WASHINGTON — U.S. Africa Command officials will decide on the location for a new on-continent headquarters by next fall, but cautioned that they don’t want to rush the process.

“The key is, how does the command operate, and not where it is,” Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

“The worst thing we could do is rush into a bricks-and-mortar solution that has a lot of (military construction) associated with it but lacks adaptability.”

Henry said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has set the end of fiscal 2008 as the deadline for a decision on the command’s first African presence, although he cautioned the initial location may not be the long-term continental base.

Both he and AFRICOM Commander Gen. William “Kip” Ward said they are not concerned about finding a willing partner for the headquarters.

“There are a number of countries that have come forward, one publicly and several privately, that have asked us to consider them,” Henry said. “We don’t feel we want for places for a headquarters.”

Currently staff and analysts for AFRICOM are working at temporary headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. Officials said launching the new command there allowed them to start operating more quickly by using existing office resources and not having to relocate personnel.

However, several lawmakers expressed concern about the off-continent staff, noting that interaction with African officials and gathering information will be the new command’s top priorities.

“There are going to be huge issues there … and intelligence is going to play a major part of our role on the continent,” said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. “So I hope we have a decision sooner.”

Henry downplayed that criticism — noting that CENTCOM, PACOM and SOUTHCOM all have off-continent headquarters — but emphasized the long term goal is still to put some personnel in Africa.

“For analysis, it’s not necessarily essential that the analysts be at the spot they’re looking at,” he said. “But to get most effectiveness out of it, it’s important to get the commander and his key staff on the continent.”

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