WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has dispatched elite Army training teams to Africa in recent months in an effort to establish a low-cost U.S. military presence in a region rife with political and economic instability, terrorism and guerrilla warfare.
The increase in U.S. military activities has occurred over the past 20 months, ever since the Army Special Operations Command officially reactivated the 3rd Special Forces Group -- a Vietnam War-era Green Beret unit -- for extensive security assignments in Africa and, to a lesser extent, in the Caribbean.
The 3rd Group is commanded by Col. Peter Stankovich, a highly decorated officer with considerable counterinsurgency experience in Vietnam and Latin America.
The expansion of U.S. military activities clearly coincides with the Pentagon's increasing focus on potential conflict in the Third World, especially with the demise of the Soviet Union. It is also the latest sign of the unprecedented peacetime buildup of special operations forces, which began in 1981 and has received exceptionally strong congressional backing.
Most recently, small special forces detachments have flown to Zimbabwe, Namibia, Niger and the Ivory Coast to train local armies or help improve local health-care and economic conditions, said Gen. Carl W. Stiner, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
About 50 Green Berets have been conducting counterinsurgency and weapons training in Senegal since November while assisting Senegalese troops in their withdrawal from strife-torn Liberia, other military officials said.
For two weeks in January, about 200 U.S. airborne troops from Vicenza, Italy, staged "Operation Silver Eagle" in Botswana, one of the largest U.S. exercises ever in sub-Saharan Africa, according to U.S. and foreign officials. The combined forces staged mock battles, parachute drops and maneuvers to defend strategic areas near the capital of Gaborone.
General Stiner disclosed a few of the African missions at a little-noticed session of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month. He described them as "relatively low-visibility, non-intrusive assets -- thus they are often more acceptable to host nations than conventional forces."
The "units project a positive impression of U.S. forces as a whole and may provide the basis for expanded military contacts in the future," the four-star general said. For now, these units offer "an effective means of providing a low-cost forward presence," he said.
Several U.S. officials said the missions are part of an overall strategy to promote "stability" in the region by strengthening the internal defenses" of some of the least-developed countries of the world. At the same time, U.S. forces have been getting needed exposure to local terrain, culture and language, they said.
Outside analysts have raised the possibility that the United States might get caught in regional violence that flares as democratic reforms clash with authoritarian regimes in Africa, where radical changes have been under way in the past several years. There also have been suggestions that the Bush administration might be seeking to prevent the emergence of a regional power that could threaten stability on the continent.
In Africa, U.S. strategy used to be based mainly on the recognition of a power rivalry with the Soviet Union and a desire to check its expansionism while promoting American good will. Because the United States has had less dependence on African mineral and oil resources, and less trade with Africa than European countries, there has been little reason to design a military policy to safeguard economic interests there.
But now, many parts of sub-Saharan Africa have been turning to democracy, and one-party governments -- some of them repressive and often corrupt -- are finding themselves under increasing pressure to change. Adding to possible instability are "awesome challenges from decades of misrule, economic disorder and the mounting demographic crisis of AIDS," CIA Director Robert M. Gates said last week.
Although the Green Beret missions have been undertaken at the request of African governments, they generally are being initiated by an "awareness campaign" that the United States has been conducting through diplomatic channels for more than a year to drum up business, a knowledgeable military official said. Asked about future missions, this official replied, "We're looking for opportunities."
This past week, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a rare visit to Senegal, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, mainly as a goodwill gesture but also for informal talks on regional issues and U.S. security assistance, officials said.