WASHINGTON – As Al Qaeda and other threats continue to grow on the continent, the Pentagon is creating a new command to handle security and military concerns in Africa, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday.
The Africa Command would take over duties split among three of the military's five geographic commands, the European Command, Central Command and Pacific Command. Establishment of an Africa Command is done under presidential authority but members of Congress have been consulted in recent weeks.
"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integrated approach than the current arrangement of dividing Africa between Central Command and European Command, an outdated arrangement left over from the Cold War," Gates said, speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee during a budget hearing. President Bush has already signed off on the move.
The command would "oversee security, cooperation, building partnership capability, defense support to nonmilitary missions, and if directed, military operations on the African continent," Gates said.
"This new command will strengthen our security cooperation with Africa and create new opportunities to bolster the capabilities of our partners in Africa," said White House press secretary Tony Snow, reading from a statement during his afternoon briefing. "Africa Command will enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and to promote or common goals of development, health, education, democracy and economic growth in Africa."
Snow said officials will be consulting with African leaders on how U.S. military can address security issues there as well as where command headquarters will be. The president asked Gates to stand up the command by the end of the 2008 fiscal year or September next year.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., gave his support for the plan during an exchange with Gates Tuesday.
"I've been complaining about it for about 10 years," he said. "That's very, very good news."
Defense officials had been discussing the idea of a new position in the Pentagon because of growing concern about Africa's significance in the War on Terror, especially in the Horn of Africa, which includes Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. The countries lie across the Gulf of Aden from the Saudi Arabian Peninsula and are home to increasing religious and military tensions.
A new command would give the U.S. military a distinct organization to counter potential threats and plan military action on the continent.
Somalia has been a military concern for the United States that dates back to 1992 when troops were sent there to pacify the country following the government collapse and rise of feuding warlords. U.S. forces were still in Somalia when President Clinton took office in 1993, but after 18 soldiers were killed in the October 1993 battle documented in the book, "Black Hawk Down," Clinton withdrew U.S. troops and the country remained largely ignored until after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
After Sept. 11, Centcom worked in the Horn of Africa to try to deter terrorists from establishing control there, and since then, the United States has assisted with humanitarian missions. But the United States also has recently executed air strikes in the Somalia targeting suspected Al Qaeda hideouts.
Somalia has been governed by a weak, regionally-enacted government that was able only in January to claim control of the capital, Mogadishu, with the aid of Ethiopian forces. Until then much of the country had been under control of the Council of Islamic Courts militia, which U.S. officials believe was harboring Al Qaeda operatives, and the central government operated outside the capital city.
Additionally, the Darfur region of Sudan has has been the site of an ongoing civil war in which it is estimated more than 400,000 have been killed.
Bush mentioned Darfur in his State of the Union address this year, saying, "We will continue to speak out for the cause of freedom in places like Cuba, Belarus and Burma, and continue to awaken the conscience of the world to save the people of Darfur."
Answering reporters' questions Tuesday, Snow said "Darfur continues to be a matter of concern."
"We have a lot of commitments and interests in Africa, Darfur clearly being one of them. But we also continue to work with the African Union to try to work to get forces in to stop the genocide in Darfur," he said.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a Defense Department spokesman, said the moves represent a growing African role in U.S. affairs.
"This is kind of a realization that in the year 2007 ... that Africa plays a much more significant role to America than probably the average American realizes. A stable and secure Africa in the end benefits America," Carpenter said.
He said U.S. forces currently in Africa help national forces in a wide variety of ways, including more traditional training and border enforcement, but also in some less-known areas like fishing-water rights and HIV/AIDS prevention among military forces.
Carpenter said the changes likely will not result in any noticeable alterations in troop levels. The bulk of current military forces in Africa now — about 1,700 personnel — are stationed in Djibouti, which borders Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. He said fewer than 3,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in Africa overall.
Carpenter said the headquarters will house mainly officers and administrators, from generals to lawyers to accountants. It is not clear how many would be stationed in the yet-to-be-determined headquarters, but it likely would be fewer than 1,000, he said. About $50 million in the current fiscal year budget is earmarked for the plan, but it was not immediately clear how much had been allocated in the fiscal year 2008 budget plan released by the White House on Monday.
Operations in North Africa had been handled by the European Command, and were aimed at military training and humanitarian efforts.
Officials say that Chinese efforts to exert its military influence in Africa have drawn the interest of U.S. military planners.
Currently, all active duty personnel fall into nine combatant commands, including five geographic commands. The Africa Command would make the sixth geographic command and follow the most recently-established command, Northern Command, which was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
FOX News' Mike Emanuel, Nick Simeone and Greg Simmons and The Associated Press contributed to this report.