In World War I, it was France. In World War II, it was Britain. During the Cold War, it was the western half of Germany and the southern half of Korea. And today, as operations in Afghanistan wind down, it’s Djibouti – the front line and jumping-off point for U.S. expeditionary forces defending our freedoms and fighting our enemies.
On the southeastern coast of tiny Djibouti sits Camp Lemonnier, an old French military outpost that is now home to Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). Lemonnier is like a hub with many spokes, perfectly positioned to keep watch over the chokepoint connecting the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, conduct counter-terror operations in Yemen and Somalia, support counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, keep an eye on Egypt’s spiral of re-revolution, respond to humanitarian crises in Africa’s interior, and bolster African Union (AU) peacekeepers as they try to hold back chaos.
In short, Camp Lemonnier enables the United States to project power onto two continents through three strategic bodies of water and into the backyard – and front yard – of what has been called “al-Qaeda 2.0.” It’s no wonder the president calls Lemonnier “a critical facility” and Djibouti “extraordinarily important not only to our work throughout the Horn of Africa but throughout the region.”
The U.S. presence in Djibouti dates to November 2002, when the Pentagon began standing up a counter-terrorism task force in the tiny country, remotely, from USS Mount Whitney. Within six months, CJTF-HOA was fully transitioned to Camp Lemonnier.
When Washington began operations at the 88-acre base in Djibouti, the United States commitment consisted of a few hundred Marines and Special Operations forces. Today, the sprawling base is spread across 500 acres and houses some 4,000 U.S. and allied troops and civilians. Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan have forces in Djibouti, and the French still have a sizable presence of troops and fighter jets.
This multinational force specializes in multitasking – everything from kinetic commando operations and counter-piracy, to stability operations and training, to UCAV strikes and F-15E sorties.
Let’s start with what drew U.S. forces to Djibouti in the first place: the post-9/11 war on terror. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) – the tip of the spear – has a major presence in Djibouti, with an estimated strength of 300-plus shooters. (New construction will allow the United States to base 1,100 Special Operations forces at Lemonnier, according to the Washington Post.)
We know that JSOC assets and conventional assets have struck targets in Somalia repeatedly since 9/11: recall the aborted SEAL raid last October against high-value al-Shabaab targets thought to have been responsible for the Kenya shopping-mall siege, Special Ops assaults in 2009, missile strikes in 2008, airstrikes and naval bombardments in 2007, and support for Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006.
We also know that JSOC assets and conventional assets have conducted operations in Yemen, just 100 miles northeast of Lemonnier. According to the Post, the squadron of F-15E Strike Eagles that arrived in 2011 also conducts operations in Yemen.
Then there are the drones. The first strike of the drone war – a 2002 raid in Yemen that killed one of the planners of the Cole bombing – originated from Lemonnier. The Post reported in 2012 that drones take off 16 times a day from U.S. facilities in Djibouti – most bound for Yemen and Somalia. After a wave of drone crashes, the United States agreed to shift drone operations away from Djibouti’s capital – the U.S. base shares a runway with Djibouti’s main civilian airport – to a remote airstrip elsewhere in the country.
There’s a reason the United States is conducting so many kinetic operations from Lemonnier, and that reason is al-Qaeda 2.0. As a recent RAND report details, “Salafi-jihadist groups … have started to resurge in North Africa and the Middle East.” The Yemen-based franchise of al-Qaeda continues to “present an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland,” according to RAND, which pointedly adds: “Using the state of core al-Qaeda in Pakistan as a gauge of the movement’s strengths (or weaknesses) is increasingly anachronistic.”
There are some tangible signs of progress, however. According to RAND, al-Shabaab – the al-Qaeda affiliate operating out of Somalia – has lost 85 percent of the territory it controlled in 2010.
Surprisingly, some of the assets used to track al-Qaeda and its partners in eastern Africa are sub-hunting P-3C Orions. Deploying from Hawaii, Japan and Germany, some Orions support counter-piracy ops as expected, but others search for jihadist terror groups in the deserts of eastern Africa.
That provides a perfect bridge to Djibouti’s role in counter-piracy operations.
Pirate attacks around the Horn of Africa jumped from 22 in 2000 to 214 by 2009, prompting a U.S.-led coalition to confront this ancient plague of the seas. Pirate attacks are down dramatically, and not a single ship off Somalia has been captured by pirates since May 2012, Reuters reports. It’s no coincidence that Djibouti is quite literally at the center of the effort – serving as a meeting place for the counter-piracy coalition, hosting EU naval detachments and a liaison office for NATO’s “Ocean Shield” counter-piracy operations, opening its ports to coalition vessels, and allowing pirate-hunting aircraft to stable in Djibouti’s strategic bases.
Finally, Lemonnier plays a key role in efforts to stabilize the region. No region is less stable or more in need of support than Djibouti’s neighborhood. As Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of AFRICOM, recently told Congress, “Nearly 80 percent of United Nations peacekeeping personnel worldwide are deployed in missions in Africa.”
Since our jihadist enemies thrive in unstable lands and failed states – two of the worst cases are Yemen and Somalia, which happen to neighbor Djibouti – it’s in the national interest to stabilize these countries. Thus, CJTF-HOA elements train Somalia-bound Burundi units; assist Ugandan and Rwandan troops ahead of peacekeeping deployments; and helped create a peacekeeping-operations center to support AU stability missions. And when the veneer of civilization gives way to chaos, U.S. forces deploy from Djibouti for rescue operations, as when the Army’s East Africa Response Force swept into South Sudan to evacuate 700 noncombatants.
Add it all up, and even at the new rate of $70 million a year – a significant increase over the previous annual rent payment of $30 million – the United States is getting its money’s worth in Djibouti.