By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, Aug. 18, 2006 – The United States walks away from Africa at its own peril, the U.S. general in charge of military operations there said in an interview here yesterday. Marine General James L. Jones, Supreme Allied Commander Europe and commander of U.S. European Command, said Africa is a reality that cannot be denied. The continent is potentially an economic giant, and the United States must engage on the continent.
With the exceptions of Egypt, Sudan, Kenya and the nations of the Horn of Africa, the entire continent is in U.S. European Command's area of responsibility. Officials at U.S. European Command spend between 65 to 70 percent of their time on African issues, Jones said. "We have been at work with new friends and allies in the war on terrorism," he said.
Overall, the engagement strategy has been going well in North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, the general said. "Obviously (we're) very concerned about what is going on in the Gulf of Guinea, and we are setting up our operations so we can have presence with a purpose in the region," he said. "We must help Africans help themselves.” The region is beset with difficulties, Jones said. Piracy and oil blackmail are concerns in the Gulf of Guinea. Tribalism threatens other nations in Sub-Saharan Africa. AIDS is epidemic in many African nations, and illiteracy is a curse across all nations there.
Africa is also has a fault line between Islam and other religions. Engagement on the continent takes many forms. "As we speak, we have a ship, the USNS Apache, in Freetown, Liberia, to clear the port," Jones said. "There are a lot of sunken ships in the port, and it's a key to their economy." In other nations, the command is helping where it can with small focus Special Forces training missions. The command sponsors medical and veterinary visits and staff exercises with militaries of the region. "Consistent engagement in Africa is key to containing or preventing future conflicts," Jones said.
Africa is replete with struggling democracies. "If you really look at what is happening in Africa, there are more countries moving towards democracy than moving away," Jones said. "But the battle is on as to which way they will go." The United States and its allies must help bring economic change in Africa to bring hope to millions of people. If not, those people could be "sucked up in the recruiting of the Islamic jihadists," Jones said
Extremists prey on people with no hope. "It's not difficult for a jihadist with money to get someone to join them," Jones said. "The good news is we can still affect which way Africa goes." Joint Task Force Horn of Africa is a great success story and something that could be emulated in other areas of the continent, Jones said. He suggested that a similar group working along the west coast of the continent could help bring stability to the region. "We could help considerably with presence and with helping these struggling countries that don't know what's going on inside their own borders," Jones said.
Establishing such a group could also send a message to U.S. companies "that investing in many parts of Africa is a good idea," the general said. The United States has the opportunity to do the right thing in Africa, Jones said. "It's an exciting part of the world," he said. "We cannot walk away from Africa for a whole lot of reasons, including moral reasons. It's an area where we can highlight all of the good things that the United States stands for."