DEBORAH AMOS, Host:
President Bush meets today at the White House with Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, one of the few African leaders to support the newly established U.S. Africa Command. It's designed for humanitarian missions, but also a little more, as NPR's Guy Raz reports.
GUY RAZ: Nearly every single African leader has reservations about AFRICOM; they've said as much on the record. None of that worries the AFRICOM commander, U.S. Army General William Ward.
WILLIAM WARD: I don't know if I will call it opposition. I think it - that would be what we have is lack of clarity of purpose for the command.
RAZ: Or perhaps just confusion. Here's how Ward himself explains what AFRICOM is all about.
WARD: The command is very uniquely envisioned to be an interagency model organization. A matrixed organization so that functionality that make a difference in getting things done are included.
RAZ: Admiral Henry Ulrich says the U.S. is training African navies on how to prevent illegal smuggling and drug trafficking.
HENRY ULRICH: We're starting in the Gulf of Guinea for one significant reason - because they asked us to. They are the ones that, you know, put the request out. So that's why - why we're there.
RAZ: It's a view shared by other U.S. policymakers but one that feeds into Africans' very real skepticism over whether the U.S. military is engaging the continent simply for humanitarian reasons.
SANDRA BARNES: I think AFRICOM is about oil. I think AFRICOM is about the fear of growing fundamentalism in Saharan states. I think that AFRICOM is about China.
RAZ: First, a little background. As mentioned, the Pentagon insists AFRICOM will be focused solely on humanitarian missions.
BARNES: I'm puzzled by the fact that the Pentagon is now becoming interested in AIDS, in malaria, in various health issues, and development issues, and economic issues.
RAZ: Sandra Barnes and Nicole Lee, who's the director of the Africa advocacy group, TransAfrica, note that these are areas normally handled by the State Department and USAID.
NICOLE LEE: And African democracies are not comfortable with that. They are not comfortable with the notion that the Defense Department will now be providing humanitarian aid.
RAZ: But back to Sandra Barnes' earlier point. A few weeks ago, she visited West Africa, and she was surprised to see...
BARNES: Vast numbers of Chinese shopkeepers and small traders, small operators all over Africa. And their presence, at a sort of a micro-level, is really stunning.
RAZ: Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.
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