US Africa Command praised for Libya

Lawmakers this week praised U.S. Africa Command for leading the opening days of the Libyan military campaign, an operation that was a major departure from the organization’s work on military training and economic development. 

During the opening days of the Libyan intervention, U.S. Africa Command coordinated the deployment of hundreds of bombs and cruise missiles on African soil.

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Commanding the most lethal days of the operation was a shift for an organization that spent more than two years explaining to African leaders that such “kinetic military operations” were not its main function.

Since AfriCom first arrived on the drawing board in fall 2007, U.S. officials have said — sometimes clumsily, according to experts — that the organization is meant to train African nations and build their capacities to maintain stability. 

“We seek to enhance regional stability through support to and partnership with African regional organizations,” Army Gen. Carter Ham, Africa Command chief, told two congressional panels this week. “The command is helping African states transform their militaries into operationally capable and professional institutions.

“Our planning and training are designed to prevent conflict,” Ham said, “while simultaneously ensuring that U.S. Africa Command is prepared to respond decisively to any crisis when the president so directs.”

Lawmakers and analysts gave it high marks for doing just that during the opening days of the Libya operation.

“This operation shows AfriCom is a competent military command,” said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The U.S. had a hard time persuading African leaders that the command was not for kinetic activities, and playing up its touchy-feely mission.

“Libya could have an impact with African leaders who are skeptical of what they see as anything resembling colonialism on the continent,” Downie added. 

AfriCom’s “relationship with African leaders was already very sensitive,” he said.

Africa Command formally became a fully functional organization in October 2008.

During hearings held Tuesday and Thursday by the House and Senate Armed Services committees, lawmakers gave the command high marks for the Libya campaign. 

Instead of raising concerns about how the military operation might alter its perception on the continent, many lawmakers suggested AfriCom should have remained in the lead. 

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), for instance, said the command’s performance in leading the most violent days of the Libya operations “shows the importance of AfriCom in promoting a stable Africa.”

The organization’s first commander, Army Gen. William “Kip” Ward, spent two years working closely with African leaders. But during his first few weeks on the job, Ham was charged with bombing the military of Moammar Gadhafi, a longtime African leader, as part of an operation aimed at protecting rebel forces.

Ham said Thursday he “wholeheartedly” believes Gadhafi should be forced to relinquish power.

On Tuesday, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) applauded Ham for the command’s performance during Libya. He also pointed to the unique functions of the command in working with indigenous militaries to promote stability, including AfriCom’s inclusion of personnel and officials from other U.S. federal entities.

“Without a robust interagency process in Africa, AfriCom’s efforts will never reap their true potential return,” Smith said.

With command of the Libya campaign now behind AfriCom leaders, a major task is a study ordered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates about the future of its headquarters.

When the Bush administration established the organization, it opted to base the command in Germany, bowing to concerns from African leaders’ about a permanent U.S. military organization on African soil.

Now Gates has set in motion a long-planned study on whether Germany is the best place for the headquarters. 

Ham told lawmakers this week that as he conducts that study, he will be open to all options — including locations in the continental United States. Such an arrangement would not be unprecedented. U.S. Central Command, for instance, is headquartered in Tampa, Fla.

And lawmakers already are jockeying to secure the headquarters, which would bring jobs and an economic boost to their states and districts.

During the House and Senate hearings, lawmakers pitched Charleston, S.C., and Atlanta.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said an internal Pentagon assessment had determined Charleston Air Force Base would be the most suitable home for the command. A Pentagon spokesman had yet to reply to an e-mail seeking confirmation.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) enthusiastically told Ham that Charleston would be a natural home for the still-young military organization.

Wilson ticked off a list of military-specific organizations and facilities in the coastal city that already directly support the command and continent.

He also said the Charleston area and many parts of Africa share similar topography and a "shared culture."

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) delivered a pitch for Atlanta, calling that city's Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport a major hub for global transportation. He also talked up what he views as Atlanta's virtues.

If Pentagon officials do not select Atlanta, Johnson said he would suggest "somewhere else in Georgia."

Downie said a range of issues, including future personnel and budgets levels, will be driven by the headquarters decision.

But it almost certainly will not be placed on African soil, Downie told The Hill, saying such an arrangement "would be toxic among Africans." 

Ham said the study has yet to be formally kick-started, but noted Gates wants it conducted from "a clean sheet of paper."