General James Jones, one of America's top military leaders, is predicting the United States and its NATO allies will begin focusing greater attention on instability in Africa in the future.
In the post-Cold War era, a Pentagon official says, NATO might best be described as an alliance in search of a mission.
Now, the American four-star general, who is NATO's senior military commander, is suggesting one future mission for alliance forces might be found in Africa.
General James Jones, the former commandant of the Marine Corps, moved to Europe at the beginning of this year to take over the NATO post, as well as the job of commander of the U.S. European Command, which oversees American forces in Europe and has military responsibility for most of Africa. General Jones' job, says one top Pentagon official, is to shake up the alliance and the command, and his mandate is backed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Mr. Rumsfeld, speaking to American soldiers in Baghdad this week, said new thinking is needed to meet the threats of the 21st century.
"What we are doing now is systematically working with our friends and allies around the world to examine our footprint, to see where we are, how we want to be arranged for the future," he said. "And there is no question in my mind, but that we have probably too large a number of folks in Western Europe that, some of which is still a leftover from the Cold War and the fear of the Soviet Union coming across the North German plain. It was appropriate then. It is less appropriate now."
Mr. Rumsfeld predicts what he characterizes as adjustments in the U.S. presence, as well as new assignments for forces assigned to NATO.
"So General Jones, the European commander and the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, is in the process of analyzing that," said Mr. Rumsfeld. "And there is no doubt in my mind that, but that, we will be making adjustments. As to what particular units he will decide ought to be shifted and make a recommendation to me, we are just not at that point yet."
General Jones indicated this week in a meeting with a small group of Washington defense writers that more attention may be paid to Africa, an area where he concedes there has, until now, been only what he terms "a very marginal effort" to confront potential security threats.
In the past, he notes, most American military involvement on the continent has been by Special Forces and defense contract teams, mostly pursuing training missions.
But he points out there are many potential threats brewing in Africa, threats not only to the NATO alliance but to U.S. interests. He says these include what he describes as "some large ungoverned areas ... that are clearly the new routes of narco-trafficking, terrorist training and just hot beds of instability."
General Jones names no countries, and offers no specific ideas on how NATO forces might counter such threats.
But he suggests one way the United States might contribute is by re-directing aircraft carrier strike groups, so that they spend more time in waters off Africa than in more conventional areas like the Mediterranean. Off West Africa, that would put them in position to cast a protective shadow over offshore oil facilities that provide an increasing amount of America's energy needs.
General Jones says "as Africa becomes more and more of a challenge and more and more of a focus for, not only us, but for the alliance, the carrier battle groups ... and the expeditionary strike groups of the future may not spend six-months in the Med [Mediterranean]. But, I will bet they spend half the time going down the west coast of Africa, and starting a fairly focused engagement in that part of the world."
He notes that is something U.S. naval forces have not done in the past. In fact, a spokesman for the U.S. European Command tells VOA that, unlike other parts of the world, there is no existing port call plan for U.S. naval vessels to make regular scheduled stops in Africa.
That could change in the future. But for the moment, Pentagon officials stress, none of the new ideas under consideration have been formally approved by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.