For Africa Action, a grassroots group created several years ago in a merger of the three most important activist groups in the U.S. anti-apartheid movement, that is one of the key questions facing U.S. Africa policy over the next year.

Washington, according to Africa Action, whose "Africa Policy Outlook 2006" was released here Thursday, is embarked on two very distinct paths in Africa at the moment.

The first, which is designed to appeal to the public’s humanitarian instincts and receives much more attention in the media, includes Pres. George W. Bush’s HIV/AIDS programme and his pledges — so far only partially realised — to increase development aid and provide debt relief.

The second, which receives far less attention, is aimed at securing more traditional U.S. commercial and strategic interests, particularly defeating radical Islam in the "global war on terror" and securing access to Africa’s natural resources, especially oil and gas, by military means if necessary.

"This year, when it comes to U.S. relations with Africa, the preoccupation of U.S. officials with oil and guns will stand in stark contrast to the expressed concern of the American people regarding the ongoing genocide in Darfur and global health challenges like HIV/AIDS and the bird flu," according to the report.

"This dichotomy also highlights the divide between African priorities and American imperatives on today’s most urgent global challenges," said the two authors, Africa Action director Salih Booker and its policy chief, Ann-Louise Colgan.

The report, which comes on the eve of a critical decision by the African Union (AU) whether to ask the United Nations to absorb its 7,000-strong peace monitoring force into a larger and more robust U.N. peacekeeping operation in Darfur, points precisely to Sudan as a prime example of the administration’s competing priorities in Africa.

On the one hand, the administration has accused Khartoum of "genocide" in Darfur and has spoken out strongly — most recently in an appeal Thursday by Secretary of State Robert Zoellick — in favour of a strong U.N. mission to end the violence that has recently spread to Chad.

On the other hand, Washington has ruled out deployment of its own troops on the ground in Darfur and appears to be forging an alliance with Sudan’s intelligence services in the context of its "war on terror", reportedly even building a listening post near Khartoum to gather intelligence in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula. To the extent that Washington relies on Khartoum’s cooperation, its efforts to end the Darfur crisis are constrained.

"(P)erhaps nowhere is the confusion between the warm façade of humanitarianism and the cold calculations of security concerns more revealing than in U.S. policy toward Sudan," according to the report.

"As Africa policy increasingly mirrors Cold War dynamics, U.S. policy toward Sudan reveals a similar hierarchy of geo-strategic interests, equally distorting and bringing equally negative consequences," it said, noting that Washington’s growing military presence in Africa contrasted sharply with its refusal to actually deploy troops in Darfur.

Indeed, that military presence and its relationship both to the "war on terror" — recently renamed "the Long War" by the Pentagon — and to securing energy supplies help illustrate the resurgence of traditional security interests in U.S. Africa policy at the expense of the vast majority of Africans, according to the report.

While U.S. troops deployed to Africa as part of the Djibouti-based Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF) and the rapidly expanding Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) have been engaged in humanitarian projects designed to win "hearts and minds" in the mainly Muslim regions where they operate, their main purpose remains to hunt down "terrorist" groups and to train, equip and establish close ties with local militaries to do the same.

"(T)his ongoing expansion of U.S. military assets and interests in Africa reflects a growing bias toward African militaries as the key institutions through which to promote security in the region, a security defined differently than that presently preoccupying most African governments and their people," according to the report.

Similarly, fast-growing U.S. investment in and reliance on African oil and gas, particularly from fields in West Africa and the Gulf Guinea — U.S. companies are expected to invest 10 billion dollars a year there over the next decade in order to increase Africa’s share of total U.S. oil imports from 15 percent to 25 percent — also pose major, if familiar, dilemmas for Washington.

So far, however, the administration has appeared more sensitive to the security needs of local governments and corporate energy giants than to the complex politics and histories of communities most affected by pumping operations.

"As is obvious from recent headlines, hostage-taking and takeovers of oil platforms in the Niger Delta are becoming almost routine and are increasingly the defining strategy for marginalised communities demanding justice and economic compensation from foreign oil companies and the Nigerian government," according to the report.

"In fact, the projected increase in U.S. investments in Nigeria’s oil industry and the subsequent U.S.-Nigeria security deal on the Niger Delta point toward a further militarisation of a longstanding conflict over economic compensation for environmental damage and economic injustice," it noted.

"While the Bush administration promotes conventional concepts of U.S. security interests in Africa, this perspective is at odds with a broader concept of human security interest in Africa" that includes, according to the report, defeating AIDS and other public-health challenges, reducing poverty, and protecting the environment.

Washington could help correct the imbalance by following through on some of its past pledges to sharply increase development assistance to African countries, removing conditions on eligibility for debt relief, and dropping its insistence that a substantial portion of his 15-billion-dollar AIDS programme be spent on abstinence-only projects, according to the report.

It also called for urgently building up Africa’s emergency infrastructure to deal with avian flu and other public health threats and provide significantly more support — including the deployment of U.S. troops — to peacekeeping and peace-making efforts.