The creation of the Pentagon's Africa Command is only the latest example of the United States' newfound interest in what was once a forgotten continent. AFRICOM  is an idea whose time has come. As Gen. William Ward, AFRICOM's first commander, observes, "The economic, political and social importance of the African continent continues to grow."
Ending what Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls an "outdated arrangement left over from the Cold War," AFRICOM is the natural result of Washington's long-overdue decision to formalize and focus its patchwork of operations on the continent. Africa was previously divided among three of the Pentagon's geographic commands. Once fully operational in October 2008, AFRICOM will be primary responsible for the entire African continent, except Egypt, which will remain under CENTCOM's purview.
According to the AFRICOM Transition Team, the new command will help Washington "prevent and respond to humanitarian crises" and combat terrorism, stabilize the continent, and coordinate various interagency efforts with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department.
Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, talks about "a more holistic approach" to security and development. She notes that, if successful, AFRICOM will make U.S. military interventions less necessary. "AFRICOM is about helping Africans build greater capacity to assure their own security," she explains.
Some have criticized the new command for militarizing U.S. foreign policy in Africa. Last year, for example, Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, noted that some African governments "believe we are trying to extend the global war on terror."
Although he seemed pleased that AFRICOM would elevate America's relationship with Africa to a "priority rather than an afterthought," Payne criticized the administration for a lack of consultation with Congress. "I was shocked and dismayed when I learned from a newspaper of the administration's plans to establish AFRICOM," he intoned.
Poor communication skills notwithstanding, what is really shocking and dismaying is that it took until 2008 for the United States to create a military command devoted expressly to Africa, a resource-rich, war-torn continent of 877 million people.
AFRICOM cannot change the past, but it can impact the future – a future that promises to force Americans to pay more attention to Africa. As President George W. Bush observed before his 2008 tour across Africa, the continent is "increasingly vital to our strategic interests."
Protecting the free flow of energy
"Persistent insecurity in Nigeria's oil producing region," according to Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, "poses a direct threat to U.S. strategic interests in sub-Saharan Africa." In fact, the United States imports almost 15 percent of its oil from Nigeria.
Esther Pan  at the Council on Foreign Relations reports that Nigeria's oil reserves may approach 40 billion barrels. Angola is pumping 2 million barrels per day. And Equatorial Guinea's "oil reserves per capita approach and may exceed those of Saudi Arabia."
Geopolitics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and China has been filling it in Africa.
Pan offers the details: China has provided military equipment and/or training to Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, Tanzania – recipient of "at least thirteen covert shipments of weapons labeled as agricultural equipment," and Zimbabwe – recipient of fighter jets, military vehicles and small arms.
Fighting Islamic radicalism
But China is not America's only concern in Africa. Hoping to prevent the Talibanization of Africa, U.S. forces have been quietly at work on the forgotten continent since late 2001.
As The Washington Post reported in 2005, programs such as the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative provide training, equipment and intelligence to militaries in Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Jane's Defense reports that elements of the 3rd Special Forces Group  are in Mali.
The U.S. task force in Djibouti numbers some 2,000 troops, and the United States is expanding its Djibouti base.
Operations in and around Somalia in 2007 saw the U.S. military assist Somali and Ethiopian forces in battle against jihadists along Africa's east coast.
Preventing humanitarian disasters and bolstering democracy
A recent report by The Economist tallies 11 different peacekeeping missions in Africa. Some are run by the African Union, others by the European Union, others still by the United Nations. In their totality, they underscore how fragile and fractured the continent remains – and how important AFRICOM could be to the continent's future.
The United States has trained 39,000 African peacekeepers since 2005 – "over 80 percent of African peacekeepers who are currently deployed," according to the White House. Thousands have been sent to Darfur, the blood-soaked region in Sudan with an estimated 200,000 deaths.
In a grim repeat of what happened in the early 1990s, Western militaries and navies are again escorting aid deliveries bound for Somalia. Indeed, the waters around Africa are lawless, prompting the U.S. Navy and its allies to fight one of the sea's oldest scourges: piracy.
Kenya was once considered an African success story. But in 2008, it spiraled into bloodshed after dubious election results kept the opposition out of power. At least a thousand were killed, and a quarter-million displaced, in the resulting chaos.
McConnell labeled it "a major setback in a country that had long been among Africa's most prosperous, peaceful and stable countries." Indeed, Kenya is a sobering reminder that even Africa's most stable and progressive countries are only an election away from sliding backwards.
Of course, Liberia is a reminder of the opposite: that democracy can be revived where it has been trampled.
By invading Liberia and seizing power in the 1990s, Charles Taylor triggered what the State Department calls "one of Africa's bloodiest civil wars." It claimed 200,000 lives before regional and international organizations could engineer Taylor's removal. Backed by the United States and the United Nations, and committed to fighting corruption, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Africa's first democratically elected female leader – is now leading her country along that path.
Complementing AFRICOM's ambidextrous mission are new development and relief programs, including:
• The Millennium Challenge Account . The MCA provides grants to countries that fight corruption, govern justly, embrace free markets, and invest in health and education. So far, 21 of the 41 countries that have been approved for MCA grants are found in Africa.
• The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Launched in 2003, at a time when only 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa were receiving antiretroviral AIDS drugs, the $15 billion PEPFAR program is now treating 1.4 million Africans. Thirteen of PEPFAR's 15 focus countries are in Africa.
• The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. This paved the way for unprecedented U.S.–Africa trade. Imports from sub-Saharan Africa have grown to $50 billion, and U.S. exports have doubled to $14 billion.
• The President's Malaria Initiative. This $1.2 billion program is credited with protecting 25 million people by distributing bed nets and medicine.