Gates gave few details during his appearance before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, except to say that it was time that the United States created a separate military command focused on an increasingly important region of the world.
"This command will enable us to have a more effective and integrated approach than the current arrangement of dividing Africa between Central Command and European Command," he told senators. Gates called the current system an "outdated" arrangement from the Cold War.
"We've been working right now across our government to be able to help build [a] partnership capacity, to be able to build capabilities within Africa," Pentagon official Ryan Henry said.
Until now, responsibility for Africa has been shared by three U.S. commands: the Central Command, which covers the region stretching from Egypt south to the Horn of Africa; the European Command, which covers the rest of the continent; and the Pacific Command, which covers the Indian Ocean, including Madagascar.
A Unified Structure
The African Command will now cover the entire continent, including islands, but not Egypt, which will remain covered by the Central Command as part of the Middle East.
Admiral William Fallon, who is expected to take responsibility for the Central Command, was approved for the position on February 6 by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Confirmation by the full Senate is expected.
On January 30, Fallon told Congress he approves of the establishment of the African Command, given the continent's increasing importance and the instability in some areas.
At a Pentagon briefing on February 7, a more detailed view was offered by Ryan Henry, the Defense Department's principal deputy undersecretary for defense policy. Henry said the Bush administration believes it's time for the United States to give Africa the attention it deserves.
"This command, then, will focus on some efforts to reduce conflict, to improve the security environment, to defeat or preclude the development of terrorist networks, and then support in crisis response, whether they be humanitarian or disaster response," Henry said. "We want to help develop a stable environment in which a civil society can be built and that the quality of life for the citizenry can be improved."
Henry said the command is being set up now because of Africa's growing geopolitical significance. He said it represents about 35 percent of the world's landmass, about 25 percent of the world's population -- and that its population is growing as fast as anywhere else.
He also pointed to the continent's wealth of natural resources. Those resources include oil; Nigeria has one of the world's largest reserves of petroleum.
Primarily, however, Henry said, African nations see themselves from what he called "a continental perspective, seeing themselves collectively as Africa. Therefore, he said, it's important for the United States to look at these nations collectively as well.
Support For U.S. Initiatives
Henry said the Africa Command mostly will help coordinate civilian efforts in the region, but will be available to help cope with crises and natural disasters.
"The command itself will act as an entity to integrate the Department of Defense's support to activities that the rest of the U.S. government is doing over there," Henry said. "So we will -- the command will lead in the department's support effort to those things. And then we will assist in the diplomacy and development efforts that are going on in the continent. And should activities come that are [of] a military nature, then the command will lead in those."
One reporter asked how much emphasis was being put on terrorism in Africa. Henry noted that Africa poses challenges as well as potential. Muslim militants in the Horn of Africa and East Africa have been a concern of the United States for the past decade.
In 1998, suspected Al-Qaeda operatives bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people, and Washington responded with a missile strike in Somalia. A year later, militants attacked the U.S. warship "USS Cole" in the harbor of Aden, Yemen, just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. That attack killed 17 U.S. sailors.
Last month, U.S. aircraft attacked suspected Al-Qaeda militants trying to flee Somalia after forces from neighboring Ethiopia invaded in support of Somalia's interim government, which is recognized by the United Nations.
At the February 7 briefing, Henry was asked how Africans can expect to benefit from the establishment of the new U.S. command. Henry said the U.S. military, as well as civilian officials, can bring them plenty of help.
"We've been working right now across our government to be able to help build [a] partnership capacity, to be able to build capabilities within Africa," he said. "This [new command] enables it to be done even better."
Henry said the United States intends to regard all 53 nations in Africa as what he called "key players on the global scene." And he said the new Africa Command hopes to help them become even more important throughout the 21st century.