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Military tries 'soft' approach in Horn of Africa

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Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009

DIKHIL, Djibouti -- Black volcanic rock and gray acacia trees break the monotony of this small regional hub, three miles from the Ethiopian border.

Army Staff Sgt. Craig MacDonald waves at smiling children and veiled women as he and three other soldiers drive into town, past a few palm trees and burning trash. A dozen goat carcasses hang from the bed of a stalled white truck.

Capt. Jeremy Clark, 30, of Washington, D.C., has come to persuade regional leader Houmed Gaditto to join a health initiative with nine other village clinics.

The no-nonsense team leader from Delta Company, 478th Civil Affairs Battalion, has chosen one village as a model for keeping its clinic clean and well-stocked.

Gaditto, an ailing man with gray hair and beard, peers at the American officer through steel-rimmed bifocals. He agrees to Clark's plan before turning to a bigger problem: "We don't have enough rain, so we don't have enough water. We have enough wells, but in the summer, they are so dry. Some villages don't have any water at all."

Clark's team is based in Ali Sabieh, 90 minutes southwest of the capital, Djibouti City. It is one of two Army civil affairs teams in this tiny but strategic country on the Horn of Africa, and one of 13 with about 300 personnel who can deploy across East Africa.

As U.S. leaders debate strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military's little-known base, Camp Lemonier, uses the "soft power" of these teams to try to counter growing radical Islamism.

They work daily with local leaders on problems -- schools and clinics, sewage, trash and electrical issues.

Clark describes the mission as "identifying shortcomings ... trying to find the gaps to plug the resources into" rather than "seeking out ... terrorism cells."

"Our job is to try to build up the ability of the local political councils to ... develop economically and socially, so they stave off ... radical ideologies."

Getting a thumbs up

In Gaditto's office, an air conditioner and ceiling fan run full throttle to fight 100-degree heat.

When the Americans arrived in 2003, the village elder recalls, "they had big weapons," but now carry only sidearms.

He is pleased that the soldiers are "building clinics and schools, helping us with water and to fight poverty. ... We pray terrorism won't come here."

"Mac" MacDonald, the team medic, treats Gaditto's ailments. Then he, Clark and Sgts. Fabio Escudero and Louis Alerte drive off to inspect a broken well in the village of Gour Abbous.

The terrain is desolate.

Stone walls encircle stone-and-stick huts covered in burlap. Thin goats rise on hind legs to nibble the few green acacia trees. A woman in an orange dress and veil carries yellow and green cans toward the well as camels lope by.

A school built by Saudi Arabia teaches in Arabic, not this country's traditional French.

Two village leaders and a knot of curious children meet the soldiers to examine the well's broken pump under a white, hot sun.

The two elders provide the dusty landscape's only color: long gray beards dyed with orange henna, embroidered knit caps, colorful scarves and plaid sarongs.

As Clark and MacDonald remove a broken pump valve, one elder asks if they can fix the plumbing. The soldiers promise to do their best.

In a nearby village, 17 Navy Seabees, 11th Battalion, are working seven days a week to gut a school, replacing its vents, windows, doors and lights, and building a fence to keep out the goats.

The sailors are led by 6-foot-5, strawberry blond Ensign Derek Boogaart, 23, of Grand Rapids, Mich., who says the villagers "come by and give us the thumbs up."

Despite relentless 120-degree heat for his men on the school's roof, he says the work "beats sitting on a line with a gun."

Killing over water

Building and repairing the region's schools and medical clinics are important, says MacDonald, 39, of Charlotte, "but I think we skipped a few steps, like the necessity of water.

"What they fight over and kill over is water. When there is no water, people are going to do extreme things to survive. They don't have all the things in place to stop wasting water. They are doing the best they can, and there are things we can do to help them."

According to Clark, the water level has fallen 75 percent in the past year.

Brig. Gen. Chris Leins, deputy commander of Camp Lemonier's Combined Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa, acknowledges that water is critical.

He has "a team of hydrologists who are mapping, not just in Djibouti but in several countries, trying to understand the water flows in the ground" and training local officials and people "to better manage their water supplies."

Here and in other African countries, the military works with U.S. embassies and the U.S. Agency for International Development on civil affairs projects.

Don Connell, a professor of African politics at Simmons College in Boston, says the military's effort "can be a good thing." Yet success requires engaging people on "a much deeper and much more consistent level."

If the strategy here "really works, we are going to make a lot of friends," he says. "But people are convinced by results, not faddish short-term engagement."

'Soft' strategy needed

After a day's mission, MacDonald, Alerte and Escudero climb a steep mountain to a series of tunnels carved in a strategic pass. The dusky horizon glows in yellow and gold.

Rocks piled at the tunnels' mouths block wandering goats and camels. The soldiers shine flashlights into one shaft, then crawl into another.

Alerte, 47, a Haitian now living in Orlando, Fla., ducks away from careening bats.

Italian troops excavated the tunnels during World War II; rusting barbed wire still rings a few machine-gun nests.

The locals want to make this a tourist attraction, says Escudero, 39, of Miami. He thinks that is "a great idea, because it could bring money to the regional council, which in turn could help improve the sanitation, the water situation -- hopefully help educate the people in the conservation of water."

On the ride back to Camp Lemonier, the team points out Grande Barre, salt flats of brackish brown water surrounded by 3,000-foot cliffs.

"The water sits here until it evaporates. Very little is absorbed because it sits on a big bed of clay," Clark explains while passing camel- and goat-herding nomads and stone mounds marking graves.

Back at Lemonier, Capt. Rob Meehl, an Iraq War veteran who leads a second Delta Company civil affairs team, believes a "soft" strategy is needed here.

"Linking the military side to the civilian side ... is really the front line where you are out there meeting with people, making sure that they are not going to fall victim to some sort of extremist element," he says.




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