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US forces in Europe will shift some of their focus to Africa

Terror peril leads motives for a plan

STUTTGART, Germany -- US military commanders in Europe have Africa on their minds.

Officials at the European Command say a major component of the restructuring in the armed forces includes a focus on Africa.

Part of the impetus is to counter a threat posed by emerging terrorist groups, particularly in North Africa. But that is only part of things, the officials say.

The blueprint for an Africa policy is in its early stages, but officials familiar with the planning say it involves a series of humanitarian problems, including AIDS, overpopulation, and migration, before they develop into major security threats for the United States and its European allies.

Officials say they are concerned about ungoverned areas descending into chaos with terrorists and warlords; an AIDS epidemic that could leave generations of children orphaned; and poverty and overpopulation causing massive migration to Europe.

"A continent-wide Somalia is what we are concerned about," a senior US military official in Europe said on condition of anonymity. "We want to make sure Africa becomes stable."

The policy is part of a focus on what commanders in Germany call "an arc of instability" ranging from the Caucasus through the Middle East to the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa.

The US European Command -- whose area of responsibility includes 93 countries and territories in Europe, Africa, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East -- was on the front lines during the Cold War and had primary control of Balkan missions in the 1990s.

But since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Central Command, based in Tampa, has occupied center stage and has taken the lead in planning the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, although the European Command has provided many of the troops for those campaigns.

The engagement in Africa, officials say, is part of the European Command's effort to refocus resources to fight the war on terrorism.

"With Europe being stable and secure, we are able to focus more of our attention on Africa," the senior military official said.

Among the initiatives the military is undertaking are helping Africa develop strong regional security organizations similar to NATO; training and equipping police, military officers, and border guards; and working with international organizations and humanitarian aid groups to combat AIDS and other health crises.

"We want to help provide a future that is positive, so young people will be less ready to join terrorist groups," the military official said.

One of the main terrorist groups the military is concerned about is the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which operates out of Algeria.

A radical offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group, which has been fighting the Algerian government for more than a decade, the Salafist Group has been on the US list of terrorist organizations since 2002. The group declared its allegiance to the Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, in October and also made headlines last year by kidnapping 32 European hostages in the Sahara Desert.

The US military is working closely with Algerian and other North African forces to help them combat the Salafist Group and other accused terrorist organizations. Military officials declined to provide details.

In addition, under a State Department-sponsored program involving training, cooperation, and equipment and called the Pan Sahel Initiative, the US military is helping the governments of Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania in detecting and stopping suspected militants, terrorists, criminals, and contraband.

The military has also reached agreements to use some sites in Africa, including airports at Gao, Mali, and Entebbe, Uganda, for stopovers and refueling. The sites could later be expanded to house troops while they are training.

Protecting Africa's oil supply, which will become increasingly important in the coming decade, is also considered a major US security interest, military officials say.

Officials are also working closely with the Economic Community of West African States to help it become a more efficient regional security organization.

"We want to work with the Africans on an African solution," the US military official said.

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