By Jim Garamone

Geography still counts.

Djibouti, a small nation in the Horn of Africa, sits at a strategic crossroads. And the U.S. military command there is important to peace and stability for the region and across the globe.

Geography and trade routes define Djibouti’s importance. It’s located on the northeast corner of Africa, wedged between Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. It’s on the coast, right at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the western side of the Bab el Mandeb strait. Just 20 miles across that strait is Yemen and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.

Tens of thousands of ships each year transit the strait, and oil tankers comprise much of that traffic.

In short, Djibouti is a crossroads and has been since humans began walking the Earth—there is evidence that some of the first humans passed through the country on their way into Asia.

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, the United States recognized the strategic importance of Djibouti, and with cooperation from the country’s government, established Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa as part of the U.S. Central Command. In 2008, the command was transferred to the newly created U.S. Africa Command.

Photo credit Marine Corps photo by Corporal Jad Sleiman

A Marine goes over threat detection methods with Ugandan soldiers.

The CJTF-HOA is one of several tenants on the former French base Camp Lemonnier, located across the runway from the airport for Djibouti City.

Less than two weeks after taking the helm of Africa Command in April, Army General David M. Rodriguez visited Camp Lemonnier. Rodriguez, who replaced Army General Carter F. Ham, is the third person to command AFRICOM since its inception in 2008.

“I appreciate everything you’re doing,” he told troops at Camp Lemonnier. “This is the only place we have an enduring base on the African continent, so CJTF-HOA is becoming increasingly important.”

Partnership and engagement

Say “Africa” to most Americans and they think of “the Dark Continent,” a land beset by problems and disasters, far enough away that anything that happens there cannot possibly affect America.

And they would be wrong, said Amanda J. Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs.

“What happens in Africa definitely affects the United States,” she said during an interview. “This is why military engagement [between the United States and African nations] is so important.”

Africa is the second-largest continent in both area and population, and it is “stunningly diverse,” Dory said. Africa comprises 54 nations in an area that includes triple-canopy jungle, the largest desert in the world, range lands, rift valleys and mountain ranges.

The people are even more diverse, with more than 2,000 different languages from five major groups spoken on the continent. From Arab and Muslim North Africa to Christian and Animist sub-Saharan Africa, it is a continent of contrasts.

Given this diversity, it is tough to develop a defense strategy to cover the whole continent, Dory said. The hallmarks for U.S. military strategy for the continent are based upon partnership and engagement. Military-to-military contacts on the continent are tailored to each country and proceed at the pace that each is comfortable with, she said.

“When you start to focus on specific concerns, they are typically at the country level or regional level,” she said. “To develop opportunities for engagement with partners, you have to really drill down into the regional or country-specific base to do that.”

Encouraging signs

CJTF-HOA’s area of responsibility includes Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda. The command’s area of interest extends from Chad to Yemen to the Central African Republic to Sudan.

There are 2,000 U.S. troops in the command, a number that rises and falls depending on the training being conducted. For example, U.S. Army Africa sends soldiers or units from Vicenza, Italy, to conduct training. Marines come from Sigonella, Italy, to train Ugandan soldiers before those troops deploy to Somalia.

Photo credit Marine Corps photo by Corporal Jad Sleiman

Marine Sergeant Joseph Bergeron explains combat marksmanship tactics to a group of Ugandan soldiers, training for the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia and the hunt for Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

And life is tough in the neighborhood. Drought exacerbates conditions there, and much of the region depends on food aid. A famine in the 1980s killed hundreds of thousands of people in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

War and instability add further pressures. Sudan, Chad, Yemen and Somalia are all struggling areas with many ungoverned regions. These areas are magnets for terrorism and transnational crime.

Djibouti’s neighbor Somalia has been the victim of violence and crime since the early 1990s, but its future is looking brighter in part thanks to the efforts of U.S. troops based in Djibouti.

Stability has returned to large parts of Somalia. Piracy off the coast of the country has been virtually eliminated, and the terror group al-Shabaab has been dealt a blow.

“In a geography that most Americans have long forgotten—they remember Black Hawk Down—there are really some very encouraging signs,” Dory said.

Regional forces, with international aid, have squeezed al-Shabaab out of its Somali haven. In 2012, international forces kicked the group out of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, and Kenyan forces flushed them out of Kismayu, the country’s second-largest city.

“The key factor is the neighbors and region stepping up,” Dory said. “For the past five years, the neighbors were unwilling to allow Somalia to continue to fester.”

A second factor has been the support of the international community, “because the neighbors alone would not have been able to resource the effort,” she said.

A third factor is the role of the United States, which is to train, advise and assist the troop-contributing countries from a security perspective, she said.

“The final factor was the sense of strategic patience—that this was going to take a period of time, that you have an African-led effort being supported by the international community, and that it will unfold on its own timeline and [therefore] requires a certain amount of patience,” Dory said.

Those same ingredients helped the antipiracy task force off Somalia’s coast, she noted. A “coalition of the willing” from the international community—including the United States, China, Japan, Pakistan, India, Turkey and European nations—has worked with regional nations to counter pirates operating from Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden.

“The way AFRICOM, CJTF-HOA and others in Africa have done business over the past several years has set the standard for future operations across all combatant commands,” Rodriguez said. “The efforts of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and civilians of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa are critical in supporting the nations of east Africa as they strengthen their defense capabilities and regional cooperation.”

–Jim Garamone writes for Defense Media Activity.

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