As Washington’s dependence on African oil intensifies, some analysts predict the region will increasingly play host to confrontations between U.S. forces deployed there and various insurgent groups, predominantly Islamic extremists.
Currently, African oil accounts for 12 percent of the United States’ total yearly consumption. During the next 10 to 15 years, the amount is projected to jump to 25 percent.
Fast-forward past the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and two U.S. wars in the Middle East, and it is evident that securing this flow has become a vital mission of multinational oil companies and the George W. Bush administration particularly deposits in the Niger Delta, the Gulf of Guinea, and some of the countries of Africa’s Sahel.
Last year, the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) was allocated just $16 million pocket change compared to other U.S. military incursions across the globe. But funding for the exercises, described as enhancing regional security and stability, is expected to grow steadily in coming years.
For 2006, the initiative has been allocated $31 million. The big push comes in 2008, when the administration hopes to get $100 million each year for five years.
To those keeping a close eye on the situation, the question arises whether there will be an accompanying U.S. military buildup in the region.
"The answer is no," according to Maj. Holly Silkman, a public affairs officer for the U.S. military’s European Command, or EUCOMM, which is based in Stuttgart, Germany. Besides Western and Central Europe, EUCOMM also claims West Africa as part of its defensive responsibility.
"There are no plans for forward deployed forces in the region," which is U.S. military parlance for bases, Silkman told IPS. "There’s not an African nation that wants us there."
But Silkman does not downplay what many know: The U.S. military albeit in small numbers is on the move in Northwest Africa. Joint anti-terror training exercises, along with some humanitarian development projects, with forces from Chad, Nigeria, Mauritania, and other countries are ongoing, she says.
A thousand soldiers from the 10th Special Forces Group, for instance, were deployed for part of last summer with African forces throughout the Sahel under the TSCTI.
"Think expeditionary," said Silkman. "And if an African nation calls on us for help, we will respond."
"I can tell you that we know there are training camps in the region, there are terrorists who are operating in the region, and we are aware of them," she said.
But other analysts note that fundamentalist Islam has existed in the Sahel for over 60 years without being linked to anti-Western violence. A paper issued last July titled "Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction?" by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said that, "There are enough indications, from a security perspective, to justify caution and greater Western involvement. However, the Sahel is not a hotbed of terrorist activity."
"A misconceived and heavy handed approach [by the U.S. military] could tip the scale the wrong way," the ICG warned.
The Pentagon’s future plans for northwest Africa remain vague. Silkman and U.S. State Department officials refuse to speculate about any potential "strategic deployments."
But Maya Rockeymoore, a board member of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington think tank, told IPS that, "The United States is creating this buildup under the guise of counter-terrorism. The reality is they’re protecting the oil resources from the encroachment of other nations that are also interested in the oil, such as China."
She said that EUCOMM was trying to downplay the U.S. military’s involvement, and that there is much more activity going on than "100 or so soldiers" in the region.
For instance, when the tiny island nation of Sao Tome and Principe inked an agreement this past summer with several U.S. oil companies that want to explore their waters for deposits, a U.S. Coast Guard ship was hovering nearby, she says.
The TSCTI is just one of an array of new military agreements the U.S. has recently signed with over 10 countries in North and West Africa and the Sahel.
Reserve forces from North Dakota have a training agreement with Ghana. The Moroccan government is hosting reserve forces from Utah. And in Ghana, Gabon, and Senegal, "Cooperative Security Locations" have been established.
"They’re nothing more than a small airfield with a few buildings," says EUCOMM public affairs officer Lt. Col. Derek Kaufman about these "CSLs."
Kaufman says EUCOMM is also training "indigenous forces so as to improve internal defense." He calls the Sahara fertile recruiting ground for terrorists because of its poverty, lawlessness, and large Muslim populations.
"This is phase-zero [pre-conflict] warfare," he said. "So it doesn’t turn into an Afghan-like scenario."
Just how many U.S. military troops are stationed full-time in the region is a mystery. EUCOMM says the number is less than 100 a few at the CSLs, and the rest at embassies.
Others believe the number of U.S. Special Forces to be higher and their mission clear. "They’re not just training. They’re going in there and tracking down evildoers," said John Pike, director of the Virginia-based GlobalSecurity.org, which documents military actions around the globe.
"They have a license to hunt," he said.
Like many others, Pike believes Washington’s rising interest in the region is not due just to the presence of al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups. "It’s part empire-building and part security mission. If we don’t get in, somebody else will, like the Chinese," he said. "We want our fingers in everything."
EUCOMM points out that Islamic terror groups such as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), believed to be working out of Algeria, have taken foreigners hostage and engaged African troops during the last two years.
In January 2004 in northeastern Nigeria, an Afghan flag was raised at a state building during an uprising by pro-Taliban Islamists.
But one former U.S. State Department official says if a "South Atlantic Command" were established, perhaps in the Gulf of Guinea an idea that has floated around Washington for several years but has thus far failed to gain much traction it would become a "magnet" for Islamic fundamentalists.
Just because the U.S. has financial interests in the region, "Doesn’t mean we should put those people there," said the source, who spoke on the condition he would not be identified.
He believes the U.S. military activity in Northwest Africa is proof that Washington is strengthening its political ties with governments in the region. But he is worried about whether there is adequate dialogue between the U.S. and the region’s Islamic leaders.
If the U.S. military intentions in West Africa are strictly "anti-terror" and to provide security for financial interests that benefit all involved, then they need to let the imams know "what it is they want to do," he said.