NAIROBI, Kenya — The U.S. Africa Command, the Pentagon's first effort to unite its counterterrorism, training and humanitarian operations on the continent, launches Wednesday amid questions at home about its mission and deep suspicions in Africa about its intentions.
U.S. officials have billed the new command, known as Africom, as a sign of Africa's strategic importance, but many in Africa see it as an unwelcome expansion of the U.S.-led war on terrorism and a bid to secure greater access to the continent's vast oil resources. Several countries have refused to host the command, and officials say Africom will be based in Stuttgart, Germany, for the foreseeable future.
U.S.-based aid groups and some in Congress have expressed worries that Africom will tilt U.S policy in Africa away from democracy-building and economic development and toward security objectives such as stemming the growth of militant Islamist groups in Somalia and North Africa, some of which have ties to al Qaida.
U.S. covert operations in Somalia and elsewhere have fueled the controversy. In late 2006, the U.S. military provided intelligence to help Ethiopia topple a fundamentalist Islamic regime in Somalia, an invasion that's fueled a violent Islamist insurgency.
Never miss a local story.
U.S. forces have since launched several strikes on suspected terrorist targets in Somalia. While one of the strikes killed a top militant commander, Aden Hashi Ayro, in May, Somalis say the attacks also killed and badly wounded civilians.
Underlining the skepticism in Washington, the House of Representatives voted last week to provide $266 million to fund Africom's first year of operations — $123 million less than President Bush had requested. The House Appropriations Committee said the reduction was due partly to "the failure to establish an Africom presence on the continent."
The fledgling command's image problem, at home and abroad, is cause for concern because of Africa's growing importance to the United States.
The Department of Energy says that 17 percent of U.S. crude oil imports now come from Africa, more than the U.S. gets from Persian Gulf countries. But rising powers such as China have strengthened their ties with Africa and become a powerful counterweight to American influence.
Pentagon officials reject claims that Africom is about oil or China, but those perceptions remain strong in Africa.
"Obviously the U.S. is concerned about China's influence, security, oil, counterterrorism, hunting down al Qaida suspects," said Erin Weir of Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group that's opposed Africom. "Africans read the newspaper just the same as we do, and they know what drives U.S. interests now."
Witney Schneidman, who served as deputy assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the Clinton administration, said: "In many parts of Africa it is perceived as the U.S. bringing its war on terror to Africa. That is not what Africom is about, but that is how it has been seen."
While the public face of the U.S. military in Africa has been that of a benign partner, human rights activists say that the Bush administration's focus on terrorism has fueled suspicion of Africom.
"Anything to do with the U.S. military evokes some level of anxiety," said Hassan Omar, a member of the independent Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. "There is a strong feeling that America would overlook a crisis within a government or violations by certain governments if only they could secure more cooperation on matters of security."
After Bush announced the creation of Africom in February 2007, the Pentagon began issuing mixed messages about its mission, with some officials suggesting that the new command would help "coordinate" U.S. policy in the region. Experts immediately questioned whether U.S. troops would participate in humanitarian programs and other non-combat operations that have long been run by the State Department and U.S. embassies.
Pentagon officials have acknowledged mistakes in marketing Africom, and they no longer list humanitarian projects as part of its mission. Instead, they say that Africom will support other U.S. government agencies and focus on helping bolster African militaries.
"Africom will support, not shape, U.S. foreign policy on the continent," Teresa Whelan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, told a congressional hearing in July.
About 1,300 people, divided roughly evenly between civilian and military positions, are expected to staff the Germany headquarters, but no additional soldiers will be deployed in Africa yet. Instead, Africom will take charge of small U.S. military teams that are already on the continent training national militaries and maritime agencies, providing immunizations, drilling wells, rebuilding schools and conducting other projects.
Africom will assume control over the largest U.S. military base in the region, the 1,500-strong Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, housed at a former French Foreign Legion facility in the tiny eastern nation of Djibouti.
Despite the questions about its mission, experts say that Africom will raise Africa's profile in the Pentagon. Currently, three separate regional "combatant commands," which manage overseas U.S. military operations, share responsibility for Africa. The U.S. Central Command oversees seven countries in East Africa, Pacific Command has three Indian Ocean island nations and European Command handles 42 other African countries from Morocco to South Africa.
Now all the countries — except Egypt, which will continue to be grouped with Middle Eastern nations under the Central Command — will fall under Africom's jurisdiction. As with the other regional commands, Africom's commander, four-star Army Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward, reports to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
"One of the basic problems of U.S. engagement with Africa historically is there's been a lack of a long-term, sustained and steady commitment," said Abiodun Williams, a Sierra Leonean who's vice president of the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. "One of the positive things about Africom is this might finally be changing."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY: