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"Beyond Fear: America's Role in an Uncertain World," a radio documentary from the Stanley Foundation with KQED Public Radio
(AP Photo/Jacob Silberberg)
Sergeant First Class Danny Hunter of the Army National Guard’s 1132nd Well Digging team from Mooresville, North Carolina, inspects the water flowing from an American-installed well in Djibouti.
Sergeant First Class Danny Hunter of the Army National Guard’s 1132nd Well Digging team from Mooresville, North Carolina, inspects the water flowing from an American-installed well in Djibouti.
(Kristin McHugh/Stanley Foundation)
Members of the Combined Joint Task Force- Horn of Africa walk through the “downtown” area of Camp Lemonier in Djibouti.
Members of the Combined Joint Task Force- Horn of Africa walk through the “downtown” area of Camp Lemonier in Djibouti.
(Kristin McHugh/Stanley Foundation)
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 Africa, or CJTF-HOA, since 2002. Its stated mission is “…to prevent conflict, promote regional stability and protect Coalition interests in east Africa and Yemen through humanitarian assistance.”

Stationed at America’s largest military base in Africa, troops here come from nearly a dozen different countries and all branches of the US military, including even the US Coast Guard. Task force members are building health clinics, providing medical and veterinary care, renovating schools, and providing fresh water sources.

The Army National Guard’s 1132nd Well Digging Crew from Mooresville, North Carolina, believes this work is fully part of the global war on terror.

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, America is a safer place by virtue of us being here and the insurgents not.”

A longtime breeding ground

Eastern Africa has long been considered a breeding ground for terrorists and terror activities. The FBI first placed Osama bin Laden on its top ten most wanted list after the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Late last year Ethiopia invaded neighboring Somalia to support Somalia’s transitional government and to force Islamic militias from power. Strategic US military strikes on suspected Al Qaeda hideouts in Somalia followed in early 2007.

Senior task force officials won’t comment on speculation that the strategic strikes in Somalia were carried out from the Djiboutian base. But US Army Major John Hill, who is in charge of America’s military training across the Horn of Africa, confirms an Ethiopian military unit involved in the 2006 invasion was trained by the combined joint task force in the months leading up to the Somalia operation. 

“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 Iraq and plans to return. He says what is happening in Djibouti and America’s efforts to undermine terrorist organizations in the Horn of Africa go far beyond military strikes—in his view they represent the future of the US military.

“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 Iraq and Afghanistan.”

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 America's diplomatic representatives in Djibouti are eager to give proper credit to the military's role in the region.

Janet Schulman, the country director for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Djibouti, believes working jointly with the US military based at Camp Lemonier is helping to win the hearts and minds of young in a region vulnerable to religious extremism. 

“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

Back at Camp Lemonier, the sense that these troops are on a new kind of mission seems to have sunk deep into the camp culture. Troops are even volunteering their spare time to help locals better their lives and improve Djiboutian perception of America.

Nathanial Young of Guam is part of Camp Lemonier’s chaplain corps. He previously served on board the USS Comstock in the Iraq war. The camp’s chaplain corps has adopted two local orphanages and raised thousand of dollars to renovate dilapidated buildings. Every week, van loads of American troops arrive to play basketball and soccer with these boys.

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 Djibouti City to a local foreign language school. In a dimly lit room of the two-story concrete school, the volunteers ignore the sweltering heat to take part in an English language discussion group who are talking about women and sports.

“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 Tunnel Springs, Alabama, one of the volunteers.

“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 Africa. And CJTF-HOA will be a stronger antiterrorism force.”

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 Djibouti, there has been a lot of progress,” Ali says. “Progress on the level of national education, because they have contributed to the construction of schools. Progress in terms of roads, since they’ve rehabilitated the roads. Progress in the level of health, because they have given materials to various hospitals; they’ve rebuilt them. I can sincerely say that the American presence has brought considerable progress to Djibouti.”

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 Africa operations among what they call Central Command, European Command, and Pacific Command. But an all new Africa Command, also known as AFRICOM, was announced earlier this year as a way of uniting and integrating US military operations across the continent.

“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 United States really has to have an interagency effort, really bring all the elements of national power to bear, and this is everything: diplomacy, military, economic.”

AFRICOM won’t be fully operational until next year but in the meantime Camp Lemonier is expanding—and the base commander, US Navy Captain Bob Fahey, thinks this is a very good thing.

The camp originally, up until June of last year, was only 97 acres—quite small,” he said. “Last May the government of Djibouti signed a lease agreement with the United States government which expands the camp to 500 acres.”

“I’ve been a lot of interesting places. I’ve been to Bosnia, Desert Storm, Haiti. This is without question the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in the military…. I’ve had several people tell me, ‘Hey, I wanted to come here. I wanted to come to Africa and make a difference.’ ”

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 BrancaccioAll material related to "Beyond Fear" can be found here.

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