Beyond Fear Radio Documentary
Djibouti: Building, Not Fighting
A Report From Kristin McHugh and Keith Porter
Listen to the MP3 audio of this story.
Every day the latest headlines reflect a world filled with fear. Terrorism, war, disaster, and disease are grim realities brought to our doorstep in our increasingly connected world. And, as President Bush frequently asserts, these realities have to shape America's national security and foreign policies.
But fear itself cannot drive our daily lives. We know weapons, disease, drugs, and other security threats move more freely around the world than ever before. If national borders can't contain these threats, how do we stop them? What role should the United States play in this effort? And will other nations play along?
After World War II America was recognized as an important leader in times of international crisis. And following the collapse of the Soviet empire, the United States has remained the world's lone superpower. Does this mean we have to be in the driver's seat for solving every global problem? How should American leadership best be exercised in today's uncertain world?
President Teddy Roosevelt is the author of the legendary "walk softly but carry a big stick" line about America's posture in the world. In many cases, that "big stick" is the massive US military with 737 bases around the world and an imposing $462 billion annual budget.
Today the United States military is beginning to use some of its vast resources to also play the "speak softly" role by carrying out work normally reserved for diplomats and humanitarians. But is this the right role for the US military?
That question is now playing out in the Horn of Africa, where the Pentagon’s latest efforts to promote positive American leadership far from home include the installation of a hand pump to provide fresh water in a remote village.
“From a civil engineer’s perspective, this is a great operation for us because I like the humanitarian aspect of it,” says Paul Vandenberg, part of the SeaBees, the US Navy’s engineering corps. “The good news is we haven’t done any fighting, and we hope to keep it that way.
“The work our troops are doing—building schools, repairing schools, drilling water wells in some very drought areas, and we are also doing medical clinic work—it really gives you a good feeling.
“The people are very appreciative in most cases. They are very helpful. They are very friendly. They like having us around. It builds nice relationships and ultimately I think that’s the way we are going to really change this part of the world.”
From all branches of the military
The US Central Command has operated the Combined Joined Task Force-Horn of
The Army National Guard’s 1132nd Well Digging Crew from
Today the crew is surveying a well for rehabilitation; a well located along an ancient camel trail in the middle of a desert oasis.
“What we’re doing here, we’re actually doing more of a preemptive strike,” says the group’s acting First Sergeant, William Robert Brown. “The terrorist organizations go into countries like this that can’t provide for themselves and have very poverty-ridden areas. And they’ll go in and promise these people money, promise them services so that they can use their children or their younger men and younger women to do terrorist acts.
“Just by virtue of us being here and training these militaries in the Horn of Africa, we see a limited and a less presence of terrorist threats, insurgents. I mean because we’re here, they are not here…. So indirectly, yes,
A longtime breeding ground
Senior task force officials won’t comment on speculation that the strategic strikes in
“Ethiopians, for example, have been very successful in the operations they’ve recently conducted,” Hill says. “We know we’re providing these guys a great asset, and reports that we’ve gotten, without divulging anything, were phenomenal.”
Major Hill has served in
“We are still waging war,” Hill says. “It’s a great mission. It’s unlike any other you’ll see. This really though is the forefront of where we should be in the future in
Military “ill-suited” for development projects?
Skeptics worry this focus on so-called “soft security” issues like schools and water wells will erode the military's traditional war-fighting skills. Others say the military is ill-suited for long-term development projects. They say civilian services are best delivered by civilians; that using the military for these projects is confusing to the people being served, and that the money and resources would be better spent by the Peace Corps, the State Department, or the United Nations. But even
Janet Schulman, the country director for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in
“The military has always had a civilian affairs unit. And rather than have them roaming around the country willy-nilly, constructing things that may or may not be useful and may or may not be a priority for the community, I think us [the military and USAID] coming together, planning together, and executing projects together is to the benefit of all.
“They’re helping build health centers. They’re helping to build schools. They are helping to give hope to children who otherwise may never have hope and may be stuck in, for lack of a better word, certain religious schools that would train them to become fanatics.”
A new kind of mission
Nathanial Young of Guam is part of
“If you’re given the opportunity to stay at base or go do something that matters and gives meaning to your day, why not go do something that means something,” Young says.
A different type of engagement happens other nights when volunteer troops make their way through the dark streets of
“I just wanted to be of some assistance to the local populace here. There was a lot of interest in them learning American English and the way we actually speak it, versus the way they learn in school,” says Army Master Sergeant Francine Shephard of
“This English Discussion Group is a vital part of CJTF-HOA’s mission. It is. Whether it is the strategic command portion, the English Discussion Group, whether it’s our mil-to-mil exercises or public relations, all those are vital links in our chain to help
Said Ibrahim, the English Discussion Group’s local director, says his students benefit from hearing Americans speak English, something he says he wasn’t exposed to when he learned the language.
“They’re going to gain the proper pronunciation, the proper way of speaking and all the terms and expressions,” Said says.
