WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has dispatched elite Army training teams to Africa in recent months in an effort to establish a low-cost U.S. military presence in a region rife with political and economic instability, terrorism and guerrilla warfare.
The increase in U.S. military activities has occurred over the past 20 months, ever since the Army Special Operations Command officially reactivated the 3rd Special Forces Group -- a Vietnam War-era Green Beret unit -- for extensive security assignments in Africa and, to a lesser extent, in the Caribbean.
The 3rd Group is commanded by Col. Peter Stankovich, a highly decorated officer with considerable counterinsurgency experience in Vietnam and Latin America.
The expansion of U.S. military activities clearly coincides with the Pentagon's increasing focus on potential conflict in the Third World, especially with the demise of the Soviet Union. It is also the latest sign of the unprecedented peacetime buildup of special operations forces, which began in 1981 and has received exceptionally strong congressional backing.
Most recently, small special forces detachments have flown to Zimbabwe, Namibia, Niger and the Ivory Coast to train local armies or help improve local health-care and economic conditions, said Gen. Carl W. Stiner, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
About 50 Green Berets have been conducting counterinsurgency and weapons training in Senegal since November while assisting Senegalese troops in their withdrawal from strife-torn Liberia, other military officials said.
For two weeks in January, about 200 U.S. airborne troops from Vicenza, Italy, staged "Operation Silver Eagle" in Botswana, one of the largest U.S. exercises ever in sub-Saharan Africa, according to U.S. and foreign officials. The combined forces staged mock battles, parachute drops and maneuvers to defend strategic areas near the capital of Gaborone.
General Stiner disclosed a few of the African missions at a little-noticed session of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month. He described them as "relatively low-visibility, non-intrusive assets -- thus they are often more acceptable to host nations than conventional forces."
The "units project a positive impression of U.S. forces as a whole and may provide the basis for expanded military contacts in the future," the four-star general said. For now, these units offer "an effective means of providing a low-cost forward presence," he said.
Several U.S. officials said the missions are part of an overall strategy to promote "stability" in the region by strengthening the internal defenses" of some of the least-developed countries of the world. At the same time, U.S. forces have been getting needed exposure to local terrain, culture and language, they said.
Outside analysts have raised the possibility that the United States might get caught in regional violence that flares as democratic reforms clash with authoritarian regimes in Africa, where radical changes have been under way in the past several years. There also have been suggestions that the Bush administration might be seeking to prevent the emergence of a regional power that could threaten stability on the continent.
In Africa, U.S. strategy used to be based mainly on the recognition of a power rivalry with the Soviet Union and a desire to check its expansionism while promoting American good will. Because the United States has had less dependence on African mineral and oil resources, and less trade with Africa than European countries, there has been little reason to design a military policy to safeguard economic interests there.
But now, many parts of sub-Saharan Africa have been turning to democracy, and one-party governments -- some of them repressive and often corrupt -- are finding themselves under increasing pressure to change. Adding to possible instability are "awesome challenges from decades of misrule, economic disorder and the mounting demographic crisis of AIDS," CIA Director Robert M. Gates said last week.
Although the Green Beret missions have been undertaken at the request of African governments, they generally are being initiated by an "awareness campaign" that the United States has been conducting through diplomatic channels for more than a year to drum up business, a knowledgeable military official said. Asked about future missions, this official replied, "We're looking for opportunities."
This past week, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a rare visit to Senegal, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, mainly as a goodwill gesture but also for informal talks on regional issues and U.S. security assistance, officials said.
The capacity for security assistance will be enhanced in October, when the 3rd Special Forces Group is expected to more than triple its original size. It will grow to an authorized strength of 1,370 troops from an initial battalion of 386 seasoned troops. The unit's current authorized strength is 990.
But many defense analysts assert that the United States has few tangible interests at stake in sub-Saharan Africa, none of which is seriously threatened by the military dictatorships there. They also warn that more deployments, even for benign purposes like providing health care, could provoke attacks on U.S. forces.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, "the Pentagon is carving out new roles and seizing upon everything it can to justify its existence," said David Isenberg of the Center for Defense Information, a research group critical of current military priorities. "God knows what they'll accomplish in Africa."
A draft Pentagon planning document that will be used to guide decisions on future military budgets and strategy makes explicit reference to sub-Saharan Africa as one of many regions "critical to the security of the U.S. and its allies." The document, whose contents were disclosed by the New York Times last week, said that in this and other regions of the world, "the U.S. will be concerned with preventing the domination of key regions by a hostile power."
One administration official, who insisted on anonymity, said the U.S. presence will remain overshadowed by France, a former colonial power with more than a dozen defense treaties in the region and troops stationed in Senegal, Djibouti, Chad, Gabon, the Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic.
"France is really the biggest outside presence," the official said. "They're clearly the big player; it's usually ours [military aid and troops] supplementing theirs."
