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.
"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."
Hathaway, whose Djibouti deployment came after five months in Iraq, says a unique aspect of his Hol-Hol mission is exposure to the local population. In Iraq, he survived incoming mortar rounds to build a runway and military housing but he never left the base. "Here, we see the same people everyday, we're relating one-to-one."
In an effort to overcome the language barrier, the Gulfport team defies Djibouti's punishing summer temperatures to play regular soccer matches with the local children.
"In the beginning, we were suspicious but now we've seen that they are good people and they're doing good things for our village," says Abdul-Rahman Bossis, an unemployed Hol-Hol resident.
Director of Public Affairs Major David Malakoff says he believes these outreach efforts can foster a positive impression of the American military, but he is honest about the challenge. "How much of a difference are we going to make? That's hard to say. It's not something that we can judge short-term," he says. "Our target group is today's children, so we're not going to know for 10 or 15 years. But we hope that, in the long run, we could be saving lives."
Michael O'Hanlon, foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, thinks that civil affairs programs "created in partnership with host governments and combined with efforts to foster economic progress can be very useful as part of a broader strategy."
But Alex de Waal, director of the London-based advocacy and research organization Justice Africa, argues that global media coverage of the US military in combat overshadows the potential good will generated by such small-scale projects.
"January's air strikes targeting al-Qaeda suspects in southern Somalia had a disastrous impact on America's image in the region," he says. "US gunships didn't take off from Camp Lemonier but many people in the region assume it is all part of the same plan."
It's not yet clear how Camp Lemonier's function will evolve when the current patchwork of responsibilities under Pacific, European, and Central Commands are consolidated into a single unit for the whole continent.
Rear Admiral Moeller says CJTF-HOA provides a good example of the kind of interagency coordination that AFRICOM hopes to achieve. "We've understood for a long time that the challenges in Africa cannot be solved by the military alone. Economic development, responsive governance, health, crime, and poverty are all pieces of the security environment."
The CSIS's Mr. Morrison says American stakes in Africa have risen dramatically in the last couple of years in relation to energy security, counter-terrorism, and intensifying competition with China. "The creation of AFRICOM reflects the need for a more unified approach and a higher priority in managing US military interests on the continent. But it's still at the planning stage. Decisions about AFRICOM's internal structure and base locations will come when the mission is more clearly defined."