The good side of Americans
Kennedy Mohamed Ali, a journalist from Djibouti’s government-owned newspaper, The Nation, says the Muslim locals are warming up to the Americans there—though before their arrival “they did not truly like the Americans” because of the war in Iraq. But now they’ve seen the good side of Americans.
“Since the American forces arrived in
For all the good being done here at the Horn of Africa task force, there are only 1,700 troops in Djibouti, and the estimated $49 million it will cost to run the task force in 2007 is a tiny drop in the Defense Department's $420 billion dollar budget.
But the scope of this effort may be about to change.
A new US command for Africa
Currently the Pentagon divides responsibility for
“We have started to work towards establishing Africa Command. And I think a lot of the things we’ve done can be viewed as a test bed for processes and concepts that they could put into action over the entire continent,” says Admiral Tim Moon, deputy commander of the Horn of Africa Task Force.
“Hopefully they can take lessons learned from everybody who’s operated down on the continent and come together with a truly dynamic organization that’s able to meet the many differing and unique requirements that you find in a land mass this big.
“The biggest lesson learned would be that to be successful here, the
AFRICOM won’t be fully operational until next year but in the meantime
“The camp originally, up until June of last year, was only 97 acres—quite small,” he said. “Last May the government of
“I’ve been a lot of interesting places. I’ve been to
Critic: NGOs can do a better job
Ken Bacon was the official Pentagon spokesman from 1994 to 2001, and now serves as the president of Refugees International a Washington, DC-based nongovernmental organization that provides humanitarian assistance to people displaced by conflict or natural disasters around the world. He believes existing nongovernmental agencies, or NGOs, are better suited than the US military to provide humanitarian relief.
“I’m not sure that this is the best use of our military,” Bacon says. “I think the best use of our military is to make places secure, help places become more secure. And if the military concentrates on doing that, they will win the hearts and minds of the people who just want to live a normal secure life.
“If the US believes that more wells need to be drilled in Djibouti they can hire OXFAM, they can hire all sorts of NGOs to drill the wells. And they will do it, I guarantee, for much less money than it will cost the US military to do it.”
Bacon also believes the US military puts itself on a slippery slope when delivering humanitarian aid.
“On a day-to-day basis I don’t think it makes sense to have soldiers with uniforms, carrying arms, perhaps driving around in armed HUMVs delivering military aid—because it tends to confuse in the eyes of the people receiving this, it confuses humanitarian work with military protection,” he says.
Bacon does believe focusing on the security of those in need will yield benefits as long as the military provides the physical security and unarmed humanitarian workers are responsible for relief and development.
“Over time if people are well fed, if they see hope for their children, if their kids can go to school and not be attacked, if they can grow food or set up small industries, I think that the urge to sign up with terrorist groups or the breeding ground for terrorism will be significantly reduced,” Bacon says. “But it’s not an instant solution.”
“Providing suitcases full of cash to warlords”
John Prendergast is senior advisor to the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization whose slogan is working to prevent conflict worldwide. Like Ken Bacon, he is critical of the work being done by the CJTF-HOA, but for very different reasons.
“I literally thought I was in the twilight zone on my visits to the US force Camp Lemonier,” Prendergast says. “I was getting these wonderful briefings from very well-meaning US military personnel who believe very strongly in the whole idea of draining the swamp. You know the whole idea of building good solid relations with communities as a long-term means of getting their support for our longer-term counterterrorism interest.
“But at the same time we were doing all this wonderful stuff for the last two-and-a-half years in the region we were also providing—to those guys in Djibouti, but through our CIA station chief in Kenya—we were providing suitcases full of cash to warlords. Just crushing and undercutting the long-term agenda that was patiently attempting to be built through these civil affairs.”
Prendergast supports the creation of the Pentagon’s Africa Command but says it is not enough.
“I think the Defense Department is out in front of the State Department on this. Ensuring that there is a forward-leaning comprehensive policy toward Africa is very, very important to have,” he says.
“But it has to be matched by a similar investment by the US Department of State in diplomacy and support for these peace processes and support for democracy-building. And if we don’t have those ingredients, any guy in the military in Camp Lemonier…will tell you this military strategy is not going to work.”
In addition to democracy-building, Prendergast believes if the United States wants to stop extremists from gaining an even stronger foothold in the Horn of Africa, America should work to ensure economic opportunities for all people, not just those who already have wealth and power.“We’re sort of drifting back into this Cold War-style approach to alliance-building. Where if a government is on our side, we basically give them largely a blank check as to what they do inside their own borders. The Ethiopians can do what they want. The Ugandans can do what they want. And sadly even the Sudanese can do what they want, as long as they’re continuing to cooperate and partner with us on counterterrorism. But you’ve got to have the corresponding political access to decision making and people’s rights allowed to be exercised. And in the absence of that, I think you’re playing with fire.”
This material is part of the public radio documentary "Beyond Fear: America's Role in an Uncertain World" from the Stanley Foundation in association with KQED Public Radio. The program is produced by Simon Marks, Kristin McHugh, Keith Porter, and hosted by David Brancaccio. All material related to "Beyond Fear" can be found here.
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