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STUTTGART, Germany — Africa Command staffers phone in daily for a virtual powwow in which military leaders deliver rundowns on various projects and developments around the sprawling continent.

Whether it’s Trans-Sahara counterterrorism efforts, a piracy spike in the Gulf of Guinea or a political crisis someplace else, there’s always plenty of territory to cover.

But more and more, matters that are less overtly military also are getting attention at these morning sessions.

"I don’t know that the military would normally think about — ‘Oh, we have 20 declared disasters, whether it’s the caterpillars in Liberia, or the drought here or the locusts there or flooding here,’" said Mary Carlin Yates, U.S. African Command’s deputy for civil/military activities.

"And of course, all of those could have potential effects on a country’s stability and security," said Yates, describing how AFRICOM’s unique interagency structure aims to paint a more complete picture of the security landscape in Africa.

Yates, a career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to both Ghana and Burundi, serves with Vice Adm. Robert T. Moeller as AFRICOM’s two deputies who report to the commander.

The civilian deputy position puts Yates in charge of an array of programs associated with health, humanitarian assistance efforts, disaster response and security sector reform.

In Yates, the command gets someone with 20 years of experience working in Africa.

With five USAID officials also embedded in the command, AFRICOM looks decidedly different from most of the military’s other combatant commands. So is its mission.

While the military traditionally has focused on being prepared for large-scale conventional wars, AFRICOM’s stated purpose is to prevent conflicts by helping countries build up their own security capacity.

"We are sensitizing the military and helping them more effectively design the missions and programs they are doing," Yates said.

The civilian deputy position was established in the early planning stages of AFRICOM, and there are signs this interagency approach could become more commonplace within the military.

For example, last August U.S. Southern Command followed AFRICOM’s lead with the establishment of a similar civilian deputy post within its command structure.

Indeed, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff talked about the value of an interagency approach during a visit to Stuttgart last summer.

"I think you, in many ways, represent the face of the future with respect to our combatant commands," Adm. Mike Mullen said during an AFRICOM town hall meeting in June.

"You may be leading what we are doing in our government."

Still, for all of the focus on broadening the context in which the military operates, AFRICOM has nonetheless been the subject of much criticism and controversy.

Whether it’s from the African media or political figures on the continent, there has been plenty of speculation about what is driving the United State’s growing strategic interest in resource rich Africa.

That apprehension also is tied up with concerns that the U.S. military has designs on setting up bases and deploying large numbers of troops to the continent.

The military has repeatedly refuted such assertions, but it’s proven difficult for that message to gain traction.

Yates says AFRICOM will ultimately be judged by its actions over time.

"The countries that have felt the touch of the African Partnership Station in west Africa, I think understand this can be value added," said Yates, referring to a program that trains coast guards to protect their waterways from pirates and illegal fishing vessels.

Whether it’s the African Partnership Station, anti-HIV medical operations or other military-to-military training initiatives, the countries that take part generally want to build upon the partnerships, she said.

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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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