by Austin Bay
August 24, 2005
DJIBOUTI, Africa -- Djibouti is one of those places few can pronounce (ja-boo-tee) and fewer visit. Situated in the dangerous geographic "elbow" known as "The Horn of Africa" -- with Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea its immediate neighbors -- the former French colony serves as a base for waging preventative war.
"We're involved in waging peace," U.S. Marine Corps Col. Craig Huddleston told me when I visited the U.S. headquarters at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti. Camp Lemonier currently houses 1,400 U.S. troops belonging to Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). At one time, Lemonier hosted a French Foreign Legion unit. France still stations a couple of battalions in the country.
The region needs peace -- desperately. For three decades, the Horn of Africa -- with Somalia as a particularly bitter American memory -- has been a corner of violence and anarchy. The Horn and East Africa were an early battleground in AlQaida's war on America. Seven years ago this month, Al-Qaida bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
"In 2005, Al-Qaida is very much in the Horn of Africa," a U.S. intelligence officer said during a background brief. "But we're there, too. CJTF-HOA supports a spectrum of counter-terror operations."
The intelligence officer emphasized the role Djibouti's seaport and airbase play in supporting coalition naval operations in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. That force includes ships from German, Spanish and other allied navies. The ships and aircraft conduct "counter-terror surveillance operations" -- which means stopping and inspecting everything from rowboats to oil tankers.
Four years ago, terrorists tried to sink a French tanker as it passed through the Bab Al Mandab Strait between Yemen and Djibouti. The navies have also tackled the pirates that plague the area. Terrorists and criminals cooperate on land -- terrorist organizations with cash can also buy a pirate.
The spectrum of counter-terror operations in the Horn also includes developmental aid, medical support, and training for border troops and police forces -- what Huddleston meant when he said U.S. forces were "waging peace."
Poverty may not create international terrorists, but poverty, social turmoil, starvation, lack of infrastructure and weak political systems attract them. East Africa and the Horn suffer from all of these afflictions.
Six hundred sixty million people live in CJTF-HOA's area of operations, which includes the Sudan and Yemen. Half live in extreme poverty. One source estimates that 26 million people in the region have HIV. With the Sudan come two internal conflicts: the current genocide in Darfur and the "uneasy peace" in the south. As this decade began, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a brutal border war -- and that peace remains uncertain.
"This is a complex area," Huddleston said, as we walked from his headquarters to the airbase. "The War on Terror in the Horn of Africa is a war of economic aid, security training and political engagement."
What about intelligence gathering? I asked.
Huddleston replied with a quick nod. "But the best intelligence is local people, local police. People who know their own area and are able to act for themselves, and take the extremists off the streets."
Guamian National Guard 1st Lt. Joe Cruz had just returned from two weeks in Ethiopia. His unit -- 2nd Platoon, A Company, 1-294th Infantry, Guam National Guard -- had been conducting border security training with Ethiopian forces. "We worked on basic infantry skills," Cruz said, "but also military police tasks. Traffic control. Operating roadblocks."
The task force had just completed a medical and veterinary aid mission in Yemen. Digging wells and helping locals provide clean water are key programs.
"One measure of our effectiveness, Huddleston said, is the people don't believe the (Al-Qaida) propaganda that we're there to poison their animals."
Is this nation-building? Of course it is. Though "nation-strengthening" may be more apt a term.
U.S. and coalition operations in the Horn of Africa are an example of the counter-terror operations the United States will be conducting for the next four decades -- political and economic development programs intertwined with security assistance, security training and intelligence sharing.