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Pentagon to train a sharper eye on Africa

Strife, oil, and Al Qaeda are leading the US to create a new Africa Command.

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Africa, long beset by war, famine, disease, and ethnic tensions, has generally taken a backseat in Pentagon planning – but US officials say that is about to change.

One of Donald Rumsfeld's last acts before Robert Gates replaced him last month as Defense secretary was to urge President Bush to let the Pentagon create a new Africa Command to pay more attention to the troubled continent. Mr. Bush is said to have agreed to the idea and is expected announce it early this year.

The creation of the new command will be more than an exercise in shuffling bureaucratic boxes, experts say. The US government's motives include countering Al Qaeda's known presence in Africa, safeguarding future oil supplies, and competing with China, which has been courting African governments in its own quest for petroleum, they suggest.

The expected new command "speaks to the fact that Africa now matters to the US government as it never has in the past," says Melvin Foote, chief executive officer of Constituency for Africa, a nonprofit group devoted to strengthening US relations with African governments.

The idea of an Africa Command has been discussed for years, but Mr. Foote says it has taken on new urgency in light of recent events.

•Islamists took over Somalia last June and ruled until this week, when Ethiopian troops drove them out of power.

•China hosted a conference of African presidents in Beijing last year – and made about $5 billion in deals to build infrastructure in Africa for oil.

A source of oil

The US gets about 10 percent of its oil from Africa, notes Foote. Some experts say it may need to rely on the continent for as much as 25 percent by 2010. "With all the instability in the Middle East, there's some thought that we had better build partnerships in Africa," he says.

A senior Pentagon official, who requested anonymity because announcing the decision is the president's prerogative, said current events have less to do with the move than does Africa's instability. "Africa's a place with a lot of crises," this official says. Bush is "on record saying he doesn't want another genocide on his watch. This is a way of ensuring that there's a military command, a four-star, paying attention."

Currently, responsibility for Africa is divided among three of the Pentagon's five regional "unified commands," each headed by a four-star general or admiral who reports to the president.

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