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Military Hopes Djibouti Humanitarian Work Will Combat Terror

August 17, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

SIMON MARKS, NewsHour Special Correspondent: It doesn’t look much like a front line in the administration’s war on terror, but the White House believes this scratch soccer match in the East African nation of Djibouti is helping to reduce the chances of another terrorist attack on American soil.

Eight thousand miles from U.S. shores, 1,700 American troops are fighting terrorism by engaging in humanitarian work designed to prevent al-Qaida from recruiting young people in the Horn of Africa.

NATHANIEL YOUNG, Chaplain’s Assistant, U.S. Navy: Basically, I mean, you look around, you can see the smiles on the kids’ faces, and that’s really what it boils down to, is we’re not here to Americanize them. We’re here to have a good time with them and show them that, hey, we do care.

SIMON MARKS: Nathaniel Young is a chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Navy. But on the basketball court, he’s essentially an American cultural ambassador. In their free time, U.S. forces here made regular visits to a local orphanage for events that redefine the phrase “contact sports.”

NATHANIEL YOUNG: We got together and we said, OK, how can we help the boy’s orphanage? What can we do? What’s the best way we can relate to them on a level that crosses culture boundaries? Sports does exactly that, soccer, basketball. We even built a volleyball net. We taught them American football. We brought some helmets out for the guys, and they whipped our butts.

SIMON MARKS: Among those Djiboutians doing the whooping, 23-year-old Abdul Dakar, who has had friendly on-field encounters with U.S. forces for the past four years.

ABDUL DAKAR, Djibouti Citizen: I like to go to America to practice in English and to practice some basketball. I like basketball very, very much. All the people, they like baseball. We play baseball here. I got bases, gloves and bats. I got a ball. On Friday afternoon, we can play baseball. It’s nice. It’s nice. It’s very, very nice.

Strategic location of Djibouti

SIMON MARKS: The U.S. military was deployed to Djibouti in the aftermath of the attacks of September the 11th, 2001. Close to the important shipping lanes of both the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf, Djibouti's economy is dominated by its strategic location. But its proximity to Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Yemen has turned this country of fewer than a million people into a key regional security partner for the United States.

The base established by U.S. forces here is at a place called Camp Lemonier, a site that was once an outpost of the French Foreign Legion. The signs on post refer to the camp as an anti-terrorism base, and the original mission of the troops deployed here was to capture or kill al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists in the region.

But over time, that mission has changed to include an enormous humanitarian component. The U.S. military has built new schools for Djibouti's children, built new clinics, and upgraded existing medical facilities to improve access to health care in the country, and even deployed teams of veterinarians to treat and inoculate cattle across the Horn of Africa. In this videotape, filmed by the Department of Defense, livestock in Kenya is coming under U.S. military care.

DR. GWYNNE KINLEY, Veterinarian, U.S. Army: When I joined the military three years ago, I did not expect to be deployed to Africa, that's for sure. And this has been a wonderful opportunity to be able to work with animals and people that you may read about in books. To see diseases that are only textbook has been a phenomenal experience for me.

SIMON MARKS: ... and, hope military commanders, a phenomenal experience for the people of Djibouti and the surrounding region. Rear Admiral Tim Moon is the deputy commander of the U.S. military's combined joint task force for the Horn of Africa.

REAR ADM. TIM MOON, U.S. Navy: We try and defeat the underlying conditions that contribute to extremism or terrorism. And if you think about it, it's obvious that someone who is constantly hungry, doesn't have a roof over his head, that they're going to be more susceptible to extremist ideology and easily succumb to recruiting efforts.

Helping provide drinking water

SIMON MARKS: So on one recent day in Djibouti, U.S. forces were driving through the arid landscape of the southwest of the country. Their mission: to provide clean water for the nomadic people who live in this scorchingly hot environment. At the wheel of one of the vehicles, Staff Sergeant William Brown, a member of a squad that specializes in drilling wells. The team's destination: an oasis, close to the border with Ethiopia, a vital stopping point along an ancient trail used by nomads.

STAFF SGT. WILLIAM BROWN, Well Drilling Unit, U.S. Army: This is one of the main stopping points between Ethiopia and further points south in Djibouti. So without this place, without the clean water, they have to walk literally miles and miles in order to find the next watering spot. So, you know, it's a very big deal for us, do what we can here to produce the well and get it working again.

SIMON MARKS: Sergeant Brown and his colleagues carry weapons as they engage in their humanitarian work. The neighborhood is dangerous. Next door in Somalia, the U.S. military last year helped Ethiopian forces oust Islamic fundamentalists who had seized power.

