IHT : In Djibouti, a glimpse of American 'soft power'

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

In Djibouti, a glimpse of American 'soft power'

By Thom Shanker | December 3, 2007

CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti: Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in the Horn of Africa on Monday to inspect one of the most unusual missions of the U.S. military, one that has not captured or killed a single terrorist yet is viewed by the Pentagon as a model military deployment.

The mission of Task Force Horn of Africa is an application of the "soft power" Gates advocated in a speech on Nov. 26, when he said that U.S. counterterrorism efforts require not just combat operations, but a broader range of economic development and diplomacy.

U.S. combat personnel here train armed forces of nations in the region to build up their own counterterrorism abilities. Combat engineers build schools and hospitals and dig wells in an effort to promote social stability and prevent terrorists from taking root.

Commanders of the task force speak of "waging peace" and note that here in the Muslim world - where critics of U.S. policy accuse the Bush administration of waging a war against Islam under the cover of counterterrorism - U.S. engineers even have been invited to repair mosques, in Ethiopia, for example.

In his first trip to Djibouti, the hottest inhabited place on earth, Gates was scheduled to visit Camp Lemonier, once a French Foreign Legion compound. The post is home to the 2,000 troops in the task force and support missions, an operation that is shaping how the Pentagon will organize its efforts in coming years.

The U.S. military is organizing an Africa Command, its first combatant command dedicated solely to Africa. The lessons learned from the operation in Djibouti will shape the new command's emphasis on defense as well as diplomacy and development, senior Pentagon officials said.

The mission has evolved significantly since Task Force Horn of Africa was established in late 2002 at a base so primitive that the most serious security threat came from roaming hyenas and jackals attacking soldiers doing their daily physical-training runs.

The mission initially was designed to trap terrorists who were expected to flee the U.S. assault on Afghanistan, using traditional smugglers' routes down the Gulf, into the Arabian Sea and past the Horn. But the overlapping ground, maritime and air patrols across the region appear to have deterred the use of that route, prompting Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters to hunker down in Pakistan along the Afghan border.

U.S. intelligence and military officers expressed certainty that Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups continue to travel through the region, with small numbers believed to be operating in ungoverned corners of Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen, where they may be able to enhance the abilities of local terrorist or antigovernment groups.