To fight Al Qaeda, US troops in Africa build schools instead
More than 1,500 US troops are on a hearts and minds mission.
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For example, the task force's military budget only covers the cost of constructing and renovating school buildings. Before the schools can open, soldiers have to pester nongovernmental organizations, charities, and friends back home for donated textbooks. In other cases there has been poor communication between the US and local people. Some villages, thinking that the Americans could only build schools, requested a new school when they needed wells and bridges instead. The mistake was realized too late.Skip to next paragraph
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Meanwhile, the US increasingly depends on local governments to use their cultural and linguistic knowledge to track and tackle Islamic extremists.
"The information sharing is not ideal; not up to the point that we would like," admits Nabeel Khoury, deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Sanaa, Yemen.
And although there are handfuls of up-armored Humvees parked alongside rusting French artillery pieces throughout Camp Lemonier, the US increasingly seeks to delegate its military operations.
"We're doing military-to-military training with five countries in the region," says Col. Doug Carroll, director of operations for the Horn of Africa task force. The US has trained Yemeni special forces in counter-terrorism while officers from Mauritius and the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean have been taught how to train their own soldiers once they return home.
"In Ethiopia we've taught border security, we've taught basic counter-terrorism, what they call advanced map reading and also defensive operations," says Carroll, who denies that the training will upset the region's delicate balance of power. "We're not teaching them anything that would be applicable to the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war," he says of the training of Ethiopian border guards, while also denying that US-trained troops have been used to crush recent uprisings in Yemen.
But although the lack of recent Al Qaeda attacks in the region points to the mission's success so far, there remains a clear blind spot at the heart of the US deployment.
"It's a bit of a paradox," says Bryden. "The threat that the US perceives in the region comes from Somalia, but that is the only place where they can't operate."
Senior officers in Djibouti refuse to even discuss Somalia, although one officer privately admitted having contact with high-level members of the government of Somaliland - a breakaway republic in the north of the war-torn country that recently arrested one Al Qaeda team linked to extremist groups in Mogadishu.
"The US has had to develop a much more nuanced approach and it shows that they are dealing with the problem," says Bryden. "They've had to discover the difference between terrorism and a domestic insurgency."
As the US gradually increases its understanding of the region there is no sign of the mission winding down. Instead, as more British troops also prepare to deploy to the region, the operation seems to have become entirely open-ended.
"It's important that we share what we have to allow all nations to advance," says General Ghormley. "We didn't earn being born in America - the Good Lord put us there and with that came responsibility."
Standing in his office, Ghormley, surrounded by maps where arrow-straight borders drawn by European colonialists cut across mountains, deserts, and complex ethnic groups, provides more than an echo of a Victorian soldier-missionary.
"You can win a heart and mind today and lose it tomorrow," Ghormley continues. "We see no spread of radical ideology. We see a lot of people who would like it to spread."
But with Camp Lemonier boasting less than 1 percent of the troops currently deployed in Iraq and responsible for an area five times larger, Ghormley is aware that there is a limit to what the US can achieve in the region.
"I could use more money, more people, but I've got the resources I need to carry on," he says, taking a last look at the pictures on his computer screen. "They're good people and it breaks your heart that you can't do more for them."