For all its imperfections, the Bush administration deserves credit for something that few Americans have noticed over the past seven-plus years: elevating Africa to more than a foreign-policy footnote.

Even as the administration focused on thwarting terrorist attacks in the United States, wresting nukes from North Korea and Iran, and prosecuting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it managed to build an infrastructure of programs and policies that future administrations will use to help stabilize Africa. The creation of the Pentagon's Africa Command (AFRICOM) is only the latest example of newfound U.S. interest in what was once a low-priority continent.

Small Footprints. AFRICOM is an idea whose time has come. As Gen. William Ward, first commander of AFRICOM, 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Ending what Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls an "outdated arrangement left over from the Cold War," AFRICOM is the natural result of Washington's long-overdue decision to formalize and focus its patchwork of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 overseas commands: Central Command (CENTCOM), which had overseen Egypt and much of East Africa; Pacific Command (PACOM), responsible for the islands off Africa's east coast; and European Command (EUCOM), which had shouldered responsibility for the rest of Africa. Once AFRICOM becomes fully operational in October, it will have primary responsibility for the entire 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," combat terrorism, stabilize the continent and coordinate various interagency efforts with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department. Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, says the command will focus on "war prevention rather than war fighting." She talks about "a more holistic approach" to security and development. And 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.

By supporting the State Department, USAID and their various development programs, AFRICOM will encourage what Ward calls "African solutions to African challenges." And by coordinating closely with civilian agencies, AFRICOM will be decidedly different than its sister commands. For instance, AFRICOM's deputy commander will be a high-ranking Foreign Service officer.

"It's an evolutionary construct," Ward concedes. But it may be necessary, given Africa's unique challenges and AFRICOM's focus on humanitarian and development efforts. As Whelan has observed, "The United States spends approximately $9 billion a year in Africa funding programs in such areas as health, development, trade promotion and good governance," but only $250 million on security-related programs.

Last year, The Economist reported "keen competition among African countries to host AFRICOM's new headquarters." That's largely a result of the positive feelings many Africans hold for the United States. A Pew Research Center poll reveals that African nations occupy eight of the top 11 spots in a survey on global views of the United States, with Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali and Uganda embracing "American ideas about democracy" and "American ways of doing business."

According to National Defense magazine, Navy officials are proposing to base the new command onboard a high-tech "joint command and control ship." But no matter where AFRICOM is ultimately headquartered, Whelan says the Pentagon plans to "keep our footprint very small and very discreet."

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 elevates America's relationship with Africa to a "priority rather than an afterthought," Payne criticized the administration for 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 said.

The administration's communication skills notwithstanding, what is really shocking and dismaying is the fact that it took until 2007 for the United States to create a military command devoted expressly to Africa - a resource-rich, war-torn continent of 877 million people.

As various witnesses observed during hearings chaired by Payne, for most of the postwar era, Washington's Africa policy has ranged from "benign neglect" to "strategic neglect." Indeed, one wonders how different Africa might be today if there had been an AFRICOM in 1992, 1994, 1998 or 2002. Maybe Somalia wouldn't have starved. Maybe 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis would still be alive. Maybe al-Qaeda wouldn't have hit U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Maybe Darfur wouldn't have slid toward genocide.

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 Bush observed before his 2008 tour across Africa, the continent is "increasingly vital to our strategic interests."

Strategic Interests. What are those interests?

Protecting the free flow of energy. "Persistent insecurity in Nigeria's oil-producing region," said 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. On the list of U.S. crude-oil suppliers, Nigeria ranks fifth. Another African country with its own recent history of instability, Angola, ranks sixth on that same list.

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." Gabon, Congo and Sudan also have oil reserves that may prove crucial in the coming decades.

Countering China. Geopolitics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and China has been filling the power vacuum in Africa. In McConnell's understated words, "Beijing still engages in some activities - including arms sales - that could contribute to instability in Africa."

Pan offers the details: China has provided military equipment and/or training to Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Weapons deliveries have ranged from small arms to combat aircraft. China is also investing billions in Africa's oil-rich areas: $2 billion to Angola, $3 billion to Nigeria and $10 billion to Sudan, according to Peter Brookes at the Heritage Foundation. Craving stability and resources, Somalia recently granted China oil-exploration rights.

