The chief of the new U.S. military command for Africa says he will
invite African military officers to serve at his headquarters, once the
operation gets up and running. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin
interviewed the commander, General William Ward.
General Ward says he wants African officers as advisers to improve communications and help his staff understand the implications of things they are planning to do.
"I clearly would envision, down the road, at some point in time, a capacity to receive liaison officers so that we can have a closer connection to those with whom we're partnering," he said.
That kind of connection and understanding were missing last year when Africa Command was announced. Many African leaders, editorial writers and ordinary citizens expressed concerns about what they thought was a plan to station more U.S. forces in Africa, and to militarize U.S. policy toward the continent.
General Ward and other U.S. officials have spent a lot of time explaining that the command is just a reorganization of what the U.S. military is doing now on the continent, with the hope it will be able to do more with a whole organization focused on the effort. The controversy derailed plans to establish AFRICOM's headquarters in Africa this year.
"That debate about a presence elsewhere was a debate that, quite frankly, wasn't helping us get on with that initial requirement of standing up and building the command," he added.
General Ward says his headquarters will remain in Germany for now, near the U.S. European Command headquarters, which has been the main U.S. command for Africa. On October 1, General Ward and his growing staff will take full responsibility for U.S. military engagement with Africa - mainly training, counter-terrorism and humanitarian activities, and support for African Union military operations. He says they can manage that activity from Germany, at least for a while. And he notes that the United States already has a large facility in Djibouti and small offices throughout the continent that will come under his command.
"We will inherit a substantial presence that already exists on the continent," he noted. "So it's not as if there's no presence on the continent, in the form of our security assistance offices, some of which have already put on the U.S. Africa Command patch."
U.S. officials say any expansion of the U.S. military presence in Africa will be in the form of offices, not military bases. Indeed, AFRICOM will not have any operational troops permanently assigned, other than those in Djibouti. In addition, one of General Ward's two deputies is a State Department diplomat, and 50 members of the staff of about 1,300 will be civilians from several U.S. government agencies. The idea is to take an inter-agency approach to helping solve Africa's problems.
That has led to some concern about whether the command will be able to conduct any combat operations that may be necessary, as other U.S. regional commands do. General Ward is not among those who are concerned.
"We will have a staff that will be capable of doing that work," he explained. "And where there are requirements we may have that are not resident in the command, then through the standard request for forces process, that's how we'll do it. I'm not at all concerned about that. Our components come on line at different states, but there are strategies in place to account for that."
General Ward's command will be responsible for all U.S. military activity in Africa, except for Egypt, which will continue to be part of Central Command's responsibility.
The general says he is still in discussions with Central Command about exactly where to put the borderline between the two commands' responsibilities in the Indian Ocean. Central Command's naval forces have been involved in anti-piracy and counter-terrorism operations off the coast of Somalia, and the general says it has not yet been determined which command will handle those operations after October 1.
"We have enough, I think, agility in our system to, however that's determined, we'll make it work," he said.
Africa Command is slowly taking on responsibilities as it builds its staff in Germany. Officials say it will take on its full responsibilities on schedule October 1. But General Ward says he has not decided whether to hold a big military ceremony to mark the occasion. He says he doesn't want to create another opportunity for misunderstanding among the people the command was created to work with.