Three senior U.S. generals have been traveling in Africa in recent days in an unusual display of military interest that appears linked at least in part to anti-terrorism efforts on the continent.
Nearly half of the countries in the U.S. European Command's area of responsibility are in Africa. Now, Pentagon officials confirm General James Jones, commander of the European Command, has just visited the continent, traveling last week to Cameroon, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa.
His deputy, General Charles Wald, is in Africa now on a trip that is taking him to Algeria, Gabon, Nigeria and South Africa. And the European Command's director of planning, Major General Charles Kohler, has been visiting Mali, Mauritania and Nigeria on a separate journey.
Pentagon officials say the trips are evidence of what they call "the vital importance" of Africa to the overall international security environment. They tell VOA the Defense Department is committed to what they term "robust engagement," including military-to-military exchanges intended to enhance cooperation, especially in the global war on terrorism.
Among the major counter-terrorism efforts is the Pan-Sahel Initiative, in which four West African countries are receiving training and some logistical support. The program with Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger is designed to enhance border protection and the ability of security forces to track the movement of people, especially in the remote desert frontier regions of the Sahara.
General Kohler, the planning director for the European Command, was recently quoted by Stars and Stripes newspaper as saying the United States does not want such desolate areas, in his words, "to turn into another Afghanistan."
He said as terrorist cells were uprooted from Afghanistan and elsewhere, they shifted to Africa, which General Kohler called an easy backdoor to Europe.
The Voice of America reported earlier this week that the U.S. military has considered air strikes against targets in a suspected terrorist safe haven in the desert wastelands of West Africa.
Cooperation in combating terrorism also led to a combined operation last month, which saw Malian troops force a suspected terrorist weapons convoy loaded with arms, ammunition and communications gear across the border into Algeria, where Algerian forces successfully intercepted it.
Pentagon officials would not discuss the extent of U.S. involvement in that mission.
The weapons convoy was linked to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. The terrorist group is suspected of involvement in the kidnapping last year of European tourists traveling in the Sahara Desert.