The new U.S. military command devoted to Africa is now operational. It's called AFRICOM and its launch completes a three-year quest by the Pentagon.
The Pentagon divides the world up into six regions known as "combatant commands." The most prominent is CENTCOM — the area that encompasses the Middle East and central Asia. Each command is led by a four-star general who, in turn, is responsible for all the U.S. forces operating in the area.
But according to the Pentagon, AFRICOM will be different. The U.S. Africa command will focus on the humanitarian needs of Africa.
Most African leaders are skeptical — or flatly opposed — to the development, which the Pentagon says is a matter of public relations. Army Gen. William Ward, the new AFRICOM commander, says most Africans don't yet understand what the command is about.
Contributing to the confusion is a debate raging between the Army and the Navy over what AFRICOM should be.
According to a well-placed Pentagon source involved in the issue, the Army wants to build an AFRICOM headquarters somewhere on the continent. The Navy wants AFRICOM to be a sea-based command — operating out of carriers and large vessels moored off the coast of Africa.
The U.S. Navy is already starting to train African navies on ways to prevent illegal smuggling.
"We're starting [with the training] in the Gulf of Guinea," says Navy Adm. Henry Ulrich, who says African nations have asked for the help.
The Gulf of Guinea sits atop one of the world's largest untapped oil reserves. Several top naval commanders have argued that the U.S. ought to shift its oil dependence away from the Arabian/Persian Gulf and towards the African Gulf of Guinea.
Many U.S. policymakers share that view, but the emphasis on oil feeds African skepticism over the true motivation in creating AFRICOM.
"AFRICOM is about oil," says Sandra Barnes, the founding director of the Africa Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
But, she adds, AFRICOM is also about China.
Barnes points out that China is now one of the largest foreign donors to Africa. The continent is awash in Chinese exports and today, China brings in more oil from Angola than it does from Saudi Arabia.
Over the past five years, China has also started to develop oil platforms in the Gulf of Guinea, worrying officials at the Pentagon and the State Department. Many Africa analysts say that's the main reason the U.S. is pursuing AFRICOM.
Barnes, for one, dismisses the humanitarian focus of AFRICOM as "window dressing."
Nicole Lee, director of the Africa advocacy center Transafrica Forum, points out that U.S. humanitarian assistance to Africa has been traditionally handled by the State Department and USAID, leading Barnes and Lee to question the Defense Department's new role. Lee says African democracies have questions, too:
"They're not comfortable with the notion that the Defense Department will now be providing humanitarian aid," she says.