STUTTGART, Germany– As U.S. Africa Command prepares to go fully operational, one of its big challenges will be communicating not only what it aims to achieve, but also what it doesn’t, senior officials at the Pentagon and at the new command agree.

AfriCom, which began initial operations Oct. 1, is slated to become an independent unified command three months from today. This will make it a full-fledged geographic combatant command on par with U.S. European Command, Pacific Command, Southern Command and Central Command, focusing on the African continent.

AfriCom will be responsible for all U.S. military activity in Africa. The one exception will be Egypt, which will remain under U.S. Central Command.

The goal, as described by Army Gen. William “Kip” Ward, AfriCom’s commander, is to work in tandem with other U.S. government agencies and international partners to help African nations deal with a full range of challenges. AfriCom will support this effort through military-to-military programs, military-sponsored activities and other operations, all aimed at promoting a stable, secure Africa, the general said.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters while visiting the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies here last week that the United States recognizes the “hugely important issues to be addressed in Africa.”

“That’s one of the reasons we stood up AfriCom, because it’s such an important continent for us,” he said.

Mullen cited Africa’s tremendous resources, but said it faces great challenges as well, from poverty and disease to threats including terrorists seeking safe haven.

“It’s a place where there are opportunities for terrorists to evolve,” he told the AfriCom staff while visiting their headquarters. “We have to address those things, because if we don’t, they are coming our way. Either we have to engage them or they are coming to us as a country, and actually, as a world.”

The AfriCom headquarters will become fully operational a decade after the near-simultaneous Aug. 7, 1998, terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. The 10 years since then have witnessed additional terrorist activity, including the double car-bombing of a United Nations building in Algiers in December. Mullen told the AfriCom staff that the Pan-Sahel region and Horn of Africa are particular concerns.

Americans historically have looked east and west to face off threats, but Mullen said AfriCom and SouthCom show increasing recognition that the focus needs to go beyond that. “America doesn’t look north and south to its own detriment,” he said.

Despite widespread recognition of the challenges facing Africa, Mullen acknowledged last week that AfriCom has suffered from misconceptions about its intent. He told reporters at the Marshall Center that the command’s standup has met with “some pretty stiff resistance” from Nigeria, South Africa and some other countries in the region or with ties to it.

“I think some of it is tied to the newness of it,” Mullen told reporters after a town hall meeting at the AfriCom headquarters. “We have not been … heavily engaged in Africa historically, so there are questions from people on the continent. There are questions from those who have been engaged historically, some of the former countries who were colonial powers in that part of the world.”

Mullen said the United States needs to constantly repeat the intent behind AfriCom to clear up those questions and dispel misconceptions. But ultimately, he said, actions will speak louder than words. “I fundamentally believe we communicate most effectively through our actions,” he told the AfriCom town hall session.

The United States has no interest in a big troop presence in Africa, the chairman said. AfriCom’s headquarters will remain in Stuttgart — also home to EuCom, which has had primary responsibility for Africa — for at least the next several years.

“It is my view that it is much more important to emphasize projects and engagement than it is footprint,” Mullen said.

Navy Vice Adm. Robert T. Moeller, AfriCom’s deputy commander for military operations, emphasized during an address at the Brookings Institute earlier this month that the command also has no intention of stepping on the toes of other organizations’ work there. He said the command will support — not disrupt or confuse — ongoing U.S. government, international and nongovernmental efforts in Africa.

Ward described military engagement the United States already has with Africa during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in March. U.S. soldiers and Marines provide military training to African peacekeepers and professional development at the individual and unit level. The Air Force contributes airlift and logistical support. U.S. forces provide special operations counterterrorism training teams to strengthen national capabilities and enhance multinational cooperation. The Navy and Coast Guard are helping African nations increase maritime safety and security.

“Our intent is to enable them to provide for their own security,” Ward told the committee.

He cited other U.S. agencies that also contribute toward this effort. The State Department’s Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program has helped prepare thousands of African troops for international peacekeeping missions. In addition, U.S. forces work hand in hand with the U.S. Agency for International Development to support numerous humanitarian missions in Africa, he noted.

Moeller stressed that AfriCom isn’t trying to move into the foreign policy realm or militarize U.S. foreign policy. Rather, he said, the command will support the State Department and other U.S. agencies working in Africa.

Ambassador Mary Carlin Yates, AfriCom’s deputy for civil-military affairs and former ambassador to Ghana and Burundi, said the command’s mix of “hard” and “soft” power elements in a single organization will bring added value to ongoing operations in Africa. While helping to bring capacity to the Africans, she said, it will support other programs by the United States and others.

Ward took that message to Lisbon earlier this month for a meeting with the Commonwealth of Portuguese Speaking Nations. The group conducts peacekeeping operations and disaster response exercises with five African nations: Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe.

“Every nation around the world benefits from a stable and secure Africa, but each has limited resources to apply toward security capacity-building efforts,” Ward told the Commonwealth of Portuguese Speaking Nations representatives. “Together we can cooperate to bring coherent programs to the African continent.”

Like others, Ward said has heard the “Why now?” questions about AfriCom’s standup. As he escorted Mullen around the command’s headquarters facilities last week, he said the more significant question should be: “Why not now?”

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