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Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward, commander of U.S. Africa Command, is greeted Tuesday by Tunisian military leaders at Tunis-Carthage International Airport. Ward visited the northern Africa country for two days last week.

Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward, commander of U.S. Africa Command, is greeted Tuesday by Tunisian military leaders at Tunis-Carthage International Airport. Ward visited the northern Africa country for two days last week. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

TUNIS, Tunisia — Twenty-five reporters filed into an anteroom at the U.S. Embassy and waited for the American general.

They came ready with questions, and Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward was ready with answers: Was the U.S. establishing a military base in Bizerte, a city in northern Tunisia? (No.) Are U.S. troops going to get involved in regional African conflicts? (Not for the military to decide.) How do you know al-Qaida has bad intentions? (Because they say so.)

AFRICOM, the new U.S. command headed by Ward, has been fighting an image problem since it was announced in February 2007. Stories about imperialism, military occupation and U.S. motives have run regularly in the African press and Internet.

Ward and his deputies have spoken in person or over video teleconference with media from dozens of African nations since the command stood up on Oct. 1.

On Wednesday it was time to clear the air in Tunisia, a moderate Muslim nation on Africa’s northern, Mediterranean coast.

Ward arrived at the news conference after a late-running visit to nearby Bizerte, where U.S. Navy SEALs and Tunisian special forces were training together in urban warfare.

He sat at a table behind a microphone and then read a statement as photographers snapped away, hitting all his key points:

 The U.S. respects your country and military.

 It has the same security goals as your country.

 The U.S. and Tunisia have been friends for a long time.

 The U.S. military won’t go where it is not invited.

Ward’s words were translated into French to the reporters, who wore headsets.

Before leaving the room and jetting with his traveling staff to Morocco, Ward told the reporters: "Thanks very much for what you do to bring factual information to your people." The reporters were then whisked away from the embassy.

Ward acknowledged that the U.S. did an ineffective job of explaining itself when the command was announced.

The command’s announced intent was to bring under one organization the planning for ongoing missions on the continent: military to military training such as that in Bizerte, humanitarian efforts including medical outreach and well digging, and peacekeeping assistance such as use of U.S. aircraft to shuttle African troops.

Planning for warfare, when needed, would also fall under the headquarters.

"The notion of having a headquarters presence on the continent … conjured up notions of bases, of large garrisons of troops," Ward said in an interview. "That was never the reality of any concept, but that was the perception that was out there."

The U.S. has tamped down talk of placing a headquarters on the continent. The command’s headquarters will remain in Stuttgart, Germany, where approximately 550 of ultimately 1,300 AFRICOM staff have been brought on.

On the morning of the news conference, Jeune Afrique, a news magazine founded in Tunisia and based in Paris, reported that AFRICOM’s progress was "frozen" and the command was about to be moved to the U.S. from Germany.

Germany "would rather not have this controversial creation established permanently on its soil," according to the story, which attributed no sources. In actuality, AFRICOM-related construction is booming in Stuttgart.

"The popular press here tends to be very anti-American, anti-Israeli," said Matthew Long, a public relations specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. "It puts those two into the same category."

Wednesday’s news conference was well mannered, Long said, which was to be expected because Tunisia’s media is largely state-controlled.

Reporters even asked a few hopeful questions: Was the U.S. military going to provide shots in the arm, i.e., money, for Tunisia’s economy? (Maybe, down the road.) Was Europe also going to rejuvenate its interest in the continent? (We’re open to working with them, Ward says).

The command has pledged to be transparent. Its Web site, www.africom.mil, posts public statements on AFRICOM, such as testimony before Congress, answers frequently asked questions, and offers blogs where anyone can sound off.

"Please get out of Africa," reads one recent post. "Everything you people do is for your own interest."

And the PR war carries on. Ward said any push back has been to the "misperceptions," such as a large presence of U.S. troops basing on the continent.

"You can probably look at anything in hindsight and say, ‘Yes, if I had done this or done something else, there may have been a little different reaction to it,’ " Ward said.

"[But] working in a collaborative way to try to make a difference — I have not experienced any push back with that at all."


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