Taking the War on Terror to Africa

America is quietly expanding its fight against terror on the African front. Two years ago the United States set up the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership with nine countries in central and western Africa. There is no permanent presence, but the hope is to generate support and suppress radicalism by both sharing U.S. weapons and tactics with friendly regimes and winning friends through a vast humanitarian program assembled by USAID, including well building and vocational training. In places like Chad, American Special Forces train and arm police or border guards using what it calls a "holistic approach to counterterrorism." Sgt. Chris Rourke, a U.S. Army reservist in a 12-man American Civil Affairs unit living in Dire Dawa, in eastern Ethiopia, says it comes down to this: "It's the Peace Corps with a weapon."

Sometime in the coming months, after a vetting process to find a good partner country, the United States plans to establish a new headquarters in Africa to spearhead this armed battle for hearts, minds and the capture of terror suspects. The Pentagon says Africom—the first new U.S. strategic command established since 2002—will integrate existing diplomatic, economic and humanitarian programs into a single strategic vision for Africa, bring more attention to long-ignored American intelligence-gathering and energy concerns on the continent, and elevate African interests to the same level of importance as those of Asia and the Middle East. Africom joins 10 other commands, including CENTCOM in Florida, the now famous nerve center for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not surprisingly, the establishment of a major American base in Africa is inspiring new criticism from European and African critics of U.S. imperial overreach.

The Pentagon says Africom will bring its hearts-and-minds campaign closer to the people; critics say it represents the militarization of U.S. Africa policy. Already, the United States has identified the Sahel, a region stretching west from Eritrea across the broadest part of Africa, as the next critical zone in the War on Terror and started working with repressive governments in Chad and Algeria, among others, to further American interests there. Worried U.S. allies argue that Africom will only strengthen America's ties with unsavory regimes—including the Ethiopians, who have become U.S. proxies in an expanding civil war in Somalia—by prioritizing counterterror over development and diplomacy.

Among the nations most often mentioned as candidates to host the Africom headquarters: Ghana, Liberia, Tanzania and Ethiopia, which now has one of the worst human-rights records in Africa. "If you have soldiers hugging trees and painting hospitals at the same time as they're killing people, the perception of the local populations is going to be altered significantly," says one European official, who spoke to NEWSWEEK on the condition that his identity be kept secret.

In fact, the U.S. military footprint in Africa has been expanding significantly in recent years. The armed forces didn't have a permanent troop presence anywhere on the continent in 2001. Two years later, nearly 1,800 military and civilian members of a combined task force were operating out of Camp Lemonier in Djibouti. Today, they are responsible for a swath of 10 countries in East Africa. And now they're looking farther afield. Civil Affairs teams from Djibouti are negotiating entrance into Sudan, NEWSWEEK has learned.

Africom would take these piecemeal efforts and expand them substantially. The outlines are already visible. In Dire Dawa, a dozen American reservists and Army National Guardsmen on a yearlong tour live together in a four-story house that serves as both base and home. Each morning they raise two flags: Ethiopian and American. With a $1 million budget they hope to build enough schools and wells and bridges to wrestle key local leaders, clan elders and unemployed youth over to their vision of Ethiopia's future. Africom, with its cadre of officer corps and civilian expertise, could then integrate those smaller efforts with larger strategic objectives across the continent, sharing intelligence and speeding up communications. Amazingly, China now has more embassies and consulates—and thus more listening posts—in Africa than the United States.

But it's halting and frustrating work. In the town of Hurso, most residents don't have access to drinking water, so the team spent $98,000 and built a well on a site picked by a Washington-based hydrologist. (The well failed; the team is negotiating another contract.) Nearby, in Melekajebdu, it's building a 19-classroom school, but construction has stalled because no one can figure out how to wire the $463,000 cost electronically to Ethiopia. In Wahil, a largely Muslim village, a donated computer covered with stickers that say FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE sits unused in a clinic because the generator is too weak. "This all falls under the global War on Terror," says the group's leader, Lt. Col. Joseph Gamble, 57, a U.S. Army reservist.

Some analysts argue that Africom may strengthen America's image by overseeing more patronage from a central location. It will not only coordinate counterterror and aid work, it will centralize the control of U.S. military operations in Africa, which are now handled by three separate commands: Europe, Central and Pacific. "Africa should welcome that," says Robert Rotberg, an Africa specialist at Harvard. "Africom could mean more training, more peacemaking, more conflict resolution alongside African armies."

The problem is that, increasingly, African leaders appear not to want Africom. They see it as the next phase of the War on Terror—a way to pursue jihadists inside Africa's weak or failed states, which many U.S. officials have described as breeding grounds for terror. They worry that the flow of arms will overwhelm the flow of aid, and that U.S. counterterrorism will further destabilize a region already prone to civil wars. Two weeks ago South Africa's Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota called for a continental ban on Africom and said 14 nations of southern Africa—including South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania—would reject the presence of "foreign forces." Senior South African officials have refused to meet with Gen. William (Kip) Ward, whom President George W. Bush recently named as the eventual head of Africom. "I can imagine that countries are very nervous about what Africom means," Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of State for African affairs, conceded to NEWSWEEK.

Perhaps the biggest source of concern is the recent U.S. track record in the Horn of Africa, where Washington has been pursuing an increasingly militarized policy for more than a year with disastrous results. Twice in the past year, the United States has intervened in Somalia—first by supporting local warlords, then by backing an Ethiopian invasion—to undermine the regime of the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which Washington accuses of maintaining links with Al Qaeda. Fighting has raged across Mogadishu ever since, killing hundreds of innocent civilians and forcing some 400,000 from their homes, without decisively toppling the Islamists. U.S. and European attempts to create a government of national unity have failed spectacularly.

Now the conflict is spreading west to Ethiopia—where tensions between ethnic Somalis and Ethiopians are at a high—and north to Eritrea, which the United States accuses of harboring Qaeda operatives with ties to the ICU. The Bush administration is now on the verge of labeling Eritrea, once a U.S. ally, a state sponsor of terror. None of this helps Washington sell the idea that Africom will be a force for peace. "We have done a horrible job in getting our message out in the War on Terror," says one senior U.S. official in Ethiopia, who provided comment on the condition that his name not be used. "We've ceded the battlefield to these extremist elements."

One of the mistakes Washington has made—a mistake the creation of Africom might compound—has been to rely so heavily on Ethiopia. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who just 10 years ago President Bill Clinton hailed as one of a "new generation of African leaders," now has one of the worst human-rights records in Africa. Secret police repress opposition members while the Meles government intimidates international aid organizations, kicking the medical charity Doctors Without Borders out of Ethiopia's conflicted eastern border region last week.

Similar concerns elsewhere may make it harder for Africom to find a permanent base. But there will probably always be takers. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has offered her country as a possible location. And Frazer maintains that she's "positive" Africom will find a home on the continent somewhere. But with so much hostility, it may never feel entirely welcome.