Asked if U.S. officials viewed France as a rival power in Africa, he said: "Before the disappearence of the Eastern bloc, our policies and theirs were 90 percent compatible. Anyone opposed to the Soviets [in Africa] was OK with us. Now that the Cold War is over, we have to ask is that still true? Or was it ever true?
"I'd have to say that's still valid, unless France shows us otherwise."
But French officials say they have cooperated closely with the United States and see the U.S. military role as minor, vastly outweighed by French prepositioned and contingency forces and its command and control support in its former African colonies. With no markets in contention and no military threat to the West in much of the region, "from a political point of view there is room for everyone," a French official said.
Some U.S. analysts suggested that the higher military profile might be linked to broader U.S. policy goals that are still evolving, such as containing Islamic fundamentalism or Libyan influence in north Africa, or seeking a new regional balance of power.
Or, as Carol Lancaster, an Africa specialist at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, put it: "It sounds like the .. Pentagon doesn't know what to do with its money."
'Foreign internal defense'
Colonel Stankovich, commander of the 3rd Group, emphasized the "nation-building" role of his troops in an interview when he took charge of the unit. "We have a combat role, to be sure, but the focus really isn't there for a combat role," he said.
"Our focus is foreign internal defense -- the kind of thing that strengthens a country so it can withstand the pressures from within as well as without," he said.
The colonel added: "We won the Cold War, so we've got to go out and promote democracy."
Colonel Stankovich is a veteran of some of the most controversial U.S. special forces operations in the past 25 years. In Vietnam, he was a district adviser and intelligence officer for the Phoenix program, which was designed by the CIA to "neutralize" -- by capturing or killing -- more than 48,000 members of the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.
A former battalion commander of the 7th Special Forces Group, which operates in Latin America, Colonel Stankovich led 10 missions to train foreign soldiers in the region, including one as an adviser to the Salvadoran Joint Task Force, which implemented El Salvador's first "counterinsurgency national campaign plan," an Army biography states.
Members of the 3rd Group completed a mission to Sierra Leone two months ago and are now in Niger and Senegal, said Maj. Craig D. Barta, a unit spokesman. With some exceptions, no more than a dozen soldiers are dispatched on each mission, he said.
Within six months, the unit is expected to join an Air Force special forces squadron for a joint training exercise in Botswana, another military official said.
"We have slews of things going on in Botswana, Sierra Leone, Senegal," this official said about future deployments.
General Stiner said the African missions generally are focusing on teaching "counterpoaching skills, basic soldier training and small unit tactics," communications, medical skills and food- and water-distribution methods.
Although the military does not have separate cost estimates for operations in sub-Saharan Africa, much of the training activity is underwritten by the International Military Education and Training Program, a key element of U.S. security assistance. Although very little is spent annually in this region -- President Bush has asked for $8.98 million for 1993, for example -- specific funding levels for some countries, such as Senegal and Botswana, are increasing.
Now is the time, U.S. officials reasoned, to pay more attention to the long-term stability in underdeveloped regions of sub-Saharan Africa, which has been stalked by worsening hunger, disease, debt and civil strife. In this vast territory, almost half of the more than 40 black African nations are governed, in one form or another, by their armies.
"Tribal wars and instability do not bode well for us," said a State Department official with expertise in military affairs, who asked to remain anonymous. "They are destabilizing, and with a large human population, that creates vast problems with refugees and starvation.
"You want to have a standing military unit that can respond to a variety of crises, from earthquakes to combat to protecting U.S. citizens. They can field training teams when necessary, but their mission is to deal with contingencies and act unilaterally in our own behalf.
"Africa's a huge piece of land that we, as a world power, must fly around, sail around, traverse. It's not as strategically important as Japan, NATO, Europe -- but it's there."
U.S. Army Green Berets at a glance:
* There are now five active-duty special forces groups: the 1st Group for missions in the Pacific; the 3rd Group geared to Africa and the Caribbean; the 5th Group focused on the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia; the 7th Group focused on Latin America; the 10th Group for Europe and the Mediterranean. Current personnel strength exceeds 6,400.
* Each group is organized into 12-member "A-Teams," consisting of a captain, warrant officer and 10 sergeants. Each team includes two experts in operations and intelligence, two weapons experts, two radiomen, two experts in demolition and engineering, and two medics. All are trained airborne commandos.
* Principal missions are unconventional warfare, direct action, counterterrorism, foreign internal defense and counterinsurgency.
* Personnel represent the top 2 percent of commissioned and non-commissioned officers who pass rigorous qualification tests. Training takes as long as 44 weeks. The average Green Beret is in his late 20s with more than seven years of military service, is college educated, is married and is gaining proficiency in at least one foreign language. Women are barred from serving in special forces, which is considered a combat assignment.
* The green beret was adopted as official headgear on Sept. 21, 1961, the same day that President John F. Kennedy began activating the first of four new special forces groups.
* Motto is "De Oppresso Liber," meaning "To Free From Oppression."
Source: U.S. Army Special Operations Command