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Joint Chiefs Chairman Offers Encouragement as New Africa Command Takes Shape
The top U.S. military officer challenged the U.S. Africa Command staff to seize the opportunities presented as they stand up a new, uniquely organized command that brings more focus to a vital part of the world. <br /> <br />Navy Admiral Mike
The top U.S. military officer challenged the U.S. Africa Command staff to seize the opportunities presented as they stand up a new, uniquely organized command that brings more focus to a vital part of the world.

Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the AfriCom headquarters June 26, 2008, at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart to assess progress leading up to October 1, when the command reaches full operational capability.

Africa Command stood up October 1, 2007, but currently operates as a sub-unified command of U.S. European Command. As it prepares to reach unified command status, the AfriCom staff is integrating responsibilities and missions previously carried out by EuCom, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Pacific Command.

Mullen told about 400 AfriCom staffers during a town hall meeting that they're laying important groundwork that will have a far-reaching impact on the way the United States engages with the African continent.

"I can't overstate the importance of this command," he told the group. "[You're] laying the groundwork for what will become, 10 or 20 years from now, an institution that has great relevance and great impact."

Fast-forwarding one or two decades, Mullen said, he envisions Africa Command engaging in close, comfortable relationships with African nations the way Pacific Command and other geographic commands engage today with countries in their operating areas.

In the meantime, Mullen said, AfriCom will bring renewed focus to a region that three regional combatant commands couldnnt properly address.

"I believe strongly in the mission," Mullen said after opening up the session to questions from the audience. "It is certainly due and overdue to have this kind of focus on Africa."

Mullen said he's excited about the work AfriCom is doing and will build on in the future. "This is a huge new mission for us in terms of focusing on a continent that we need to focus on in ways we haven't done in the past," he said. "It's critical that we get it right."

The chairman challenged the group to ensure that happens. "We are relying heavily on you," he said. "You are literally the center of gravity for us as a military and a government for what's going on in Africa."

Looking out at the audience, a mix of military and civilian employees who reflect the command's unique interagency makeup and the diverse missions it will carry out, Mullen said they're a sign of things to come.

"I think you, in many ways, represent the face of the future with respect that our combatant commands," he said. "You may be leading what we are doing in our government."

Army General William E. "Kip" Ward serves as AfriComms first commander, with two deputies. Navy Vice Admiral Robert T. Moeller is the deputy to the commander for military operations, and Ambassador Mary Carlin Gates, a State Department employee, is the deputy to the commander for civil-military activities. The staff includes representatives of the State, Treasury, Justice, Agriculture, Commerce and Justice departments, as well as the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The command structure represents "a much more integrated effort" as the United States increases its engagement with Africa and builds or strengthens relationships across the entire spectrum, Mullen said.

"It's an exciting time standing up a new command," Mullen said, noting the tremendous possibilities it will open up. The work of Africa Command will "make a difference" in the lives of the African people and create opportunities for them that didnnt exist in the past, he said.

But Mullen also acknowledged the challenges as well as inconveniences involved in standing up a command able to have that kind of impact. New arrivals at the command are squeezed into temporary workspaces and shuffled from one building to another as former U.S. Army VII Corps headquarters facilities that will house them undergo renovation.

Forces of change - common throughout the military - are in hyperdrive in Stuttgart as Africa Command stands up a brand-new command with a new composition and new type of strategic mission. "I can't think of anywhere things are changing more rapidly than here in this command," Mullen said, noting that the phenomenon is likely to continue as Africa Command increases its regional engagements.

Mullen said he's not concerned that the AfriCom headquarters is in Europe, and said the Defense Department has committed to keeping it in Stuttgart for several years. "It is my view that it is much more important to emphasize projects and engagement than it is footprint," he said.

Once countries in the region or with ties to it begin to fully understand Africa Command's focus, Mullen said, he's confident any misconceptions they might have about it will be resolved. For now, it's the newness of the concept that causes some concern, he said.

Mullen emphasized the need to "constantly repeat the message about what the intent is: ... to have an engagement plan for a really vital continent in a way to meet the challenges that are clearly there."

As he toured the makeshift facilities at Kelley Barracks, shaking hands with every staffer he met and presenting his military coin, Mullen promised that Africa Command will get the funding and personnel it needs to face those challenges.

"We are committed to making sure you have the resources you need to stand up this command," both funding and people, he said. "You just can't move forward without those two. We understand that."

Ward called Mullen's visit a great opportunity to reinforce to his people the importance the Defense Department leadership places on AfriCom.

"When the admiral comes here and expresses his support for the command, his support for the mission and his efforts in ensuring we get what we need to get this thing started, it just reinforces all the things I've been saying," Ward said.

But Ward said he also hopes the visit will give Mullen a personal perspective of AfriCom, its mission and the dedication of its people that will help him be an advocate for the command as it stands up. He said he purposely steered clear of PowerPoint presentations to give Mullen the opportunity to "meet and talk with the men and women who are doing the work and seeing their commitment to it."

Ward said he shares Mullen's excitement about standing up a new unified command. "It is a once-in-a-lifetime venture that I am very happy to be a part of," he said.

Army Command Sergeant Major Mark Ripka said Mullen's visit validates the work under way at AfriCom and assured the staff that theyyre on the right path.

"I think it was tremendous for all of our people to come together today and listen to our chairman talk about the United States Africa Command how important it is, ... and the value that we will have in sustained security cooperation in the future," he said.

Ripka said he's found the African nations he engages with "very receptive" to strengthening existing relationships or building new ones. It's a slow process that will take time, Ripka said, but he added that he sees great value in the personal-level interactions Africa Command will advance. "It is all about people and relationships," he said.

Like Ward, Ripka said he's excited by the possibilities as he helps build the new Africa Command from the ground up. "For me it is tremendous," he said. "I wouldn't trade this for the world."