By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Feb. 23, 2011) -- Nearly four years since its inception, the United States African Command is a focal point for African nations who want to partner with and engage militarily with the United States.
"The nations of the continent of Africa want to engage with us -- they want to engage with America," said Gen. William E. Ward, commander, USAFRICOM. "And we will be their engagement partner of choice in most cases, if we have the capacity to meet all the demands that are there."
Ward, who was the first to take the helm of America's newest Unified Combatant Command -- and who will soon relinquish command there -- said partnerships in Africa include military exercises that are often joint in nature and serve dual purposes: to help build the military capability of partner nations and to build and strengthen relationships between U.S. and African partner-nation militaries.
"When it comes to what leads to long-term stability and what leads to how nations better understand one another, it's that right personal contact," Ward said. "The establishment of AFRICOM, along with our Army component, U.S. Army Africa, has been a vital factor in increasing the understandings that exist between our two peoples -- the peoples represented in the various nations in the continent of Africa and in the United States of America. It's about establishing relationships."
Some of that relationship building comes from combined and joint military exercises between the U.S. and partner nations in Africa, Ward said. Once such exercise, Natural Fire 11, took place in Uganda in 2009. That exercise, led by U.S. Army Africa, involved nearly 550 U.S. personnel and 650 soldiers from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. The exercise improved inter-operability and helped build African partner capacity to respond to complex humanitarian emergencies.
"Another exercise we're about to do this summer, in the Mediterranean, with Morroco -- is African Lion," Ward said. "Marines will provide the preponderance of the troops. But the Army, with its joint logistics over the shore piece, the JLOTS, is integrally involved in African Lion. Most of what we do, because of the environment, has a joint and combined flavor."
Also high on the list of building partnership capacity with the African nations: training via the International Military Education and Training program. The IMET program allows foreign military officers, including those of African nation militaries, to train in U.S. military learning institutions.
"IMET is probably the single most important thing we do to increase the capacity of our partner nations," Ward said. "That is our long-term dividend in our engagement."
Ward said initial misconceptions about the command have dissipated since his team started work on the continent. Initially, he said, there was a misconception that the creation of AFRICOM was an effort to militarize U.S. foreign policy in Africa.
"The opposite was seen," Ward said. "Everything we did was done through a lens of our foreign policy perspective. We weren't leading, we were in fact in line with our foreign policy, and supportive of it, in no uncertain terms."
Chief of Staff of the Army George W. Casey Jr. has often cited several trends that will affect the global security environment such as globalization, population growth, demand for resources such as energy, water and food; climate change and natural disasters. All are factors in play in Africa, Ward said.
"The climate, the effects of water and lack of water -- all those are challenges that are faced on the continent of Africa," Ward said.
The general said AFRICOM is working with both African and U.S. partners to address those issues. "All that we do every day is designed to get in front of some of those challenges," he said.
"The population of Africa is almost one billion people -- projected to double in the next 50 years," he said. "How do we contribute to an environment where that population is able to be educated (or) the health conditions are elevated because they have access to better water? We are doing things in communities that are supportive of all of those types of initiatives to help address these challenges that are there."
Growth has happened in Africa with the start of AFRICOM, Ward said. He sees it in the development of partner-nation militaries.
"I see our impact in what our partner militaries are doing ... so those are all things that cause me to feel a sense of accomplishment," Ward said. "But we know that more can be done ... we know we can continue to do more and that's what our African partners are asking for -- sustained security engagement as we work together as partners in helping to build stability."