DAR es SALAAM, Tanzania — Two American presidents will come together Tuesday to lay a wreath at the U.S. Embassy during a solemn ceremony that will commemorate a terrorist bombing 15 years ago — and serve as a stark reminder of present-day security concerns in Africa.
Neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush had come to power at the time of the attack, but the simultaneous destruction of the U.S. diplomatic headquarters by coordinated truck bombs in Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, on Aug. 7, 1998, affected their tenures in the White House. The attacks, which killed hundreds, brought Osama bin Laden to wider public attention and signaled a new level of sophistication in the radical Islamist movements that pose a terrorist threat worldwide.
As President Obama wraps up a weeklong trip to Africa, the embassy ceremony will highlight how significant sub-Saharan Africa has become to the administration’s efforts to fight back. Under Obama, military and security engagement with Africa has expanded significantly, with the rapid growth of military personnel on the continent.
AFRICOM, the U.S. command, has grown to 2,000 staff members assigned to Africa since its founding in 2007, under Bush, and up to 5,000 troops are conducting various missions on the continent at any given time.
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During Bush’s presidency, bin Laden’s success in helping to plan the 1998 bombings emboldened him to carry out the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, leading Bush into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a worldwide battle against terrorism. The threats posed by al-Qaida and its affiliates in Africa have increased during Obama’s tenure, as the U.S. military winds down its presence in Afghanistan and ended operations in Iraq.
The continent is marked by weak governments, large ungoverned spaces and crippling poverty, ingredients that have allowed Islamist extremism to spread.
In 2009, Obama’s first year in office, the primary concern was Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militia. Today, the list of extremist groups includes al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the terrorist network’s branch in West and North Africa, and Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist militia, as well as smaller extremist factions.
The Obama administration also has expanded U.S. military involvement in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord whose forces have kidnapped thousands of children, forcing them to fight or into sexual slavery.
Richard Downie, the deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, points out, however, that the U.S. military presence in Africa remains modest. It has an annual budget of about $250 million, and the AFRICOM headquarters is in Stuttgart, Germany. The largest U.S. military footprint is in Djibouti, on the fringes of the continent — where it can keep watch over Yemen — and Obama has shown no appetite for sending U.S. combat troops into regional conflicts, such as in northern Mali.
U.S. Special Forces soldiers are now in several countries, training African militaries, including 100 dispatched to help Ugandan soldiers try to track down Kony. Arms sales to African allies and military training programs also have grown, as has a U.S. naval presence off the continent’s eastern and western coasts.
The use of aerial drones in Africa has been a hallmark of the U.S. military under the Obama administration. Drones have been deployed by U.S. forces stationed in Djibouti against al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen, as well as in Somalia. And this year, a new base for unmanned drones was opened in Niger to track down extremists in West and North Africa, adding to U.S. drone bases in Ethiopia and the Seychelles.
During a news conference Monday, a Tanzanian reporter asked Obama whether the United States would intervene in ongoing fighting and civil unrest in the Congo. He responded that the administration works with the United Nations on peacekeeping, but that “ultimately, the countries involved have to recognize it is in their self-interest to do so. We can’t force a solution onto the region.”
Meanwhile, Obama said his appearance with Bush will give him a chance to thank Bush for one of the “crowning achievements” of the Republican’s administration, a U.S.-funded program to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS on the continent.
Bush, who has been active on African issues both in and out of office, had coincidentally also planned to be in Dar es Salaam for a conference on African women sponsored by his institute.
Obama said the Bush program, the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, had saved the lives of millions by distributing antiretroviral drugs throughout Africa.
The White House has said the U.S. will spend about $4.2 billion on PEPFAR funding this year, money that has been used to increase the number of people receiving antiretroviral drugs and to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus.
First lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush also will appear together Tuesday in a discussion at the conference on promoting women’s education, health and economic empowerment.
Includes material from The Associated Press