WASHINGTON -- Bush administration officials said yesterday they are "retooling" military aid programs in Africa so that U.S. military advisers will be used to help emerging democracies reduce the size of their armies and improve their economies.
"We are no longer in the business of providing military hardware except in special and extreme cases," Leonard H. Robinson, deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa.
"Rather, we are working to support a new, democratic framework for Africa's civil and military institutions. We are doing this through an expanded network of personal and unit interactions [between U.S. and African militaries] along with formal . . . training programs."
Both Mr. Robinson and James L. Woods, the Pentagon's top official on African matters, took pains to counter recent publicity about increased U.S. military training activities in a region stalked by worsening civil strife, debt and hunger.
Mr. Robinson described U.S. military involvement in Africa as "very modest" and inexpensive, while Mr. Woods said the facts about military exercises there "will prove unalarming."
Subcommittee Chairman Paul Simon, D-Ill, expressed concern that the United States might actually be "moving a little too far in militarizing the area" by promoting combined military exercises and strengthening various national armies.
Citing bloody civil wars and ethnic violence in Liberia and Zaire -- both major U.S. military aid recipients until last year -- he suggested that close relations with corrupt dictators could create serious problems for the United States.
"I'm concerned with Liberia, that we have not used our leverage," he said. If the purpose of U.S. military aid is to influence local armies and promote democracy, "I want to see us use our leverage more constructively."
He chided the Bush administration for not publicly demanding that Mobutu Sese Seko cede power in Zaire, as two other major foreign powers there, France and Belgium, have done. "Here's another case where, frankly, American public relations and the people of Zaire are going to suffer," he said.
Mr. Robinson's mention of "an expanded network" of contacts with African armies was a reference to plans to send U.S. special forces teams to the region as many as 25 times a year, more than three times the number of missions in 1991.
Although the teams would typically "carry out short-term exercises such as medical, parachute and communications training with African militaries," they would serve as "credible and effective spokesmen for the role of the military in a democratic state," he said.
"We are realists and we recognize that Africa's military forces have been privileged institutions for over three decades; we know they are reluctant to yield their current institutional power," Mr. Robinson said.