The U.S. military is embarking on a new effort in Africa to help thwart the rise of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and as a first step has launched a $500-million program to train African battalions in desert warfare.
And when Uncle Sam commits to a project, contracts for U.S. technology firms are not far beyond.
One of the first is a $300,000 deal with Sentek Consulting of San Diego to work with African governments on building an information-sharing system to connect far-flung nations.
In a Wi-Fi world, hooking up African military units and civilian agencies via a computer network might seem easy. But there are multiple hurdles, from the technological and political to the linguistic.
Telephone communication in much of Africa is antiquated or nonexistent, and cellular towers are only now being erected outside many major cities. Communication satellites tend to focus on the Northern Hemisphere, leaving southern Africa with less coverage.
Security cooperation among African nations has been slow to evolve. A series of wars, invasions and government support for a variety of rebel groups have left many neighbors wary of one another.
Henri Boshoff, military analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, a research group in Pretoria, South Africa, has seen information sharing improve recently, including the creation of an “early-warning” center at African Union headquarters in Ethiopia. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than it ever was,” Boshoff said.
The Sentek effort aims to build on that success. Starting today, a group of eight Sentek employees, working with the militaries in Niger, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ghana, plans a basic, four-day test of a new information-sharing system using the Internet and the GoogleEarth mapping service to link the four locations.
Mock intelligence about military, humanitarian and natural disaster situations will be exchanged via computer with the help of commercial English-French translation software. Part of the plan is to transmit real-time information from satellites to the four nations.
Sentek Vice President Hamlin Tallent, a retired Navy rear admiral, said the ultimate goal was to prevent “Africa from becoming another Afghanistan, a breeding spot for terrorists.”
To further that goal, President Bush last month named a four-star Army general the first head of the Africa Command, which the U.S. military plans to “stand up” by September 2008.
For decades, the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, has dealt with military issues in Africa that relate to American interests. Now Africa will be under a separate command known as Africom. A headquarters has yet to be named but one possibility is in the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, on the Equator off the west coast of the continent.
But the U.S. is trying to avoid the impression that it wants to dominate Africa. Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy, said the U.S. did not anticipate stationing more troops in Africa or building large-scale bases as part of the new effort.
“Africans need to solve African problems. We can’t solve them,” said Marine Maj. Gen. Samuel Helland, former commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. “But we can help, we can provide emphasis.”
As part of its counterterrorism efforts, the U.S. maintains about 2,000 troops in Djibouti.
Washington wants to keep Al Qaeda and other groups from using the Horn of Africa as a launching spot into the rest of the vast continent. Africom, Henry said, will be different from other U.S. military commands. “Africom is not meant to fight wars,” he said.
Instead, the emphasis will be on helping African nations coordinate their own security efforts.
As Sentek sends its technicians to Africa, the company is vowing a light touch.
It makes little sense, executives said, to design a system that would be too costly or complex for African governments, many of them working on extremely tight budgets, to maintain.
This week’s test is just a beginning. “If we’re able to engage in animated and energetic conversation about what their requirements are, and we can collect those comments, that would be a success,” Tallent said.
Perry reported from San Diego, Sanders from Nairobi, Kenya.