Since then, the U.S. has conducted several air strikes against suspected al-Qaida targets in Somalia, reportedly killing more than 70 civilians in military operations that have put U.S. forces at risk of revenge attacks. Sergeant Brown argues the work he's doing is as vital a part of the U.S. effort to confront extremism in the region as the more orthodox confrontational military approach.

STAFF SGT. WILLIAM BROWN: Unfortunately, we do carry weapons just for the simple fact there is always the chance of terrorist actions against us. There are those in the world that don't want us to succeed to make these people's lives happier because, if we don't succeed, then that means they can come in and win their hearts and minds in a different way.

So it's real rewarding to be able to come out and do something in this sense, and see what we've done and how it's actually impacted their lives, and know that, by providing well water out here, you know that that's one less person that has a chance of perishing in this desert walking from place to place.

SIMON MARKS: But some outside observers of the U.S. military effort here take a less benign view of the humanitarian mission underway.

KENNETH BACON, President, Refugees International: It's always bothersome when you have armed people delivering humanitarian aid.

SIMON MARKS: Ken Bacon used to be the voice of the Pentagon. He served as the Defense Department spokesman during the Clinton administration. Today, he's the president of Refugees International.

He argues it's more efficient to distribute humanitarian aid through tried and tested nongovernmental organizations, like Oxfam, Save the Children, and CARE. And he believes, by getting involved in the process, the military threatens to tarnish the reputation of those established relief agencies.

KENNETH BACON: There may be emergency situations where this has to happen, and I understand that. But on a day-to-day basis, it tends to confuse, in the eyes of the people receiving this, confuses humanitarian work with military protection.

Plans for a unified Africa Command

SIMON MARKS: The Bush administration views the work of the combined joint task force operating in the Horn of Africa essential to its controversial plans to establish a unified Africa Command. AFRICOM is due to be initially operational by October. It's charged with promoting U.S. security interests throughout the continent.

But on Capitol Hill, some voices expressed doubts about the whole concept. At a hearing earlier this month, Democrat Donald Payne, chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa, argued AFRICOM represents the militarization of U.S. policy toward the continent, dangerously blurs the distinction between humanitarian assistance and defense policy, and is opposed by some leading African nations.

REP. DONALD PAYNE (D), New Jersey: I hear from African countries, and maybe they tell you one thing and they tell me something else, that they're totally skeptical about it, that they think that USAID is now under the Department of Defense, that when they come in, you're going to have to salute somebody. NGOs are scared to death. They say, "I guess we're out of it."

SIMON MARKS: Commanders urge critics to start taking a more holistic view of the U.S. military's role in the region.

REAR ADM. TIM MOON: I emphasize to them that the work we're doing here as an arm of our government will alleviate the need for another Iraq in future years. Everything we can do to develop this area so that it's self-sufficient, has security and stability, doesn't harbor extremists or terrorists, is just going to improve their position and prevent us from experiencing another 9/11 or another Iraq situation in the future.

Undoing the benefits of the work?

SIMON MARKS: But some analysts maintain that whatever good works are overseen from Camp Lemonier, they end up having limited impact because of other aspects of U.S. foreign and defense policy.

JOHN PRENDERGAST, Senior Adviser, International Crisis Group: I literally thought I was in the twilight zone in my visits to the U.S. force Camp Lemonier.

SIMON MARKS: John Prendergast is a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group. He argues that the U.S. military action that has occurred in Somalia against suspected al-Qaida sympathizers is already undoing any benefits derived from the humanitarian efforts underway in the region.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: Every time we build up a head of steam doing some little good in the world, we then come in with a hammer and undercut it all.

I, frankly, have to question the very basis of the strategy. You can inoculate all of the animals you want, you can build all the wells you want, but if you don't allow people to have a say and a role in government, if you don't allow people to be part of the wealth-sharing arrangements and opportunities of a country in the larger sense, this will ensure and feed the environment for recruitment.

SIMON MARKS: Supporters of the U.S. strategy say they believe it is eradicating al-Qaida's opportunity to recruit in the Horn of Africa. One local Djiboutian bureaucrat whose district has benefited from the U.S. military's aid effort maintains, in public at least, that any anti-American feelings that once existed in his found have now evaporated.

HASSAN HUSSEIN OMAR, Executive Secretary, Tadjoura Regional Council (through translator): Before they said that, but here in Tadjoura, I assure you no one is an enemy of the United States. Quite the contrary, we approve. For proof, just ask the U.S. military about the way they are received by local people. How can someone who is receiving assistance hate the provider of that help?

SIMON MARKS: The assumption behind that question lies at the very heart of the U.S. military effort in the Horn of Africa. And the debate over the effectiveness of the policy will only intensify as firmer plans are laid for the military's unified Africa Command.