The Pentagon's top official on Africa will travel to Angola later this month, hopeful that peace can be restored to the war-torn country following the death of longtime rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Michael Westphal will be making his first trip to Angola since taking up his post late last year. The trip will also take him to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
Mr. Westphal said the trip is largely an orientation journey. But he has told reporters at the Pentagon the timing is significant with Angola poised to sign a formal cease-fire agreement with the UNITA rebels.
"For the longest time we've been trying to work past the war. It seems that maybe we now have a chance to end the war. The truce is prepared, is supposed to be agreed to formally in Luanda on the 4th of April. So, yes, I don't have a specific mission. I don't have a specific message I am bringing to this process. Will I engage with the Angolan military, yes. Will I take the opportunity to talk to UNITA leaders, absolutely," Mr. Westphal said.
But Mr. Westphal conceded he has already had contacts with rebel representatives, though he will not identify who he has spoken to or the nature of the discussions.
He acknowledges similar contacts by his Pentagon predecessor stirred controversy in light of U.S. policy barring official meetings with UNITA. But Mr. Westphal said times have changed and communications are critical at the moment.
"They've [UNITA] called. They've called other people, also within the State Department. And to be quite honest, now is the time for communication. UNITA has to be able to transition from a military force to a political force. They have to do that by communicating, amongst themselves and with others, including us," Mr. Westphal said.
Mr. Westphal bristles at the notion that talks with UNITA are tantamount to contacts with a terrorist organization. He said the United States has never branded UNITA a terrorist group. In any event, he said it is time to get past the recriminations of Angola's long-running civil war.
"Let's really focus on the opportunity we've got. For 25 years we have had a conflict in Angola. Four million people are displaced from their homes. A country which could absolutely be an incredible economic machine, not only for southern Africa but for the entire continent. Let's get off this spot right now of dealing with the past and the history. Let's find the peace, let's move forward," Mr. Westphal said.
Prior to coming to the Pentagon, Mr. Westphal served on the staff of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations with responsibilities for sub-Saharan Africa and international peacekeeping. He is also a former U.S. marine.