The USS Theodore Roosevelt is due to anchor in Cape Town’s Table Bay later this week, while the guided missile cruiser USS Monterey will dock alongside.
The visit overcame an earlier hurdle when a regulatory body rejected objections from environmental campaigners and agreed to provide a license required under law for visits by nuclear-powered ships.
Green activists and anti-war protestors say they plan to protest the visit of what one local leftist group, the Anti-War Coalition, described Wednesday as a “carrier of imperialist mass murder.”
The visit comes at the invitation of the South African Navy, and will include joint maneuvers, meetings with government and military leaders and community relations activities.
“The U.S. Navy is committed to strengthening partnerships with South Africa, and this visit provides a welcome chance to advance our relationship,” U.S. Naval Forces Europe commander Adm. Mark Fitzgerald said in a statement.
“Our nations share a mutual interest in safeguarding the maritime environment, which plays a critical role in today’s global economy.”
The visit comes at a time when attention is focused on the seas off Somalia, where pirates holding cargo vessels are engaged in a standoff with U.S. and other warships. The Russian Navy is also showcasing its global reach, and announced Wednesday that a taskforce of its warships heading for the Caribbean for exercises with Venezuela will make a port call in Libya en route.
The Cape Town visit by the ship based at Norfolk, Va., is the first by a U.S. Navy carrier to South Africa since the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt called in 1967, on the way home from its only deployment in Vietnam.
South Africa, the region’s leading military and economic power, has cordial relations with the U.S., but the African National Congress government has been a strong critic of American foreign policies, particularly those pursued as part of the anti-terrorist campaign launched after 9/11.
South African wariness mirrors that of other countries in Africa, where appreciation for Washington’s huge anti-AIDS drive is tempered by suspicions that the U.S. views Africa as little more than a source of energy supplies and an arena for resisting growing Chinese influence in the region.
Against that background, U.S. plans for a unified Africa Command (AfriCom), first announced by President Bush in early 2007, have faced an uphill battle.
Up until now, Africa has fallen under the areas of responsibility of three separate combatant commands whose main focus and priorities were elsewhere – seven countries in the north-east under Central Command, due to the region’s geographical and geo-political links to the Middle East and Gulf; Madagascar and nearby island nations under Pacific Command; and the rest of the continent under European Command.
AfriCom will cover all of Africa except for Egypt.
Its aim, Bush said, would be not only to enhance peace and security but also “development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth.”
But African governments voiced skepticism and opposition to the notion of U.S. bases on African territory.
Liberia, a country with strong historical links to the U.S., was an exception. In mid-2007, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in an op-ed endorsing the proposal.
“If AfriCom aims to use its ‘soft power’ mandate to develop a stable environment in which civil society can flourish and the quality of life for Africans can be improved, African nations should work with AfriCom to achieve their own development and security goals,” she argued.
“AfriCom is undeniably about the projection of American interests – but this does not mean that it is to the exclusion of African ones.”
Early this year, AfriCom commander Army Gen. William “Kip” Ward said the headquarters would for the time being remain in Stuttgart in southern Germany, where European Command is located.
During a visit to Ghana in February, Bush stressed that the U.S. had no plans to establish new military bases on the continent. The U.S. may eventually set up an AfriCom office somewhere in Africa, but had not yet decided on that, he said.
’Mission not to wage war, but prevent it’
AfriCom went fully operational as an independent command on Wednesday. Its Air Force component, the 17th Air Force, is located at the Ramstein Air Base, about 130 miles from Stuttgart.
An AfriCom fact sheet says that the command will in the near term work with embassies, country teams and defense cooperation teams to strengthen military-to-military relations.
“If our African partners and the U.S. government agree that further cooperation would benefit from a more robust Africa Command presence, we will consult accordingly and determine the best way to proceed.”
Addressing a flag-hoisting ceremony at the Pentagon Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said defense, diplomacy and development were the focus of U.S. policy in Africa.
“On the defense side, AfriCom’s mission is not to wage war, but to prevent it – not to show United States military presence, but to enhance the security forces of our partners,” he said.
Half of AfriCom’s 1,300 personnel will be civilians, including staffers from non-military agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department. One of its two deputy commanders is Mary Carlin Yates, a Foreign Service officer; the other is Navy Vice Adm. Robert Moeller.
Ward said during the ceremony that the goal was to promote a stable and more secure African environment in support of U.S. foreign policy. The command would exemplify civilian-military and U.S.-African partnerships that seek to prevent wars and foster peace, he said.
AfriCom this week assumes responsibility for all U.S. military relationships, programs and activities in Africa.
The U.S. has been active in military and counter-terrorism training and assistance across Africa, and has since 2002 stationed some 1,800 personnel in Djibouti, home of the Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa.
AfriCom takes over the Djibouti mission from Central Command, as well as a Trans-Sahara counter-terrorism initiative from European Command.
It will also take on the African Partnership Station (APS) initiative, a project that began last year with a six-month deployment of a U.S. Navy ship to train navies in West Africa in dealing with maritime threats.
The amphibious ship USS Fort McHenry visited 10 countries between Oct. 2007 and Apr. 2008, providing training drills and onboard classes and delivering humanitarian aid. A second APS tour is expected to begin soon.