June 28, 2006

NATO thaws Cold War image with African war games

By Mark John

SAO VICENTE, Cape Verde (Reuters) - The islanders of Cape
Verde are slowly getting used to German armored vehicles and
Spanish helicopters descending on their sun-drenched beaches as
U.S. fighter F-16 jets roar overhead.

"It was a bit of a surprise at first," said 48-year-old
fisherman Constantino Valentin of the two weeks of NATO war
games taking place this month on the Atlantic Ocean archipelago
310 miles off the west coast of Africa.

"But it's good to have them here. At least they spend a lot
of money," he said of the 7,800 troops involved in the
maneuvers, the alliance's first major presence on African soil.

The NATO "Steadfast Jaguar" exercises are the final test of
a 25,000-strong rapid-reaction force due to be ready from
October to dive into troublespots around the world and deal
with everything from natural disasters to terrorist attacks.

Four years in the planning, the NATO Response Force is the
flagship of alliance efforts to mend a common image of it as an
irrelevant vestige of the Cold War and prove it can take on the
more diverse security threats of the 21st century.

Just as important to NATO's image makeover is the choice of
the remote former Portuguese colony for the exercises, and the
lengths to which the alliance is going to show a friendly face
to those who see it as a Trojan horse for U.S. meddling abroad.

Hungarian NATO troops have built a water purification plant
as a gift to be left behind after the June 15-29 war games.
Alliance ships are using "passive sonar" devices it pledges
will not harm the humpback whales that feed in Cape Verdean

"When we show up, the first reaction can be 'what's your
ulterior motive?' But everyone's amazed that when they brush up
against NATO it's a good experience," NATO's Supreme Allied
Commander Europe, James Jones, told reporters.

It is no accident that Cape Verde is hosting the event.


Keen to gain exposure for their islands and their tourism
industry, Cape Verdean officials and residents have welcomed
the war games. Street interviews with locals yielded not one
bad word on the alliance.

"NATO is very welcome here. It is a chance for us to gain
experience," said 59-year-old Antao Graca, administrator of a
sporting club in the port of Melindo, referring to the fact
that local troops were taking part in the operations.

The island republic wants to involve NATO in tackling some
of the new security threats occupying alliance planners at
their Brussels headquarters -- for example by staging joint
shipping patrols against drug traffickers.

While there is no talk of a NATO outpost on the
archipelago, Cape Verde's position as a stable democracy within
reach of the turbulent region of west Africa makes it just the
type of country with which many in the alliance want to promote

The maneuvers -- held before dozens of journalists and VIP
visitors from Europe -- offer a telling insight into the type
of future roles NATO sees for itself in the area.

One day, troops are flushing out a fictitious terrorist
cell that has infiltrated one of the islands. The next, they
are staging a mock evacuation of residents in a scenario in
which the local Fogo volcano blows its top.

"Africa was a great choice. It is possible the NATO
Response Force could come here one day," said U.S.
Lieutenant-Colonel Matt Chestnutt, whose unit of F-16 fighters
was deployed in the 1991 Gulf War and later conflicts in Bosnia
and Kosovo.

However, others, both inside and outside the alliance,
disagree, underlining how far NATO has yet to go in its


Cape Verde emerged as the venue for "Steadfast Jaguar"
after France vetoed a candidate on the African mainland,

While France ended up contributing 1,000 troops to the
exercises, Paris and other European capitals are much less keen
than Washington about a role for NATO in Africa.

They say the continent is geographically and historically
closer to Europe and argue the European Union should have first
refusal when Africans ask for security help.

NATO encountered regional suspicion of its motives when it
offered in 2004 to help African Union troops struggling to
quell violence in Sudan's western Darfur region.

It ended up offering transport and training to AU troops,
but its presence on the ground has never amounted to more than
a handful of logistics personnel. NATO Secretary-General Jaap
de Hoop Scheffer rejects speculation that it wants a combat

While this month's exercises show the NATO Response Force
could be a potent tool, what missions it will be allowed to
undertake is unclear.

Would Cape Verde allow NATO troops in real life to storm
its beaches and mount attacks on suspected terrorists? How long
would it take to get consensus among the 26 allies -- and a
possible U.N. mandate -- for such a robust operation?

Humanitarian operations would be less controversial, but
some in the alliance question whether it should take on tasks
that fall to the United Nations or non-government agencies.

NATO leaders hope to have more answers to such questions in
November, when they meet to discuss the alliance's future at a
summit in the Latvian capital, Riga -- far removed from Cape
Verde in terms of geography and climate.