STUTTGART, Germany — The U.S. Africa Command is leaning toward establishing multiple offices across the continent instead of one large headquarters.

The new command, which would coordinate U.S. military activities in Africa, is scheduled to be operating fully by December 2008. About 400 to 1,000 people would work there.

But where they would work is being decided.

“The staff will be distributed in different nodes,” said Ryan Henry, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. “Where those nodes will be, we haven’t even begun to map that out.”

Henry said the command, known as AFRICOM, could be located at a number of small headquarters of similar styles, each with staff for operations, intelligence, logistics and planning.

The command offices could also be broken down by function. The military training headquarters might be located in one country, for example, with the humanitarian relief headquarters in another.

Or it could be something else, including placing AFRICOM staff in Washington and elsewhere.

“Those are all part of the analysis that we’re going through right now,” Henry said at a press conference last week at the State Department after recently returning from consultations with foreign and defense ministers in five African countries.

It was Henry’s second round of talks with African leaders since the command was announced in February. The command has set up temporary headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, and has been hiring staff and growing in the four months since.

Henry said the U.S. had not yet asked any African nations if they would host portions of the AFRICOM headquarters and wouldn’t until the command decides on its set-up.

Spreading out the command is probably a good idea, according to Jennifer Cooke, co-director of the Africa Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategy and International Studies.

“If they went with one big headquarters, choosing that one country would be enormously difficult and politically charged,” Cooke said. “One big headquarters would require all kinds of infrastructure and security.

“It’s better for them to think this out, plan it out and think about some of the consequences.”

The multiple-location approach would be different from the other major geographic combatant commands, which have single locations in Honolulu (Pacific Command), Tampa (Central), Miami (Southern) and Stuttgart (European).

A four-star officer will lead the command, and one is expected to be nominated soon. Currently, military activities on the continent are overseen by the Pacific, Central and European commands.

“Instead of having three commanders that deal with Africa as a third or fourth priority, we will have a single commander that deals with it day in and day out as his first and only priority,” Henry said.

“The commander himself will be on the continent so he can better deal with his peers, chiefs of defense staff, and members of multinational organizations on the continent.”

AFRICOM’s second-in-command is expected to be a State Department official.

Africa has 53 nations spread over an area about 3½ times the size of the continental U.S. The nations belong to the African Union, which is headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but has seven regional economic headquarters.

“Africa is a very, very big continent, so to put a headquarters in one part of it – then you automatically start to ignore other parts,” Henry said.

Command a tough sell to Muslims

At the moment, the United States has a poor image in much of the Muslim world due to its unpopular wars in two nations, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, the U.S. Africa Command is going to happen, and has to explain itself to the heavily Muslim nations in the north of the African continent.

“There is a reason you go to countries such as Algeria and Libya, and it is to explain to them what (AFRICOM) means and what it doesn’t mean,” said Army Col. Patrick Mackin, a spokesman for the Stuttgart, Germany-based AFRICOM Transition Team.

“People jump to conclusions of what it means and invariably they can come to the wrong conclusion.”

Mackin was among a delegation that earlier this month visited defense and foreign ministry leaders in five nations as well as the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The delegation was led by Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Ryan Henry.

The “wrong conclusions” so far, according to Henry, are that AFRICOM is forming to fight terror, counter China’s influence in Africa, and control the continent’s oil.

The truth, he says, is that the command wants to help Africans help themselves: to fight their own wars, keep their own people safe, and respond to their own disasters.

To “build capacity” is the buzz phrase.

“That is the principal focus of the command,” Henry said, citing military-to-military training, and smoothing the paths for humanitarian workers to do their jobs.

But it’s a tough sell.

Libya and Algeria months ago said they weren’t interested in hosting AFRICOM offices. Even the foreign ministry of Morocco, a strong ally of the U.S., got defensive when it was recently accused by an Islamist political party of inviting AFRICOM.

The ministry “flatly denies this baseless information,” it stated in a press release.

At a news conference Friday at the State Department, one African reporter prefaced her question to Henry with, “The general feeling is that the U.S. image is so bad in Africa that …”

The Africa Command is scheduled to stand up in about 18 months. In the meantime, its planners plan to do a lot of talking, listening and learning.

“There’s not much you can do about [anti-U.S. sentiment],” Mackin said. “You try to explain what you’re talking about, and you do that first in a government-to-government way.

“And hopefully the value will be seen through the actions as the command is up and running.”

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