Nagad, Djibouti: Captain Christopher Crim doesn't look much like a global do-gooder. With his menacingly sheered crew cut, his hulking, barrel-chested build, and his barking delivery, he looks and sounds very much like the hardened 10-year veteran of the Marines that he is. But here in a dust-blown village in the outlands of this impoverished East African country, Crim is showing what might be called--ideally, at a safe remove--his soft side.
Broad smile on his soldier's face, Crim looks on as an Air Force band, flown in for the occasion, delights a crowd of curious, barefooted children with what is surely the first version of "Sweet Home Alabama" that has ever been played on this neglected corner of the dark continent. In a few moments, he'll order his Marines to distribute water bottles to the locals and make his way around the village, greeting tribal elders and contending with a swarm of little hands eagerly pawing his Marine fatigues for a hoped-for souvenir.
If this seems like a strange function for a professional warrior, the reason behind the Marines' visit to the village, one of many they have made to such villages in the past few years, may seem more puzzling still. They are fighting terrorism.
Along with some roughly 1,800 Air Force, Army, and Navy servicemen and civilian workers, Crim's Marine battalion is stationed at nearby Camp Lemonier, a former base for the French Foreign Legion that the U.S. government has been renting from Djibouti for $30 million a year since 2003. Today, the base serves as the headquarters for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), a strategic campaign by the U.S. military and its coalition allies to combat terrorism in a region that serves as a critical corridor between Africa and the Middle East. Working in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Uganda and even Yemen, CJTF-HOA sees itself as the future of the global war on terror.
The guiding idea is straightforward. Entrenched poverty makes the region prime recruiting ground for jihadist terrorism, while the weakness of local governments makes it a potential safe-haven for Islamic radicals, much as lawless Somalia became a refuge for al Qaeda in the 1990s. Provide the native people with employment, education, and basic social services, the reasoning goes, and you counter the potential appeal of terrorism and nurture pro-American sentiment among future generations. In an age when urban, guerilla warfare has replaced traditional battlefield combat and when the loyalties of local people can decisively shift the momentum--witness the momentous turn of Iraq's Anbar province against the al Qaeda-led insurgency--the operations here in the horn of Africa represent the U.S. military's big-theory answer to the terrorists' asymmetrical tactics. It's not so much preemptive warfare as preventive warfare, and to the extent that the military here seeks to kill, it is to kill with kindness.
It's difficult to overstate the problems in the region. In sun-beaten Djibouti, for example, nearly half the population of approximately 500,000 lives in abject poverty. Getting enough calories in their diet is a daily struggle for some ten percent of the population, with the result that malnutrition, especially among children, runs tragically high. Education is another problem. In 2001, according to World Bank findings, the total primary school enrollment in Djibouti stood at 39 percent, about half the average for sub-Saharan Africa. Factor in the failure of the Djiboutian military to effectively police the borders, easily crossed from the badlands of neighboring Somalia, and you have the makings of the kind of instability in which terrorism thrives.
Enter the U.S. military. For several years now, the servicemen at Camp Lemonier have assumed roles previously reserved for international NGOs. Army doctors travel throughout the Djiboutian countryside, often going where human-rights organizations can't or won't, to administer basic treatment--no small undertaking in a country where the only two fully-functioning hospitals are located in the capital. Still other military personnel travel across the country to inoculate livestock. Seemingly odd from a Western perspective, it is a gesture whose value cannot be underestimated in a region where animals, so vital to everyday survival, are considered more important than people. The closest the military comes to combat, meanwhile, is training African armies in border-security tactics and counterterrorism strategy.
But make no mistake: This is humanitarian assistance with a clear aim. It is hoped that, in time, the military efforts will give rise to a lasting appreciation for the United States and diminish the attraction of extremist ideologies. Commander Michael Wong, head of the appropriately named division of future plans at Camp Lemonier, puts it this way: "A sheep heard whose animals have been inoculated may not strap a bomb to those sheep." Thus, while al Qaeda is digging road-side bombs in Iraq, the U.S. military is drilling wells for African communities plagued by drought.
There has never been a shortage of critics who resent America's outsize presence on the global stage, but the U.S. military's involvement in Africa has drawn skepticism even from pro-American quarters. To those weary of nation-building ventures, the use of the world's best-trained military for the purposes of what is essentially humanitarian work seems like a dangerous diversion. Thus, the Heritage Foundation's James Phillips warns that "the United States should avoid making a sustained military commitment" in East Africa, cautioning that "Washington cannot afford to bog down its overburdened military forces in naïve nation-building efforts that are inherently risky, expensive, and doubtful."
The point is not lost on senior leaders here in Camp Lemonier. They well appreciate the concern that American forces are being diverted from their mission of fighting terrorism in the Middle East and in Africa. "No question, we do have people here that need killing," says Navy Captain Bob Wright, the director of strategic communications for CJTF-HOA. "But we thought we could get a bigger return by empowering African countries to deal with these threats." Air Force Colonel John Crocker seconds that sentiment. "People use the term 'world policeman' but it's simpler than that," he says. "We have resources, and we need to use them to advance freedom and defend the country. Sometimes that means that shaking hands is better than getting into a fistfight."
It remains to be seen whether the military is right that "winning hearts and minds" is the key to defeating terrorism in Africa. For now, anyone who thinks that the single-minded focus on nation building means that the military has lost its edge can take heart in one of the politically incorrect messages posted in Camp Lemonier's Public Affairs Office. It reads: "If at first you don't succeed, call in an air strike."