WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2013 – Geography still counts and Djibouti is a case in point. 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, said Army Maj. Gen. Rob Baker, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa.
Geography and trade routes define Djibouti’s importance. It’s located on the northeast corner of Africa, wedged between Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Djibouti is on the coast, right at the southern entrance to the Red Sea being on the western side of the Bab el Mandeb strait. Tens of thousands of ships each year transit in and out of the strait. Oil tankers comprise much of that traffic.
Just 20 miles across that strait is Yemen and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.
In short, Djibouti is a crossroads and has been since humans walked the Earth — there is evidence that some of the first humans transited through the country as they traveled 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.
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. The command’s area of responsibility includes the countries of 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 1,800 U.S. service members in the command now. This number 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.
And life is tough in the neighborhood. It is the eastern end of the Sahel region and much of the country is desert. This extends into Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Drought exacerbates the situation 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. service members 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.
About two years ago, service members with CJTF-HOA under the auspices of the U.S. State Department partnered to train and equip soldiers from contributing East African countries to conduct peace enforcement operations in Somalia as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia, Baker said.
“It’s one of the best examples we have in our government of what happens when the State Department and DOD cooperate on a joint venture,” the general said during an interview in the Pentagon.
Working together, the two departments achieved security effects “that demonstrate a nexus between our money and resources and protection of our interests and in U.S. security in the region and in the homeland,” he said.
Training troops from Uganda and Kenya to handle African security problems can be done at a fraction of the cost of what it would cost if the United States fielded its own troops in the region.
“One of the unique things about the way we are operating in Africa with CJTF-HOA is it is exactly consistent with the chairman’s Joint Force 2020 vision of small footprint, low visibility, low cost,” Baker said. “But for as small as we are and as cheap as we are, we’re punching way above our weight in the region.”
The American military has an excellent reputation in the Horn of Africa. The nations of the region know America has been at war 11 years in Iraq and Afghanistan and value that combat experience.
“One of the reasons why we are able to make such a contribution to the effectiveness of these militaries at a low cost, is because we put more effort into investing in their people and not just material goods,” Baker said.
Just funneling equipment to these East African nations is often not cost effective, he said.
“The equipment part tends to be costly and sometimes these countries have trouble maintaining it,” the general said. On the other hand, focusing on soldiers means significant and lasting improvements in capacity.
The CJTF-HOA works with U.S. embassies in the region to laser in on the human element in training. Training runs the gamut from basic marksmanship and combat lifesaving training to training battalion- and brigade-level battle staffs on how to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The command also works to mentor senior leaders.
The CJTF-HOA is shifting its emphasis from just trying to build operational capabilities of these East African militaries to more lasting improvements.
Tanzania is an example of one of the success stories for the command. Three years ago, the task force had three engagements per year with Tanzania. The country was traditionally aligned with China and North Korea.
“This year, we are planning more than 20 engagements,” Baker said. “It’s pretty significant that they are trying to develop a military relationship with the U.S.”
The American effort had been aligned with increasing the East African nations’ abilities to conduct border security, maritime security, intelligence operations and peacekeeping operations.
“What has not historically been a focus — but is now — are institutional capabilities, and that’s really the resiliency of the organization,” Baker said.
Even the questions asked are different. Rather than ask how to improve operations, U.S. planners ask things far more basic. These include questions like, “What is the human resource model that military is using? How do they recruit? How do they pay? Are their pay scales fair, do their soldiers get paid? Do they have a competitive promotion system? Do they even have a retirement system? If a soldier is injured in Somalia, do they have a program in place to care for the soldier’s family?” Baker said.
Other questions, he said, look to different aspects of the military, such as if these nations have an adequate, competent military legal system.
“Do they have an inspector general corps so they can root out corruption and conduct investigations?” the general said.
The American effort does not ignore operational instruction, Baker said, but it has shifted to also build institutional resiliency.
There is also a shift in civil affairs activities in East Africa, he said.
Since its founding, the CJTF-HOA has performed a lot of civil-military activity in the region. “In fact, the dominating signature characteristic of the command was civil-affairs activities — building schools, drilling wells, rehabbing health clinics and those types of projects,” Baker said.
The purpose, he said, is to build trust and confidence with the nations in Africa and to convince their military and governmental leaders that the U.S. is a trusted partner. These civil-affairs projects, he added, did a great job in assuaging East African leaders’ concerns.
Last year, the emphasis for the command changed, Baker said. Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, issued a series of orders to CJTF-HOA that would shift the command’s focus and recalibrate its priorities.
The first of these orders designated CJTF-HOA as the supported command in USAFRICOM.
“For the first time, I now have the authority to synchronize the U.S. military’s security cooperation activities in all of East Africa,” Baker said. “We can now look at security cooperation and develop multi-year activities. I call it a persistent approach to security cooperation. I can do that because of these authorities.”
The command serves as the military advisor, or clearinghouse, for the U.S. ambassadors in the region. “The ultimate decision is always up to the ambassador, but we work with them and the country teams to build the capabilities,” Baker said.
A second operational order from USAFRICOM gave Baker the responsibility to defeat al-Shabaab and al-Qaida within East Africa.
“We do that in different ways, first by training East African militaries to be successful when they fight in Somalia, and second, we do it by sharing information with our partners in the region,” he said. “We share so they can be successful and for their force protection.”
The command also uses information operations to help support U.S. security initiatives in Somalia. “For example, we support efforts to strengthen the new Somali government,” the general said, “and we focus on building tolerance among Somalis for the East African forces to stay in the country to help them until they can do it themselves.”
Baker’s vision for the CJTF-HOA and its relationships in East Africa is to be the partner of choice in the region. The command can help train its African partners, provide common doctrine and facilitate multilateral exercises.
“This puts in place a united force against the transnational threats that all nations in the region face,” Baker said. “None of these countries can defeat those threats by themselves. They’ve got to work together.”