STUTTGART, Germany - Words sometimes backfire.

"We will work closely with our African partners to determine an appropriate location for the new command in Africa," President Bush said on Feb. 6, 2007, in announcing the U.S. Africa Command.

It was big news in Africa, but also big news to Africa. The U.S. military? Coming to the continent? The fallout — a storm of critical press and angst on the Internet — forced the military’s newest headquarters to back off its moving plans.

Since he took over AFRICOM on Oct. 1, Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward and his deputies have been visiting dozens of African countries.

Their mission is to explain what the United States really intends and, perhaps more importantly, to listen to advice.

"When we listen to them, we hear things from their perspective and then we try to understand them better," Ward said. "Their culture, their society, what makes a difference for them from their perspective.

"I wouldn’t call it difficult. It’s part of this command as we build it. It’s grounded in its ethos."

Maybe now it is, but in the months before Ward came on board, listening to anyone except each other didn’t seem to be part of the AFRICOM program. When the idea was introduced to the public, many in Africa were surprised and taken aback.

"It had some kind of neocolonialist character to it; it was being presented with nothing about consultation with Africa," said Dr. Wafulu Okumu of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.

Despite AFRICOM’s claim to have a humanitarian bent, Okumu said, circumstances suggested otherwise.

The Global War on Terror was tightening security screws both in the U.S. and abroad. And years of TV images from Iraq were scary.

At the same time, China, eager to fuel its rapid economic expansion with African oil, minerals and metals, was steadily increasing its economic stake on the continent.

Then there was not-so-distant history, Okumu said.

Colonial overlords from Europe who also proclaimed altruistic intentions, he said, had only withdrawn from the continent in recent decades.

The failure of the West to stop the genocide in Rwanda that killed an estimated 750,000 people is often used by Africans as an example of the shallowness of Western commitment.

"The West hadn’t been willing to come to the aid of Africa when we most needed it," said Okumu.

He cited, among other examples, U.S. ambuiguity toward anti-apartheid and anti-colonial movements and a hands-off approach to the 2003 chaos in Liberia.

What Okumu didn’t mention, however, were American-supported efforts to ease the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s and recent help with the famine in Somalia.

"Now that the Chinese were making a big push, is it because of the Chinese that Americans are getting interested in us?" Okumi said.

Noting recent and upcoming conferences on African development in India, Japan, Turkey, and Iran, Okumu added, "Africa has its choice now."

A Pentagon official said China’s presence in Africa was not a factor in the creation of AFRICOM.

"It isn’t about China," Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, said in February. "It is about U.S. security interests in Africa in the context of global security.

"China, yes, has become more engaged in Africa ... primarily for economic reasons. They have interests in African natural resources and extracting those resources. They also have interests in African markets. That’s fine."

Ward and AFRICOM officials have been telling anyone who will listen that AFRICOM is merely a consolidation under one roof of activities the U.S. military has been conducting for years.

U.S. Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Marines and others have traveled to African nations to train troops and otherwise co-mingle. Small medical teams have dropped in locales and provided first aid. Military engineers have dug wells and built buildings.

These are things for which African nations have asked, Ward said. No one forces it upon them. The military training, he said, is especially coveted.

"[They ask for] things that will cause their forces to be better able to protect their own borders, better prepared to participate in peacekeeping operations, how to deal in a more effective way with disaster situations," Ward said.

While Ward wants his people to listen to Africans, Africans have been interested in listening to AFRICOM, at least at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

"Everybody’s been keenly interested in the briefings given by representatives of the American government," said Col. George Kaxuxwena, Namibia’s defense attache to the Africa Union. "Whenever they come here, the attendance is very, very good."

The six-year-old AU, a confederation of Africa’s 53 nations, is trying to establish five "standby brigades," one for each region of the continent. Each region would form a multinational army that would respond to its peacekeeping, disaster relief and humanitarian needs.

The brigades are developing slowly. Not all nations have equipment, especially vehicles, and troops to contribute. Regional politics sometimes need to be negotiated.

Ward said AFRICOM would help prepare the brigades if asked and if resources allowed. African Union’s leaders seem OK with that.

"From what they’re telling us about the mission, from military assistance, military training, and the fight against terrorism, piracy, drug lords, things like that, then it all looks good," Kaxuxwena said. "If that is their mission, it will be most beneficial to the region."

The Pentagon requested $389 million for AFRICOM for the 2008-2009 fiscal year, which represents a sliver of the Defense Department’s request of $515 billion for its basic budget (it asks for more for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Stephen J. Morrison, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Security and International Studies in Washington, said the command needs a bigger budget to deliver on its promises.

"They don’t want to look like they’re all hat and no cattle," Morrison said. "Four hundred million is inadequate to their ambitions.

"Getting fully outfitted is going to require a lot more political heft in high locations to make it happen. It will have to build up some legitimacy and credibility through its programs, through its performance and through a coherent set of messages."

The command is scheduled on Oct. 1 to detach itself from its parent, the U.S. European Command, also based in Stuttgart, and sail on its own. Time will tell if listening will be part of its ethos.

"Right now my vision is to build this command such that it is does have the ability to bring ‘value added,’ " or lasting positive impact, Ward said. "That won’t happen overnight. But we are laying the foundations now."

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