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US Navy Builds Relationships, Capacity in West Africa

The U.S. military is looking to expand its involvement in West Africa, where it has been taking preliminary steps toward building relationships and local capacity. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin spoke to one of the senior U.S. Navy officers involved in the effort and filed this report.

Captain Thomas Rowden has led two missions to the coast of West Africa, taking U.S. Navy ships and experts to work with their counterparts in the region. He says his main job is to build trust, and to enable his experts to work with local navies on such issues as maintenance of equipment, responding to natural disasters, providing medical care and developing leadership.

So far, the captain has not gotten involved in specific military training, as U.S. ground forces have, as part of the effort to help African countries prevent terrorism. But he says that type of training probably lies ahead.

"That, I think, is something that is going to come with time," he said. "Really, what I think we're doing now is, we're building the foundation in order to move to that next step. And I would think that would be one of the next steps that we would be executing, on down the line, would be developing tactics, techniques and procedures necessary, in order to be able to use the capability that we're building to go address the issues that they've talked to us about."

Captain Rowden, who is the Commodore of the Navy's Task Force 65, says relations with the West African countries are particularly important because of the region's growing strategic importance.

Not only is the U.S. military concerned about terrorist groups taking advantage of ungoverned areas in the region, but, the captain says, the Gulf of Guinea and nearby areas are increasingly important as transit points for vital natural resources, including oil, timber, copper, iron and even uranium. In addition, he says his African counterparts emphasize three issues that are their main concerns - pollution, poaching and trafficking in drugs and people.

"All these things have the potential to destabilize the maritime environment down there," he said. "And given the strategic importance of the Gulf of Guinea and the West Africa region for the vast amount of natural resources that exist down there, I think, it's important that we do what we can to build their capacity and capability to secure the maritime environment to hopefully ensure they have continued use of the sea to move their resources to market."

Captain Rowden says more U.S. Navy missions to West Africa are planned, and just how quickly the relationships progress into military training will be largely determined by each African country involved.