Washington, DC — Three weeks ago, "the first meeting ever" between the chiefs of defense of North African states and Sahel states took place at the Stuttgart, Germany headquarters of the United States European Command (Eucom). Although they are next door neighbors it was "the first time that the chief of defense of Chad and the chief of defense of Niger talked to each other in their life," Eucom Deputy Commander, Charles F. Wald told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday.
The defense chiefs participating in the meeting came from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger. "When we talked to them about regional security challenges," Eucom's chief of counter terrorism in the Plans Division, Lt. Colonel Powell Smith, told allAfrica.com, "to a man they identified the greatest security challenge facing their nations as 'religious extremism' -- that's how they termed it not how we termed it and they want to combat it."
Out of that Stuttgart meeting came plans that led to a Eucom-Niger-Chad "coordinated" military operation against the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known as the GSPC. The group, led by Algerian-born Abderrazak le Para, is said to be associated with al-Qaeda and was held responsible for the kidnapping of 32 tourists in southern Algeria last year.
After successful government crackdowns on the group in southern Algeria and Mali, members fled through Niger to Chad. In Niger, according to Defence Minister Hassane Bonto, the GSPC was working hand-in-hand with armed bandits and was using hideouts and arms caches left over from a rebellion in the 1990s by Tuareg nomads. Forty-three of the GSPC were reported killed in the combined operation, including, possibly, le Para, although that has not been confirmed.
"This was a real terrorist threat," said Wald. "Part of this group were Nigerians, Nigeroise, Chadians, Malians and some Algerians," he told the AEI meeting: "Libya is terrified of them. This is a bad group of people...They have declared allegiance to al-Qaeda. And I'll tell you one thing. I think the United States learned a lesson in Afghanistan. You don't let things go."
Eucom's campaign against the GSPC, in partnership with Chad and Niger, is an example of the growing importance of Africa to the security concerns of Eucom, Wald said. Until September 11, he acknowledged, Africa was not part of any strategic plans of Eucom, whose official area of operations includes 43 African countries. Another seven - Djibouti, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Kenya - fall under the responsibility of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). "[Africa] was always there but it wasn't a strategic there."
Oil is an important part of the strategic concern. Without African crude oil, "each year the U.S. would need an additional 10 billion gallons of gasoline," the president of ChevronTexaco Overseas Petroleum, George Kirkland, told the AEI meeting. "That's about enough for fourteen and a half million cars and trucks," he said - "more than the total number of registered vehicles in the state of New York." In 10 years, thirty percent of U.S. oil will come from the Gulf of Guinea, Wald said. "We will also become very dependent on natural gas from Africa."
Europe's vulnerability is another part of the concern. Much of Sahelian Africa is "a belt of instability," said Wald. Islamists use vast empty or sparsely-populated spaces for transit into Europe and sometimes for terrorist training. Alienation because of failed government policies in many nations makes fertile recruiting ground as well. "Terrorists training in the Sahel can be in the United States or Europe in a matter of hours," retired General Carlton W. Fulford, Wald's predecessor at Eucom who now directs the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told the AEI meeting.
At the heart of the new strategic thrust of Eucom is working with African regional organizations: the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) in the west, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in the south, the Maghreb Union in the north, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) and the East African Community in the east and the Central Africa Economic and Monetary Community (Cemac). But encouraging a new political/military geography is also necessary, said Wald. One symbol of this is the Eucom partnership with Algeria, Mali, Niger and Chad known as the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI) that transcends the traditional north Africa - sub Sahara distinction that still divides the continent at the U.S. Department of State.
In Wald's mind, thinking outside of the box seemed to include how Eucom itself needed to be described now that it is paying strategic attention to the south. Africa is so big that Eucom breaks it up into regions, Wald said. "The United States European Command is a misnomer," he said. "One of the things we are working on is trying to figure out what should the name of the command be because this is not Europe, I guarantee you."
It is not clear whether Nato has also shifted its view on Africa and is extending its mission southward too. "De facto, Nato has a mission in Africa because we have a mission in Africa," said Wald. "Nato's interests are not now sitting in garrisons in Germany or France or UK waiting for a million Russians to come across the border. Europe needs to get out, go forward and do some prevention."
Wald thinks they inevitably will. "Everybody's going to come to the same conclusion at some point. Some will get there faster than others."