Marine Cpl. Rory C. Newton, right, inspects the bolt of a Moroccan AK-47 service rifle with the help of a Moroccan soldier during Exercise African Lion in June.

Marine Cpl. Rory C. Newton, right, inspects the bolt of a Moroccan AK-47 service rifle with the help of a Moroccan soldier during Exercise African Lion in June. (Grady T. Fontana/U.S. Marine Corps)

STUTTGART, Germany — A 1,000-strong Marine combat task force capable of rapidly deploying to hot spots could soon be at the disposal of the new U.S. Africa Command, which up to now has stressed training partnerships and security cooperation to wary African governments suspicious of U.S. military intentions on the continent.

AFRICOM and Marine officials confirmed that adding a Marine Air Ground Task Force is now under review, but they emphasized that no decision has been made on whether to incorporate such a fighting force into the command.

But analysts predict that any plan to dedicate combat troops to AFRICOM, coming just a few months after U.S. Special Forces staged a daring daylight raid deep inside southern Somalia to take out a much-wanted al-Qaida operative, will only increase the anxieties of African leaders who are concerned about entering into military cooperation agreements with the U.S.

“At the moment, I would steer clear of that one until their bona fides get established, and that is not now,” said Richard Cornwell, a South Africa-based senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies. “Africa doesn’t want to get turned into a new operational zone.”

Other experts suggest that a public relations crisis could be averted if AFRICOM is effective at explaining its intentions to leery Africans.

“Africans were beginning to take AFRICOM at its word — that it didn’t have committed troops in the same way a normal command does,” said Dan Lawner, an analyst at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, which is based in Washington, D.C. “It’s extremely, extremely crucial that this be framed within the current rhetoric that they’re putting forth about having a much more specific, defined mission — a military mission in support of larger U.S. foreign policy goals in Africa.”

For their part, AFRICOM officials say the discussions taking place do not involve plans for increasing the U.S. military presence in Africa, but rather center on better executing existing training missions focused on training partnerships to help African militaries provide for their own security.

The proposal would not involve basing any Marines in Africa, officials said; instead, a Marine Air Ground Task Force would likely be placed somewhere in Europe.

“[T]he option being discussed would be a way to more efficiently provide personnel for existing activities and missions,” said AFRICOM spokesman Vince Crawley. “Any potential location in Europe would take place only with the approval of the host nation.”

A task force of Marines focused on Africa would carry certain advantages for the command, which relies on a revolving door of temporary troops to conduct its many training missions on the continent.

For some time, the Marine Corps has seen a need for an expeditionary force capable of supporting U.S. Africa Command initiatives, according to the Stuttgart-based U.S. Marine Corps Africa.

“The Marine Corps commandant’s long-range vision of European-based forces for missions supporting Africa Command on the continent is clearly one option,” Crawley said, adding that the early discussions have not yet been accepted by the Defense Department, State Department, the Europeans or African governments.

But the Marine Corps Web site mentions very little about training when talking about the capabilities of a Marine Air Ground Task Force, or MAGTF.

“MAGTF’s are readily available, self-sustaining, combined arms warfighting organizations,” the Marines’ Web site explains, noting among other things that such task forces are equipped to move forces into crisis areas without revealing their exact destination or intentions and project combat power at night and under adverse weather.

While the Marine task force plan continues to be reviewed, some small steps have already been taken within AFRICOM to give the command a more stable supply of personnel.

In late October, a 19-Marine security cooperation team arrived in Stuttgart. It represents the first operational forces dedicated exclusively to AFRICOM. Because much of AFRICOM’s work on the continent involves small numbers of troops deploying for limited amounts of time, the security cooperation team is expected to reduce Marine Forces Africa headquarters’ reliance special requests for Marines, which number about 80 per year.

Members of the team have already deployed in support of training missions in Uganda and Mali.

“Every year, we have more requests from African nations,” said Col. James Bright, operations officer of Marine Forces Africa.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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