highly capable and mobile teams that can strike anytime, anywhere, using the latest technology. But most of the news reports did not mention the significance of that for Africa.
"The Special Forces community is uniquely suited to working with foreign militaries," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Theresa Whelan. "That is one of their mission elements. So the fact that we will have more Special Forces available, I think, is a good thing for Africa."
The Defense Department report terms Africa a 'key…operational area' for U.S. Special Forces, as they pursue their mission of training foreign military personnel. It also mentions Africa in sections on counter-terrorism and international military cooperation. And it praises the peacekeeping efforts of the Economic Community of West African States.
The paragraphs devoted to Africa do not make up much of the 92-page report, but for Deputy Assistant Secretary Whelan, they are significant.
"Large, macro-level strategic documents that the Defense Department has produced in the past have never really even mentioned Africa in such a substantive and detailed way," she said. "We might get a brief mention, but to go into that kind of depth, I think, is indicative of, sort of, the shift in thinking regarding the nature of the threat environment in the 21st Century, where we're paying more attention to places like Africa."
'Places like Africa' are places where local armies do not always control the far reaches of their countries very well, leaving areas where terrorists can operate. The Defense Department is in the first year of implementing its Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative. The program envisions spending $500 million over the next five years to help train African military forces on how to control their territory and coastal waters, and how to use intelligence and military tactics to fight terrorists. In addition, other parts of the U.S. military carry out humanitarian and civil affairs missions in Africa, providing disaster relief and helping build needed facilities like clinics and schools.
Secretary Whelan says the new policy document, called the Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, makes such initiatives a priority worldwide.
"The QDR calls for a number of things which reinforce the kinds of activities that we've been engaged in in Africa," she said.
The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs says there are no major events planned for the near future in U.S.-African military cooperation. Rather, she says the counter-terrorism initiative will continue to be implemented, and U.S. forces will continue bi-lateral exercises, training and humanitarian work in individual African countries.