Bush administration officials are working to refute claims by both Africans and Americans that the Pentagon's new Africa Command (Africom) signals a shift in US policy away from development and diplomacy and towards war capabilities.
"Africans are nervous that Africom will sanction the militarisation of diplomacy and severely undermine multilateralism on the continent," warned Wafula Okumu, head of the African Security Analysis Programme at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.
Concerns about the Pentagon's importance in shaping US relations with Africa were echoed by Republican Senator Richard Lugar.
Speaking at a recent Capitol Hill inquiry on Africom at which Mr Okumu testified, Senator Lugar pointed out that the Pentagon has greater financial and personnel resources than the State Department, which has long been considered the main instrument of Washington's Africa policy. "This imbalance within our own structure will be reflected in Africom initially - hopefully not perpetually," Senator Lugar suggested.
Africom represents a potential threat to the very countries the US claims it is intended to benefit, Mr Okumu added. "Africom will not only militarise US-African relations, but also those African countries in which it will be located," Mr Okumu predicted.
"This could have far-reaching consequences since the presence of American bases in these countries will create radical militants opposed to the US and make Americans targets of violence."
Most African nations will not want to associate themselves with Africom because they "will be criticised for violating Africa's common positions on African defence and security, which discourages the hosting of foreign troops on African soil," Mr Okumu added.
He specifically cited Kenya, which, he said, would be especially wary of Africom after having "previously been targeted by transnational terrorism because of its closeness to the West and hosting Western interests, both military bases and businesses."
The US military record in Africa provides grounds for suspicion concerning Africom's purposes, Mr Okumu noted.
"Many Africans are asking why American troops were not deployed to prevent or restrain the Rwandan genocidaires (in 1994)," he said. "Why the US forces remained anchored safely off the coast of Liberia when that country, the nearest thing America ever had to an African colony, faced brutal disintegration in 2003. Why the US has not supported the African Union Mission in Somalia and instead supported the Ethiopian intervention through airpower" from the US base in Djibouti"
Such criticisms are based on a misreading of American actions and plans in regard to Africa, senior US officials asserted at the inquiry convened by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"We are not at war in Africa, nor do we expect to be at war in Africa," declared Jendayi Frazer, the State Department's point person for Africa. "Our embassies and Africom will work in concert to keep it that way."
Recently, however, the US has carried out at least two direct military strikes in Africa. US forces on the ground and in the air have attacked targets inside Somalia as part of what Washington describes as its global war on terrorism.
The US is also lending considerable material support to Ethiopia's invasion and occupation of Somalia.
Africom might play a key role in responding to warlord-type violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, US officials suggested. They said the Command could provide military training and material assistance to DRC government forces.
Ms Frazer, whose official title is Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, further sought to reassure senators that her own office's authority is not being eroded with the advent of Africom.
"The Department of State will continue to exercise full foreign policy primacy and authority in Africa, and I am confident that no one in the Department of Defence disagrees with this," Ms Frazer said. "The Assistant Secretary for African Affairs will continue to be the lead policy-maker in the US government on African issues, including regional security policy."
The Pentagon's top Africa official reinforced the position enunciated by her counterpart at the State Department.
"Africom's focus is on war-prevention rather than on fighting," said Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant defence secretary for African affairs. "Africom will support, not shape, US foreign policy on the continent," she added.
The new Command will not entail deployment of US combat troops in Africa, Ms Whelan said.
In addition, officers representing the State Department and the US Agency for International Development will be included in Africom's staff, she said.
Ms Whelan further noted that the State Department already funds the main US training programme for African soldiers who are being prepared to carry out peace-support operations in troubled African states.
Misgivings about the purposes of Africom are the product of "misconceptions" regarding American aims in Africa, Ms Whelan said.
In an attempt to rebut criticisms of the sort voiced by Mr Okumu, the Pentagon's Africa policy specialist argued that Africom is not being established to fight terrorism, secure oil resources in Africa or discourage China from competing with the US for raw materials and political influence on the continent, Ms Whelan told the Senate committee.
Rather than taking control of security issues in Africa, the Pentagon "recognises and applauds the leadership role that individual African nations and multilateral
African organisations are taking in the promotion of peace, security and stability on the continent," Ms Whelan added.
Africom will, however, involve an increase in the number of joint military exercises conducted by American and African forces, she explained.
Meanwhile, American reassurances appear not to have allayed the fears that African leaders have privately expressed to visiting US officials in the course of consultations on Africom.
Recent conversations with African policy-makers indicate that their overall response to Africom has been "negative," said Senator Russ Feingold, the Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.
But Ms Frazer said the response to Africom on the part of African nations has been "largely positive."
And Ms Whelan noted specifically that Liberia, Botswana, Senegal and Djibouti have expressed support for Africom.
Liberia has, in fact, offered to host the headquarters of the Command, which is scheduled to become fully operational by October 2008.
No decision has been made as to where in Africa the Command's headquarters will be based, Ms Frazer said.
A Defence Department official had previously indicated that Africom's commander would probably move among operational "nodes" to be situated in a few African countries.
In the meantime, Africom will be headquartered in Germany, near the site of the US European Command.