By TODD PITMAN
The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 7, 2007; 1:02 AM
DAKAR, Senegal -- Just a few years ago, the U.S. military was rarely seen in the oil-rich waters of West Africa's Gulf of Guinea. This year, it plans to be there every day.
The strategic importance of Africa and its natural resources is on the rise, and the Defense Department last month created a new unified U.S. military command for the continent called Africom.
The first American mission to Africa since that move began Monday when the USS Fort McHenry arrived in Senegal's capital to begin a half-year training exercise for African naval forces around the Gulf of Guinea.
For American commanders, Africom means consolidating responsibility for a continent previously split among three other regional commands, each of which viewed Africa as a secondary interest.
However, Africom's creation has provoked so much skepticism on the continent that one of the most basic questions _ where it will be located _ remains unresolved.
Some Africans are concerned the new command could draw the continent deeper into the global war on terrorist groups.
Others wonder if it is meant to protect America's competitive stake in African oil and other resources increasingly sought by rising powers like China and India. The continent has surpassed the Persian Gulf as the leading supplier of oil to the United States.
"Africans have a feeling Africom represents something more than what is being sold to them," said Wafula Okumu, an analyst at South Africa's Institute for Security Studies. "If it was packaged a different way and better explained, maybe it could be a success."
U.S. officials concede America's strategic interests come first. But Africom's deputy for military operations, Vice Adm. Robert T. Moeller, said the command will allow the United States "to do more with our African partners when it makes sense to do so and where it's in their interest to do so."
There is a misconception that Africom is part of "a U.S. effort to militarize Africa, and that's definitely not the case," Moeller said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The U.S. military is already well-entrenched in Africa, spending around $250 million a year on military assistance programs, said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Since 2002, about 1,800 American military personnel have been stationed in Djibouti as part of efforts to stifle terrorist networks in the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia. Money is also being poured into the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, which has focused on training armies in western and northern African nations from Algeria to Nigeria.
Moeller said Africom will bring no new U.S. military bases to the continent and no substantial changes in America's military role here for the foreseeable future. Its aim is to help Africans with military training and support peacekeeping and aid operations crucial to stability and the prevention of conflict, he said.
Regional powers including Libya, Nigeria and South Africa have expressed deep reservations, partly because they believe Africom could undermine their influence, analysts said. So far, only Liberia has publicly stated a willingness to host Africom, though even critics like Nigeria welcome the continuation of the U.S. training programs.
Led by Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward, Africom is expected to be fully operational within a year, spending the next 12 months getting ready.
With a budget of $50 million this fiscal year, Africom is responsible for 53 countries in Africa and the island nations surrounding it _ everything except Egypt, which will remain under the U.S. Central Command because of its proximity and importance to the Middle East.
Kurt Shillinger, an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said the Pentagon has failed to allay concerns of Africans who see "this as a Trojan horse through which the U.S. will pursue and defend its key interests in Africa."
African nations supply the United States with more than 24 percent of its oil _ more than the Persian Gulf, at 20 percent, the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration says. Much of that crude comes from or through the Gulf of Guinea.
Moeller said increasing security in the gulf is partly an issue of open markets. The U.S. wants to work with "African partners to make sure the resources that emanate from the continent are available to the global community," he said.
Internal conflict in Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil producer, has sporadically disrupted the flow of its crude, and offshore platforms along the western coast are little-protected because most countries have only small navies.
The U.S. naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea _ measured by "ship days" _ has increased more than 50 percent since last year, said Lt. Brian Badura, a spokesman for the 6th Fleet in Naples, Italy, which commands American warships in these waters. From just a handful of days in 2004, the Navy expects to have a daily presence over the next year.
In a first for America's global combat commands, Africom will have a deputy commander who is a civilian responsible for overseeing civil-military affairs and coordinating with other U.S. government agencies.
Africom officials say that post highlights the importance of humanitarian operations to U.S. goals in Africa, but even that has spurred controversy.
"Why should they be using the military to promote development when they already have institutions within the U.S. government that are better capable and more acceptable?" asked Okumu at the Institute for Security Studies.
Analysts said there has been criticism of the command within the U.S. government itself, notably from State Department officials.
Shillinger said some officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development worry their humanitarian programs could be "stigmatized" by direct links with the military, which has melded aid programs with combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan _ wars unpopular in most of Africa.
Moeller said the command's relationship with Africa and other U.S. agencies will be "collaborative." It will "not be taking the lead" in aid operations or U.S. policy, he said.
For now, Africom has just over 200 staff members, and is based in Stuttgart, Germany.
Moeller said where it is established is an issue to be decided with "our African partners." Instead of one central headquarters, there may be smaller offices in five regions, each with one or two dozen staff, officials said.
Theresa Whelan, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, estimates 80 percent of the command's eventual staff of around 800 will be based outside Africa.
"Having a presence on the continent in some form is certainly a goal," Moeller said. But "ultimately it has to be agreed to by the Africans."
The USS Fort McHenry, an amphibious dock landing ship, can skirt the issue. The self-sustaining, helicopter-equipped warship can serve as a mobile base for training African forces in maritime security _ and move on.