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Military focuses on development in Africa

In Djibouti, US forces combat terrorism with civil affairs work. Will this be a model for a future US military command in Africa?

By Ginny HillContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 22, 2007


When Petty Officer Samson James Hathaway and his US naval construction team arrived in the village of Hol-Hol three months ago, they stood in the 100-degree heat and looked at the camels padding through the boulders and dust.

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"We've got our work cut out for us here," thought Petty Officer Hathaway.

The marines and sailors set up home on a makeshift soccer field beside the Djibouti-to-Ethiopia railroad line, close to a Somali refugee encampment. The 26-man team from Gulfport, Miss., is tasked with reroofing the local school, installing new latrines, and building a meeting room. They will remain in Hol-Hol, a two hour off-road drive from the US military base at Camp Lemonier, until the job is completed in September.

This small group is part of a larger US military mission that aims to tackle the root causes of terrorism by focusing on diplomacy and development. Chiefly based at Camp Lemonier, the Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) works to project power into a region that's loaded with tension – most prominently, the civil war in Somalia. They're creating a model that could influence the formation of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), a new, combined US military umbrella group that will become operational in 16 months.

"CJTF-HOA has served as a test-bed for ideas and concepts, and it has found approaches that work well in several countries on the Horn," says Rear Admiral Robert Moeller, executive director of the AFRICOM Transition Team. "Part of AFRICOM's charter is to be more collaborative, and it's important that our African partners see a consistency in our approach. Whether that's a long-term presence, like CJTF-HOA, or rotational, our engagement needs to be sustained."

Camp Lemonier's cramped 100-acre site on the outskirts of Djibouti City houses 1,800 military personnel and employs 700 Djiboutians, who are managed by US civilian contractors. The base comes under naval leadership, with close cooperation from the Marines, the Army, and the Air Force.

CJTF-HOA teams have completed hundreds of projects in the past four years, ranging from well-drilling, vaccination programs, disaster response, and military-to-military training. The $49 million budget for 2007 will fund operations in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Seychelles, and Yemen.

Colonel Michael McMillie, 449th Air Expeditionary Group commander, uses one C-130 aircraft to supply 300 US troops working in the field. "It's a major logistical challenge," he says. "We're trying to reach remote locations with no paved roads, and we're transporting delicate and expensive equipment."

Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says he believes this far-flung fieldwork provides valuable training opportunities. "They're developing essential deployment skills, such as construction, camp maintenance, and team-building," he says. "And it's an ideal chance to practice community interaction in a semi-hostile environment."