Simon Tisdall in Washington, Guardian Unlimited, June 25, 2007
The Pentagon's plans to create a new US military command based in Africa have hit a wall of hostility from governments in the region reluctant to associate themselves publicly with the US "global war on terror".
A US delegation led by Ryan Henry, the principal deputy undersecretary of defence for policy, returned to Washington last week with little to show from separate consultations with senior defence and foreign ministry officials in Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Djibouti and with the African Union (AU).
An earlier round of consultations with sub-Saharan countries on providing secure facilities and local backup for the new command, to be known as Africom and due to be operational by September next year, was similarly inconclusive.
The Libyan and Algerian governments reportedly told Mr Henry this month that they would play no part in hosting Africom. Despite recently improved relations with the US, both said they would urge their neighbours not to do so, either, due to fears of future American intervention. Even Morocco, considered Washington's closest north African ally, indicated it did not welcome a permanent military presence on its soil.
"We've got a big image problem down there," a state department official admitted. "Public opinion is really against getting into bed with the US. They just don't trust the US."
Another African worry was that any US facilities could become targets for terrorists, the official said. Dangled US economic incentives, including the prospect of hundreds of local jobs, had not proven persuasive.
Mr Henry said African officials had agreed during the talks that counter-terrorism was "a top security concern". But he added: "The countries were committed to the African Union as the continent's common security structure. They advised us that Africom should be established in harmony with the AU."
The US talks with Libya appear to have been frank. "In the area of security, they are looking for Africa-only solutions... I wouldn't say we see eye to eye on every issue," Mr Henry said. "I wouldn't say we see eye to eye on every issue."
Mr Henry emphasised the US was not seeking to supplant or supersede African leadership but rather to reinforce it. He said the creation of Africom would not entail the permanent stationing of large numbers of US troops in Africa, as in Asia and Europe.
Its overall aim was to integrate and expand US security, diplomatic, developmental and humanitarian assistance in collaboration with regional allies, not increased interventionism, he said.
Unveiling the plan in February, president George Bush said Africom would advance "our common goals of peace, security, development, health, education, democracy and economic growth".
But African opposition appears to have modified Washington's approach. Mr Henry said the latest plans envisaged "a distributed command" that would be "networked" across several countries, rather than a single, large headquarters in one place.
"There will be a staff headquarters... with a four-star in-theatre commander," he said. "(But) information technology allows us to bring people at dispersed geographical locations together. We are investigating the possibility of having the command distributed in a number of different nodes around the continent."
Mr Henry said this approach matched that of Islamist terrorists. "Al-Qaida is working in a distributive structure itself. It's establishing nodes throughout the region and there's been an establishment of al-Qaida in the Maghreb."
The state department official said the US remained confident that partners for the Africom project would eventually be found, although concerns persisted about political stability, misgovernance and corruption issues in some potential sub-Saharan partner countries.
The official added that the command's security focus would include suspected terrorist training camps in Mali and southern Algeria, the spread of Islamic fundamentalist ideas and violence in the Maghreb, northern Nigeria and the Horn of Africa, suspected uranium smuggling in the Sahel region - and addressing the political instability and economic deprivation that fed extremism.
Energy supply is another factor sparking heightened US interest, notably in west Africa. Gulf of Guinea countries including Nigeria and Angola are projected to provide a quarter of US oil imports within a decade.
US aid and development projects in Africa are expanding rapidly. Mr Bush asked Congress this month to double to $30bn (£15bn) over the next five years US funding for Aids relief, plus $1.2bn to fight malaria. Washington has also broadened its involvement in efforts to end the Darfur crisis. Laura Bush, the First Lady, embarked on a five-day consciousness-raising tour today, to Senegal, Mozambique, Zambia and Mali.