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The recent crises in Northern Africa - Libya, Mali and Algeria - have turned the spotlight on AFRICOM. That's the United States Africa Command. Created five years ago, its chief mission was to train African militaries so U.S. troops wouldn't be called on.
As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the effort was controversial from day one.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Africa Command was barely up and running in 2008 when President George W. Bush visited Ghana. President John Kufuor pointed at him and bluntly said, you're not going to build any bases in Ghana. An exasperated Bush then met with the press.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We do not contemplate adding new bases. In other words, the purpose of this is not to add military bases. I know there's rumors in Ghana, all Bush is coming to do is try to convince you to put a big military base here. That's baloney.
BUSH: Or as we say in Texas, that's bull.
BOWMAN: The U.S. got similar receptions elsewhere in Africa. So, the headquarters for U.S. Africa Command ended up in Stuttgart, Germany.
RICHARD DOWNIE: U.S. Africa Command had a sort of messy birth. African leaders weren't exactly lining up to volunteer their territory for AFRICOM.
BOWMAN: That's Richard Downie, an Africa analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
DOWNIE: Africans rightly have long memories of colonial on their continent which was so brutal in the way it was applied. It's very, very sensitive to the anything that smacks of neo-colonialism.
BOWMAN: They weren't the only ones concerned. State Department officials complained that the new AFRICOM would militarize foreign policy in Africa. Aid groups worried their work would be confused with U.S. military activities.
So now it has fallen to General Carter Ham, the second officer to run AFRICOM, to explain its role. His message? He just wants to help. General Ham spoke in Washington in December.
GENERAL CARTER HAM: We think we think our best efforts are when we are supporting and enabling African nations and African regional organizations to achieve their ends. That often gets condensed into the short-hand of African solutions to African problems.
BOWMAN: African leaders tell the U.S. military that real African problems are poverty, food shortages, a lack of education. U.S. Africa Command sees a different African problem: terrorism.
Again, General Ham.
HAM: Unsurprisingly, at the top of the list is countering violent extremist organizations.
BOWMAN: Countering violent extremists with what the military calls Phase Zero, training and equipping African militaries before a crisis begins. That way, the theory goes, the Africans can handle it and the U.S. doesn't have to send in combat troops.
Peter Pham is an Africa analyst who serves on AFRICOM's senior advisory board.
PETER PHAM: The idea that if we could engage African governments and militaries, there would be fewer calls for U.S. intervention when the conflicts broke out into serious conflagrations.
BOWMAN: But that doesn't always work. Michael Brenner teaches international relations at the University of Texas at Austin. He notes that in Mali some American-trained troops joined the enemy. The reason, he says, is that the U.S. fails to understand local political dynamics.
MICHAEL BRENNER: And we weren't doing the job we're supposed to be doing.
BOWMAN: So we're blundering into some of these countries.
BRENNER: We're blundering into something.
BOWMAN: Now Mali has deteriorated so much that France sent warplanes and troops to fight the rebels in its former colony, because government troops weren't up to the job. The U.S. helped France with cargo aircraft and could provide refueling planes and surveillance equipment.
DOWNIE: The U.S. is in a tricky position now.
BOWMAN: Again, Africa analyst Richard Downie.
DOWNIE: It wants to support the French, its ally in Africa, in defeating these Islamist terrorist groups in Mali. But, at the same time, it wants to stick to its Phase Zero formula and its core mandate, which is training and equipping and professionalizing African militaries.
BOWMAN: U.S. Africa Command may find itself in tricky positions throughout Africa. It wants to focus on training but may find itself drawn into conflict.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.