A senior U.S. Defense Department official says Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top military officer are working on a decision on whether to establish a new command to handle military relationships and activities in Africa. But other officials are offering varying views of just how likely that is.
At a briefing Monday on plans to restructure the Pentagon's policy operation, Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman used an organizational graphic that included an Africa Command. But he told reporters the Command is only a proposal. Edelman said the issue is under discussion and that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top military officer are working on a decision. He declined to comment further, saying he is not involved in the discussion.
The U.S. government has increased its military aid to African countries in recent years in an effort to help build their ability to prevent terrorists from establishing bases on their territory. And senior officials say they have from time to time discussed the subject of creating a separate command to oversee activities on the continent.
On Tuesday, defense officials offered conflicting views on how likely it is that an Africa Command will be created. One official said current discussions are "intense." Another Pentagon official says internal talks about the issue are more active now than they were six months ago, and that they seem to be moving toward a decision to create an Africa Command.
But spokesman Bryan Whitman says any change in the combatant command structure requires a specific official process, and that no proposal to create an Africa Command has even begun moving through that process.
"Clearly, there's always discussions within the department as to whether or not there are better ways to organize ourselves to build partnerships around the world with militaries, said Bryan Whitman."But with respect to this, it has simply been discussion. There has been discussion in the past. There's been some recent discussion, but there are no plans at this point to create a new unified command."
The other two of the officials who spoke to VOA Tuesday said the idea of creating an Africa Command is gaining momentum because of what the department sees as the increased importance of the continent in the global war on terrorism. They said they could not allow their names to be used because the issue is still under discussion and they were not authorized to talk about it in public.
Both officials said there is still a lot of work to be done before any decision can be made on establishing an Africa Command, and they could not predict when a formal proposal might be sent from the Pentagon to the White House to make the change happen.
A third official, who also requested anonymity, said while some in the defense department would like to create such a command, others believe the U.S. European Command can continue to handle Africa's relatively modest military needs, and that those needs do not require the level of resources that an independent command would involve.
In addition to most of Africa, the U.S. European Command is responsible for all of Europe, plus the Asian part of Russia, as well as Israel and, in a change announced this month, now Lebanon, too. East Africa falls under the U.S. Central Command, which is also responsible for most of the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Madagascar and Mauritius are under the U.S. Pacific Command.
The head of the European Command, General James Jones, told a Pentagon news conference in March that his command is doing important work in Africa.
"European command has in fact been proactively engaged with an increasing number of African nations through low-level but consistent interface of special operations missions, [and] marines," said James Jones. "And so we have been working with them on a consistent basis to help build up their capacity. I think that what we're doing here is extremely important because it's at the right time. If we can engage correctly here, and I think the engagement and the costs can be quite low, then you are helping nations help themselves for the future."
After that news conference, General Jones told VOA the idea of creating a separate command for Africa is sometimes discussed, but he indicated it was not then under active consideration.
At a news conference just two weeks ago, the general gave no hint of any new or intensified talk about the issue, but he did say he expected his command's activity in Africa in the next few years to remain about as it is now. Currently, he said, European Command provides security assistance to nine or ten countries. That assistance includes training, intelligence sharing, ship visits and both money and equipment under what is called the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative.
In addition, Central Command works on capacity building and civil projects with several countries in the Horn of Africa through its Joint Task Force based in Djibouti.
The officials who spoke in recent days were responding to an article in Time Magazine that says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is close to approving a plan to create an Africa Command. But spokesman Bryan Whitman said that is not correct, and the officials who spoke anonymously could not say exactly how close a decision might be.
One view in the Pentagon is that having a separate Africa Command would increase the amount of attention and resources the department can devote to the continent. But Time Magazine says some outside analysts are concerned that establishing a sixth regional command would increase the military's bureaucracy without increasing its ability to deliver the military aid African countries need.