WASHINGTON -- The Bush administation's effort to increase U.S. military training activities in Africa is causing alarm on Capitol Hill, with some lawmakers warning that the expanded presence of U.S. troops may generate more instability in an already troubled region.
Only yesterday, the president of Sierra Leone, one of the countries where the United States has been engaged in a military supply program, was apparently toppled in a coup by disgruntled mid-level military officers, according to Pentagon officials.
Although the U.S. military has described its training exercises with African armies as attempts at "nation-building," lawmakers assert that the Pentagon is scrambling for new ways to justify itself now that the Cold War is over.
"The administration persists in offering military solutions to what are essentially political and free-market problems" in Africa, said Sen. Alan Cranston, a California Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "They will, in the end, create situations that are worse than those that already exist.
"The Pentagon should not be allowed to drum up business around the globe in fights that are not ours, in regions crying out for U.S. help -- but not of a military nature," he said.
Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat who heads the Senate ForeignRelations Subcommittee on Africa, has asked State Department and Pentagon officials to explain at a hearing next Thursday why U.S. military activities have been increasing across the continent.
The Sun disclosed in March that the Bush administration has been dispatching elite Army training teams to sub-Saharan Africa in an effort to establish a modest, low-cost U.S. military presence there. This effort may be linked to broader, post-Cold War policy goals that are still evolving, such as containing Islamic fundamentalism in North Africa, or seeking a new regional balance ofpower, outside analysts say.
In recent months, small special-forces detachments have flown to Zimbabwe, Namibia, Niger and the Ivory Coast to train local armies or to help improve local economic conditions and health care.
There also was a visit to Cameroon, repeated trips to Sierra Leone -- where army officers reportedly overthrew President Joseph Momoh yesterday -- and a continuing mission in Senegal. U.S. trainers are teaching Senegalese troops to use M-16 rifles, 81mm mortars, radios and other equipment that President Bush is providing for a regional peacekeeping effort in war-torn Liberia.
"The Senegalese have never used M-16s before," explained an official at the Pentagon.
Other recent activities include last January's "Operation Silver Eagle" in Botswana, where about 200 conventional U.S. Army troops from Vicenza, Italy, and the Botswana Defense Force staged mock battles, parachute drops and maneuvers to defend strategic areas near the capital of Gaborone. Another exercise, involving U.S. special-forces personnel, is being planned for this summer by the U.S. European Command, which is responsible for African operations.
Even the National Guard is heading to sub-Saharan Africa, although units are limited to non-combat training and to no more than four exercises a year, military officials said yesterday. The first mission occurred in Senegal last November, involving engineering and medical units from Missouri and Illinois. Two weeks ago, engineers from the Utah Army National Guard and medics from the New York Air National Guard completed an exercise in Guinea.
Senate aides said lawmakers had been unaware of the increasing activity, and some suggested that even State Department officials may not have noticed the trend, even though each mission is coordinated by the U.S. embassy and security assistance team in the host country.
The publicity also prompted French officials to seek clarification about the special-forces mission in Senegal during a security assistance meeting in March with the U.S. European Command in Germany, U.S. officials said. A former colonial power, France keeps a permanent military presence in Senegal, Djibouti, Chad, Gabon, the Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic.
A Bush administration official acknowledged this week that the United States "doesn't have great strategic interests" in Africa, but he cited a dominant "political and diplomatic" interest: "One thing we want to see is stability, under a democratic rule and a liberal economic system."
"These countries are going to have militaries," said the official, who has direct knowledge of U.S. military activities in the region and agreed to speak only on the condition he not be named. "You don't tell a sovereign country, 'You don't need a military.' They'll just go ahead and build it anyway without you. So we try to work with them and influence them."
Asked about Libyan influences, the official replied, "We worry about Libya." But he said the U.S. military was not focused on any specific threat to regional stability, even in countries rife with ethnic divisions.
"What we don't want is disruption of democracy by any kind of faction," he said in an interview before yesterday's coup in Sierra Leone.
The end of the Cold War gives the military more time to devote to Africa, the official added. "If you no longer have to worry about Russian tanks coming across the plains of Germany . . . obviously you're going to start paying some more attention to the other part of your area of responsibility," he said.