As the date for the US’ official departure from Afghanistan rapidly approaches, Washington military leaders are keen to point out that this event by no means marks the decline of American military influence. In fact, the withdrawal may be seen as part of a strategic transition towards a “lean, mean fighting machine”, whereby the US slashes costs by downsizing its gigantic military facilities, instead replacing them with smaller, more adaptable “lily pad” operations. Nowhere can this shift towards an arguably more efficient fighting force be seen than in Djibouti, where for years the US and other Western countries have made the tiny Red Sea nation a forward operating base of sorts, in order to combat terrorism and other threats against stability in East Africa. The US Government and its allies, including France and Japan, have insisted that Djibouti presents a much needed base to ultimately put an end to the Horn of Africa’s most menacing militants, including Somali-based pirates and al Shabaab fighters. However, there are indications that by using Djibouti as ground-zero for counter-terrorism efforts, the US and other Western nations are actually increasing the popularity of the very terrorist groups they seek to destroy.
The Rise of the Red Sea
Military Base Relations between Djibouti and the US have grown considerably since the East African country gained its independence from France in June 1977. As France’s regional influence deteriorated somewhat in the ensuing years, the US appeared to have stepped up to the plate by filling in the gaps of France’s power vacuum. By providing critical humanitarian aid, including sponsoring educational programmes and delivering food to famine-prone regions, the US soon fostered a partnership with Djibouti. However, by far Washington’s biggest role in Djibouti came as a result of its decision to help train the country’s security forces, and ultimately enlist the help of Ismaïl Omar Guelleh’s government to combat terrorism following the attacks of 11 September 11 2001. Following negotiations with the George W. Bush administration, President Guelleh allowed the US to use the rather derelict former French-occupied Camp Lemonnier as a launching pad for its “Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa” programme, an operation which would enlist the help of local governments to remove the region of terrorism. The US moved quickly to refurbish the languishing facility by, among other things, ridding the area of hundreds of goats and birds which had made Camp Lemonnier their home. Amid a multi-million-dollar revitalisation scheme, the US Government in 2007 also expanded Camp Lemonnier from an area of roughly 390,000 metres to two kilometres, as well as deployed 3,500 to the facility. Under the presidency of Barack Obama, Djibouti’s position as a forward operating base proved to be even more critical. Amid a strategic transition towards what the US Government dubbed an “economy of force”, in December 2011, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that Djibouti would serve as the “central location” in the fight against terrorism in East Africa, with Camp Lemonnier providing the region with most of America’s military support. Mirroring efforts taken by Bush, Obama’s administration also used Djibouti to launch a series of drone attacks into militant-prone Yemen, whilst simultaneously using Camp Lemonnier as a staging ground for operations against al Shabaab. Although the US appears to have been stepping up its presence in Africa, Pat Barnes, a spokesman for US Africa Command (AFRICOM), claims that Camp Lemonnier represents the only ‘official’ – a key word- American base on the continent, adding that the base simply represents larger efforts in East Africa, where the US works “with partner nations to assist them in strengthening their defence capabilities”.
Djibouti Sounds Alarm Over Potential Terror Attacks
Whilst the US has used Djibouti as a launching pad for its counter-terrorism efforts, there are indications that Washington is actually increasing the popularity of the very terrorist groups they seek to destroy. In a situation which can perhaps best be likened to cutting off the head of a hydra, as almost weekly news headlines point to Washington as having taken down yet another “al Qaeda leader no. 2” leader, two more militants appear willing to join the cause. Even Djibouti officials themselves, who have traditionally been willing to join Western forces in the fight against terrorism, appear to be changing their tune. More recently Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh, Djibouti’s Economy and Finance Minister, said that the presence of Western military personnel in the country, particularly those from the US and France, may be contributing to the rise of fundamentalist thought among Djiboutians. Even more alarming, is the already rising number of adherents to such extremism as a result of lingering poverty, high unemployment, and regional instability. Dawaleh added that although the presence of American and French security forces may contribute to attacks, in the long term Djibouti may be better served focusing on “fighting poverty and unemployment of our youth”. Djibouti’s legacy as a Bush-era rendition hub may also prove fodder for would-be extremists. According to testimony provided by the International Crisis Group before the African Commission for Human and Peoples Rights, Djibouti held terrorist suspects until CIA agents determined “what to do with them next”. Meanwhile, Djiboutians have been keen on voicing concern that by using Camp Lemonnier as a launching pad for operations against al Shabaab in neighbouring Somalia, as well as against the feared Ugandan-based Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, the tiny Red Sea nation is opening itself to further attacks.
What Next for Djibouti?
Although Djibouti’s fears are indeed cause for alarm, such concerns are likely to fall on deaf ears. To begin with, whilst the US requires the use of Camp Lemonnier to conduct its own operations, the Djibouti Government likewise needs the presence of US military personnel, if nothing else, to provide Djbouti with much needed security in the event of renewed conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which as indicated by US intelligence, remains a particular area of concern for Guelleh as refugees from both nations may pour across its borders and enflame further unrest. For their part, the US Government has also been keen to point out that without Camp Lemonnier, Navy Seals would be unable to quickly respond to victims of kidnaps and piracy. Using the headline-ripping incident on 23 January 2012, which saw members of Seal Team Six (the very same men who took down Osama Bin Laden) rescue one American woman and Danish national as an example, the US Government maintains that such an operation would not have been possible without the use of Camp Lemonnier. Additionally, there are those who point to the lack of any recent high-profile terrorist activities Djbouti as being proof of the need for American military presence. Indeed, aside from a decision on 23 July 2010, by a Djiboutian court to sentence former prominent businessman Abdourahman “Charles” Boreh in absentia for “inciting terrorist acts”, terrorism has largely been absent from the Djibouti limelight. In the end, however, the Djibouti Government is perhaps right to raise concerns that by deploying more US forces in the area, the threat of small-scale localised terrorism may increase. Underscoring this potential, in July 2010, al Shabaab claimed responsibility for attacks in Uganda citing the East African country’s decision to send its military into Somalia as a reason for its bloodshed. Furthermore, would-be terrorists may use the US military as a scapegoat for the country’s other problems, namely its chronic food shortages and unemployment rates as high as 50%. Perhaps then, the US and President Guelleh may be wise to tackle these underlying issues, rather than address the problem using a largely ‘cosmetic’ military response.