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U.S. Military Expands Role in West Africa

Brightly painted tattoos snake down Sgt. Joe Palko's outstretched arms as he separates two fighters in protective headgear and boxing gloves.

It is morning onboard the USS Fort McHenry, a 600-foot amphibious landing ship, and US Marines are teaching martial arts on the "Well Deck" deep in the ship's hull. Staff Sgt. William Sudbrock restarts the timer and a group of Liberian soldiers watch as their comrades lay into each other.

For the past five months, the Fort McHenry has been visiting countries on the coast of West Africa's Gulf of Guinea as part of a new initiative called the Africa Partnership Station (APS).

With the US military's Africa Command (AFRICOM) facing skepticism as it prepares to become fully operational in October, the activities of APS, both onboard and onshore, reveal the shape of future US military relations with Africa. "APS is a case study in the strengths that AFRICOM brings to bear," says its commander, Capt. John Nowell.

It is, says Captain Nowell, about preventing conflict from erupting by training local militaries, improving safety and security – in this case on the seas – and about "soft power" through the delivery of humanitarian support.

He points out that more than 1,200 soldiers and sailors from eight different countries have received training so far. Many of these cash-strapped countries lack either a functioning coast guard or navy, allowing an alarming rise in oil theft, drug trafficking, illegal immigration, piracy, and illegal fishing. The Fort McHenry also helped deliver food aid to Chadian refugees who fled across the border to Cameroon during a coup attempt earlier in the year.

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