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Gen. William "Kip" Ward, Commander of the U.S. Africa Command.

Gen. William "Kip" Ward, Commander of the U.S. Africa Command. ()

STUTTGART, Germany — Gen. William "Kip" Ward couldn’t be blamed if he thought he was headed for a grilling from the congressional subcommittee that controls the purse strings for defense programs.

After all, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, just a couple of months earlier described the newly established U.S. Africa Command as a virtual waste of money.

"We can’t win these wars militarily. Nobody wants us over there," Murtha said during a visit to Germany in November. "So I’ve been trying to shift money and convince the people that make the decision on where the money goes that more money should go to the State Department for those kinds of things."

Those comments, made during a tour of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, followed an effort by Murtha’s subcommittee to cut AFRICOM’s fiscal 2009 budget by 80 percent while also declaring that AFRICOM should be overhauled to better meet the range of challenges on the continent.

Though much of AFRICOM’s funding was restored during the budgetary process, there hadn’t been any indication leading up to Ward’s March 19 appearance before the subcommittee that there’s been a change of heart about the direction of the command.

Yet, during a lengthy question-and-answer session with lawmakers, Ward had little to defend. No talk of budget cuts or major restructuring. Instead, the focus was on issues such as military-to-military training, questions about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and the fact that establishing a headquarters on the continent is not a priority.

Following its rollout in 2007, AFRICOM has been engaged in something of a public relations war as it seeks to explain itself to people far and wide.

"I know the general knows that at one point there were those who — in the Congress — who thought that the Africa Command should be disbanded and eliminated," Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., said durring the hearing "We resisted that because we think it’s important, that the work that you do is very, very important and is good for the United States and our relationship with the African communities."

Perhaps the lack of a showdown on Capitol Hill is a sign that the new command is making progress on the PR front. A Government Accountability Office report released this month noted that AFRICOM has made strides in its efforts to explain itself in Africa and to other U.S. agencies that feared a further militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

Still, skepticism persists about AFRICOM both in Africa and within U.S. diplomatic circles and nongovernmental aid groups, with which the command works in partnership, according to the GAO report.

"Until AFRICOM has a comprehensive communications strategy that includes all appropriate audiences, encourages two-way communication with stakeholders, and ensures a consistent message, the command may continue to be limited in its ability to reduce persistent skepticism and garner support for the command," the report stated.

Officials at AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart say significant progress has been made in this area, but also acknowledge that more work needs to be done.

As for Ward’s meetings on Capitol Hill, "We’re very pleased with how the hearings went and look forward to continuing that relationship with the people in Washington," said Vince Crawley, an AFRICOM spokesman in Stuttgart.

During Ward’s testimony before the subcommittee, lawmakers alluded to some of the early missteps during the introduction of AFRICOM, which left many people with the impression that the military was looking to take the lead in U.S. policy in Africa.

"Now, that was a stance that was not only untrue, but it was also unhelpful in persuading the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development to share with AFRICOM the advice and expertise that AFRICOM has sought from those interagency partners," said Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr., D-Ga.

Murtha, perhaps AFRICOM’s most outspoken critic on the Hill, was not present. A spokesman from his office said it was too early to say whether the congressman’s concerns about the structure of AFRICOM and its role have been addressed.

"We’re continuing to receive briefings and gather information, and will have more to comment in the upcoming months," Matthew Mazonkey, a Murtha spokesman, wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

Ward’s testimony covered a broad range of issues and focused mainly on the various programs designed to help nations enhance their security forces, such as the Africa Partnership Station, a maritime security project that trains the navies and coast guards of coastal countries.

Meanwhile, there is no current plan to move a headquarters to Africa, Ward said.

An African headquarters was part of the initial plan, announced by President George W. Bush in 2007, but the concept provoked a firestorm of controversy and suspicion in Africa about U.S. intentions on the continent. It didn’t take long for the military to abandon the idea, but suspicions linger.

"That whole argument was not helpful to promoting our national security interests or in supporting the interests of the Africans in increasing their capacity to provide for their own security," Ward said, explaining that his command’s focus is on building programs, not the location of its headquarters.

Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick, D-Mich., concurred: "I think that’s exactly the way to proceed."

Read the transcript of Gen. William "Kip" Ward’s testimony before the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee here.

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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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