(CNSNews.com) - The role of President Bush's Defense Unified Combat Command for Africa - AFRICOM, established in October 2007 - which includes conducting military operations in that country, was debated by a panel of experts Monday at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
The experts, including Charles Minor III, an ambassador from Liberia, downplayed the combatant aspect of the command and agreed that the initiative would help strengthen U.S.-African relations.
But an expert from the libertarian Cato Institute told Cybercast New Service that AFRICOM has faced stiff opposition throughout Africa, adding that there is conflict in the U.S. government over what kind of role military operations would play in the program.
AFRICOM was announced by President Bush on Feb. 6, 2007, as a sub-command of the European Command (EURCOM) and officially established in October.
According to the Pentagon AFRICOM will establish America's sixth independent operations headquarters, allow closer oversight of U.S. activity in Africa, and allow the U.S. to bolster African security, enhance strategic cooperation, build partnerships, and support non-military missions and conduct.
Edwin Sele, deputy chief of mission for Liberia, said that country is the only one to have fully welcomed AFRICOM so far - that the government and people support the program. "Among the population there has been no problem," Sele told Cybercast News Service.
"Once the issue of AFRICOM has been properly explained and people know it's not about military bases, the citizens support it. It is about working together to build infrastructure and cooperation for security and there is no problem. We have worked with the United States and will always continue to work with the United States," Sele added.
But Marian L. Tupy, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, told Cybercast News Service that since the announcement of the program there has been widespread resistance in Africa based on a suspicion of U.S. ambition to control the continent.
"Africans see AFRICOM as part of a much more aggressive American posture," said Tupy. "They are worried this may just be a first step towards the establishment of a permanent U.S. presence on the continent.
"The general response has been relatively negative throughout the African continent, and that has primarily to do with the persisting African nationalism in terms of the way they see Western interference in Africa as negative," Tupy added.
"Africans see AFRICOM as part of this neo-conservative idea of spreading U.S. military presence around the world," said Tupy. "Helping Africa in terms of humanitarian relief has been suggested as one of AFRICOM's goals, but many African countries see that as a smokescreen. They do not believe that will really be the purpose."
Louis Mazel, director of the Office of African Regional and Security Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, told Cybercast News Service, however, that fears of AFRICOM spreading military power are ungrounded.
"I can tell you there are no plans for U.S. bases in Africa," he said. "Eventually there may be some type of office presence, but the focus of AFRICOM is to look at better ways of engaging a partnership with Africa."
According to the Department of Defense (DOD) Web site, current plans for AFRICOM's presence in Africa are limited to "administrative offices." However, the DOD Web site also emphasizes awareness of "the emerging strategic importance of Africa."
Tupy said the extent that military operations will play in AFRICOM is a point of conflict within the U.S government.
"There is a conflicting vision between the State Department and the Pentagon," he said. "The State Department is looking at AFRICOM to solve humanitarian crises on the continent. That's how the State Department is trying to sell it to Africa, but the Pentagon looks at it differently: They are looking at hard military objectives."
The State Department Web site statement on AFRICOM emphasizes the support America hopes to provide for maintaining a stable Africa.
It reads, in part: "The U.S. military's new command center for Africa, Africa Command (AFRICOM), will play a supportive role as Africans continue to build democratic institutions and establish good governance across the continent. AFRICOM'S foremost mission is to help Africans achieve their own security, and to support African leadership efforts."
Sele agreed that the extent of military operations involved in AFRICOM must still be decided. "The two countries must discuss it," he said at the panel, which included other experts from the Defense Department, State Department, and the American Enterprise Institute.
"People are very sensitive when talking about a combatant command going to Africa, but Liberians feels that Liberia can work with the U.S. in the area of security and that African nations will benefit from that," said Sele. "There is a history of cooperation and there really shouldn't be a problem."
Tupy noted that Sele and the Liberians have strong domestic incentives to welcome a U.S. military presence.
"Liberia has a history of internal instability," said Tupey. "Perhaps Liberian leaders believe that an American military presence will help them to maintain power."
Make media inquiries or request an interview about this article.
Subscribe to the free CNSNews.com daily E-Brief.
E-mail a comment or news tip to Josiah Ryan
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.