Sep 25 2007

Our Men in Djibouti

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:44 PM

On the flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam, I sat next to a Marine fighter pilot, a beefy 20-something American with a genial demeanor and a pleasant disposition. He’s part way through a six-month tour in the Pentagon’s African command in the city-state of Djibouti in east Africa. Officially the new command center begins Oct.1 but in reality responsibility for the sub-Saharan won’t transfer to the new outfit for another year. The soldier told me that our men in Djibouti are feeling stretched. Less than 2,000 troops must keep up with security issues in at least dozen countries (the volatile West African region remains for the time being the purview of American military officers based in Europe).
Much anxiety has arisen over why the Pentagon needs a permanent base in Africa, and why Djibouti. The soldier clarified this conundrum with an alacrity that suggested his overall intelligence. “The French run the country,” he told me blithely. While Djibouti is quite small and very hot, the French have permanently stationed two groups of combat-ready soldiers, including members of the French Foreign Legion.
So, once more, the reason why the US needs an African base? Well, the French have one. Our soldiers are needed to watch theirs.
The Marine casually mentioned that as part of his job he has contact with African soldiers. He did not describe the nature of the contact. Then I suggested that he read Che’s long-suppressed memoir of trying to foment guerrilla activity with rebels in central Africa. Che was always ready to fight, even die if necessary, but he found his African comrades curiously averse to engaging the enemy in combat. Paired with a young Joseph Kabila (famous, decades later, for replacing Mobutu as president of the Congo), Che found Kabila perversely averse to actual fighting. Kabila was always insisting it was too late in the day to launch an attack, or they had wrong weapons, or the right ones but the wrong soldiers. Che barely hid his disgust and in private wailed on the lack of zeal for war displayed by African revolutionaries.
On hearing my story, the Marine smiled. I advised him to get the book.
Unlike the American military, which has created new definitions for the term “partner” based on botched alliances with Afghan and Iraqi soldiers, the French in Africa specialize in unilateral action. No need to collaborate with African armies when simply attacking them – as the French have done recently in Chad – brings “better” results. In Chad, the French-friendly government is kept in power through direct military intervention by French forces. The Chadian rebels are a rather motley group, easily deterred. If they were not, France might require – in defense of Chad’s government — the sort of massive force that might even create a zone of protection around embattled Darfur, in neighboring western Sudan.
In most African wars, 200 well-trained soldiers, disciplined and unified, are enough to hold any position (or over run it). Hidebound and bureaucratic, the American military is unlikely to grasp the essentials of winning even small wars in Africa. That a test may be in the offing makes the proposition more interesting. The Bush administration has warned that rebel leaders of the Lords Resistance Army, a terrorist group that has disrupted life in northern Uganda for nearly 15 years, may face an onslaught by U.S. Marines, if the Ugandan government, with an assist from Congolese forces, do not shut down the LRA for good in the next 90 days. The clock is ticking and the Pentagon is wondering whether catching the alleged war criminal Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA, is easier than nailing bin Ladin.

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