CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti
The U.S. has built a little-known military base here that represents one of our best strategies to fight terrorism in the coming years: The aim is to build things rather than blow them up.
This base in Africa, established in 2003, sits at the entrance to the Red Sea in the small Muslim country of Djibouti, next to Somalia. Security is as tight as the sun is hot, with lots of bomb shelters, but the most apparent threats are distinctly, well, African.
“We’ve got two hyenas out there,” said Cmdr. Darryl Centanni of the Navy, executive officer of Camp Lemonier, pointing to a jogging trail on which troops were running through the semidesert. “So the running gets pretty interesting.”
He added that a pack of wild dogs also speeds up joggers but that the dogs mostly get food by catching fish in the sea. (I’m not sure I trust military intelligence on that one.)
After 9/11, the focus of America’s response to terrorism has been mostly on using military force to destroy possible threats in places like Iraq and intimidate just about everyone. The ethos was borrowed from the ancient Romans: “Oderint, dum metuant” — “Let them hate, so long as they fear.”
Yet all in all, that strategy has backfired catastrophically, particularly in Iraq, and turned us into Al Qaeda’s best recruiter.
So that’s why the softer touch in Centcom’s strategy here is so welcome. It aims to help bring stability to northeastern Africa and to address humanitarian needs — knowing that humanitarian involvement will make us safer as well.
“The U.S. started to realize that there’s more to counterterrorism than capture-kill kinetics,” said Capt. Patrick Myers of the Navy, director of plans and policy here. “Our mission is 95 percent at least civil affairs. ... It’s trying to get at the root causes of why people want to take on the U.S.”
One humanitarian mission for which the U.S. military is superbly prepared is responding to natural disasters. While the U.S. has spent vast sums broadcasting propaganda to the Muslim world, the two most successful efforts at winning good will both involved the military. One was the dispatch of soldiers to help Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, and the other was the use of U.S. forces to help Pakistan after the Kashmir earthquake.
The 1,800 troops here do serve a traditional military purpose, for the base was used to support operations against terrorists in Somalia recently and is available to reach Sudan, Yemen or other hot spots. But the forces here spend much of their time drilling wells or building hospitals; they rushed to respond when a building collapsed in Kenya and when a passenger ferry capsized in Djibouti.
Rear Adm. James Hart, commander of the task force at Camp Lemonier, suggested that if people in nearby countries feel they have opportunities to improve their lives, then “the chance of extremism being welcomed greatly, if not completely, diminishes.”
The U.S. announced last month that it would form a new Africa Command, aimed partly at blocking the rise of ungoverned spaces that nurture terrorism. The new command offers tremendous humanitarian potential as well, for in some poor countries the most useful “aid workers” are the ones in camouflage carrying guns.
In the Central African Republic in September I visited a town with a lovely new hospital built as a foreign aid project. But the hospital was an empty shell, gutted by militias rampaging through the area. In places like that, there’s no point in building schools or clinics unless you also help with security.
Some of the most successful aid projects in Africa have been the dispatch of armed peacekeepers to Mozambique and British troops to Sierra Leone. In both places, troops brought what the besieged population most desperately needed — order — and laid the groundwork for recovery. We should be far more aggressive about dispatching small numbers of troops to impose a no-fly zone over Darfur or to destroy Sudanese militias that invade Chad and the Central African Republic.
We can also do far more to train armies in Africa. The deal we offer African presidents should be along these lines: You run a country cleanly and tolerate dissent, and we’ll help ensure that no brutal rebel force comes out of the jungle to create chaos and overthrow you.
Helping fragile countries with security is just as important as helping them with education and medical care. So let’s hope that this new base in Africa is the start of a broad new policy that doesn’t aim to make us hated or feared, but respected.
You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground.
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