Fighting Islamic radicalism. China is not America's only concern in Africa. Hoping to prevent the "Talibanization" of Africa, U.S. forces have been quietly at work there 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, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Jane's Defence Weekly also reports that elements of the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, are in Mali providing some of its soldiers with a five-week training course. The U.S. task force in Djibouti numbers some 2,000 troops, and the Pentagon is expanding its Djibouti base from 97 to nearly 500 acres.

"We are trying to dry up the recruiting pool for al-Qaeda," as Maj. Gen. Timothy Ghormley, who commanded U.S. forces on the Horn of Africa, told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006. "We're waging peace just as hard as we can."

Our troops are waging war in Africa with the same blend of ferocity and finesse. Recall last year's operations in and around Somalia, which saw the U.S. military assist Somali and Ethiopian forces in their battles against jihadists along Africa's east coast.

Preventing disasters, bolstering democracy. A recent report by The Economist tallies 11 different peacekeeping missions in Africa. Some are run by the African Union (AU), others by the European Union, and still others by the United Nations. So many missions 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 of them have been sent to Darfur, the blood-soaked region in Sudan where an estimated 200,000 people have died in what Washington has labeled a "genocide."

A recent Associated Press analysis found that the United States is spending $100 million to train and equip AU peacekeepers bound for Sudan. But so far, the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force has been ineffective in the face of a defiant Sudanese government.

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. Late last year, for instance, the destroyer USS Porter sank pirate boats that had hijacked a Japanese tanker. This year, the amphibious landing ship USS Fort McHenry led a maritime-security training program in West Africa known as Africa Partnership Station.

Kenya was once considered an African success story. But this year, it spiraled into bloodshed after dubious election results kept the opposition out of power. At least 1,000 people 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 backward.

Of course, Liberia is a reminder of the opposite - even places where democracy has been trampled can be revived. By invading Liberia and seizing power in the 1990s, warlord 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 and put Liberia on the path to stability. Backed by the United States and the United Nations, and committed to fighting corruption, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - Africa's first democratically elected woman leader - is now leading her country along that path.

Taylor, who supported rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone in yet another civil war that killed 50,000, was exiled to Nigeria and indicted on war-crime charges by courts in Sierra Leone. With regional and international support, the war-torn country conducted free elections in 2007 - one of 50 such elections in Africa over the past four years, President Bush says.

Triumph and Tragedy. "Some people believe that we are establishing AFRICOM solely to fight terrorism or to secure oil resources, or to discourage China," Whelan has observed. "This is not true."

But if such objectives aren't "solely" the new command's mission, then it is fair to infer they account for at least part of AFRICOM's mission ­- and that's a good thing.
AFRICOM's multifarious mission is complemented by new development and relief programs:

The Millennium Challenge Account (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 approved for MCA grants are in Africa. President Bush notes that "two-thirds of the MCA's $5.5 billion is being invested in Africa."

The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was launched in 2003, at a time when only 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa were receiving anti-retroviral AIDS drugs. The $15-billion PEPFAR program now treats 1.4 million Africans. Thirteen of PEPFAR's 15 focus countries are in Africa. Bush is working with Congress to double the initial U.S. investment, and he has persuaded the Group of Eight (leading industrialized nations) to match Washington's commitment.

The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act paved the way for unprecedented U.S.-Africa trade. Imports from sub-Saharan Africa have grown to $50 billion - six times their 2001 levels - and U.S. exports have doubled to $14 billion.

The President's Malaria Initiative, a $1.2-billion program, is credited with protecting 25 million people from the malady by distributing bed nets and medicine. Early this year, Bush announced a joint U.S.-Tanzanian effort to distribute another 5.2 million insecticide-treated bed nets.

During his February visit to several countries in Africa, Bush announced a $350-million initiative over five years to fight against tropical diseases on the continent, such as hookworm and river blindness. He also noted the United States is spending $17 million to help Ghana fight malaria.

Longtime Africa activist Bob Geldoff has called Bush's transformational efforts on the continent a "triumph of American policy." But given the challenges that still loom in Africa, we're a long way from triumph. The good news is that AFRICOM and these humanitarian programs put the United States in a better position than ever before to prevent the kinds of tragedies that have scarred Africa for generations.

Alan W. Dowd is a contributing editor for The American Legion Magazine.