By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 24, 2007
RABAT, Morocco -- A U.S. delegation seeking a home for a new military command in Africa got a chilly reception during a tour of the northern half of the continent this month, running into opposition even in countries that enjoy friendly relations with the Pentagon.
Algeria and Libya separately ruled out hosting the Defense Department's planned Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, and said they were firmly against any of their neighbors doing so either. U.S. diplomats said they were disappointed by the depth of opposition, given that the Bush administration has bolstered ties with both countries on security matters in recent years.
Morocco, which has been mentioned as a possible site for the new command and is one of the strongest U.S. allies in the region, didn't roll out the welcome mat, either. After the U.S. delegation visited Rabat, the capital, on June 11, the Moroccan foreign ministry strongly denied a claim by an opposition political party that the kingdom had already offered to host AFRICOM. A ministry statement called the claim "baseless information."
Rachid Tlemcani, a professor of political science at the University of Algiers, said the stern response from North African governments was a reflection of public opposition to U.S. policies in the predominantly Muslim region.
"People on the street assume their governments have already had too many dealings with the U.S. in the war on terror at the expense of the rule of law," said Tlemcani, who is also a scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The regimes realize the whole idea is very unpopular."
The Bush administration announced in February that it intends to create a separate military command for Africa this year. Responsibility for U.S. military operations on the continent is now divided primarily between the Central Command, based in Florida, and the European Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany.
As they search for a place to put a headquarters for the new command, U.S. officials have tried to allay concerns in Africa that the Pentagon has warlike designs in the region.
Ryan Henry, leader of the U.S. delegation and principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said the main mission for the command would be to stabilize weak or poor countries by training local security forces and doling out humanitarian aid.
"It's mostly a headquarters and planning focus," he said after meeting with Moroccan officials. "AFRICOM doesn't mean that there would be additional U.S. forces put on the continent."
Henry said no decision had been made about where to locate the command headquarters, which is expected to have 400 to 1,000 people.
During a stop in Algeria, Henry suggested that the Pentagon might "network" the command from several sites in Africa, rather than have a single headquarters. "If at all possible, that's the way we'd like to proceed," he told journalists during a briefing at the U.S. Embassy in Algiers.
Defense officials acknowledge that one reason they are paying more attention to Africa is because the continent provides an increasingly large share of the U.S. supply of imported oil and natural gas.
Bush administration officials have also touted the new command as a key part of their strategy for countering terrorism threats on the continent. Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have experienced a resurgence in North and East Africa in recent years.
A group calling itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb asserted responsibility for simultaneous suicide attacks in Algiers in April that killed 33 people. Suicide bombers have also struck Casablanca, Morocco, on three occasions since March, including an attack on the U.S. Consulate.
Since 2003, the Pentagon has developed a regional counterterrorism partnership with several impoverished countries in North Africa, including Mali, Niger, Senegal and Chad. Defense officials say parts of the vast Sahara and neighboring regions serve as training and recruiting grounds for extremist groups, in part because local forces are unable to patrol their own territory.
Rear Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Forces in Europe and most of Africa, said the counterterrorism training programs are designed to avoid a large U.S. military presence and usually involve units of only 10 to 15 people, who spend a few months in Africa at a time.
"Some nations remain somewhat concerned about too overt of a U.S. presence in the area," McRaven said in an interview in April. "But the nature of the special operations forces is that we can come in with a very small footprint. We can do that without a lot of visibility."
The North African counterterrorism partnership is headed by the State Department and also includes economic and humanitarian aid programs delivered by civil affairs units. But Tlemcani, the Algerian political scientist, said the U.S. government needed to do much more on those fronts before taking a more prominent military role in Africa.
"The best way to build a strategic relationship is with socioeconomic programs, which haven't been funded very well," he said by telephone from Beirut.