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Adm. Mark P. Fitzgerald, the new commander for U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, says he will balance a range of operations this year but geographically his focus will be West Africa.

He foresees working toward NATO objectives, while supporting the new Africa Command, which is scheduled to be fully operational by October. Throw into the mix the recently activated Africa Partnership Station, a separate entity from AFRICOM, and one can sense that Fitzgerald has his hands full.

“It is almost overwhelming the amount of things that are going on,” Fitzgerald said.

Regarding NATO, there’s Kosovo, the NATO training mission in Iraq, Operation Active Endeavor — which focuses on the premise that an attack on one is an attack on all — and training the NATO response force, he said.

“On the (Naval Forces Europe) side, we’re supporting all of those missions, as well as going down to Africa and creating the capacity to work with AFRICOM,” Fitzgerald said.

A native of Winchester, Mass., Fitzgerald assumed command in Naples at the end of November. His assignment is twofold, leading naval forces in Europe, as well as the joint NATO command, also based in Naples. Looking toward West Africa, Fitzgerald’s approach is one of incremental change.

“The biggest thing that I want to do is to build upon what has already been done. We’ve started the engagement in Africa with building individual country capacity. I now want to take that to the next level, which is building regional security capacity,” Fitzgerald said.

A large part of that plan depends on countries’ ability to access information in a fashion similar to Interpol. The idea is to give participating nations access to a series of computer servers that receive continuous data about all ships in almost every geographic region.

Another crucial asset Fitzgerald will rely on is the operation of the Africa Partnership Station. The “station” consists of ships that travel to the region to enhance the capabilities of regional navies and coast guards.

Of specific strategic importance is the Gulf of Guinea, which, according to Fitzgerald, is rich in natural resources that are threatened by regional instability.

“That’s where a lot of the oil for the free world comes out of, that’s were a lot of the drug trafficking and smuggling are happening. There’s also a lot of mineral trade with diamonds and raw materials,” he said.

Fitzgerald said there are no current plans to put permanent U.S. bases in West Africa. The intent, he said, is to work from the sea to create a regional, sustainable security network.

“I would not characterize this as a turn left, turn right kind of thing. I would characterize it as building upon what we have.”

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