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From owner-imap@chumbly.math.missouri.edu Wed Feb 19 11:00:48 2003
Date: Tue, 18 Feb 2003 23:52:56 -0600 (CST)
From: MichaelP <papadop@peak.org>
Subject: LeMonde Dip: Djibouti: a new army behind the wire
Article: 152248
To: undisclosed-recipients:;


Djibouti: a new army behind the wire

By Philippe Lemarie, Le Monde diplomatique, 6 February 2003

THE United States army is back in the Horn of Africa, 10 years after its disastrous incursion in Somalia (1). This time it is there to fight terrorism. More than 1,000 soldiers are stationed in Djibouti, once the French Somali Coast protectorate, at Camp Lemonier, originally occupied by the French Foreign Legion. The base has grown steadily since they arrived last September.

Last year the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based on the USS Nassau currently cruising in the Gulf, carried out three amphibious landing exercises with live ammunition on the coast of Obock in the north of the country. A new combined command centre for the Horn of Africa, commanded by Major-General John Sattler, US Marine Corps, is on USS Mount Whitney in the bay of Djibouti, but will soon be moving to land.

The US secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, visited Camp Lemonier in December and made it clear this was not temporary: These are serious problems. I suspect that if you look in one, two, three or four years, this facility will be here. So this is the end of the era when the French army had Djibouti to itself. The former protectorate gained independence in 1977 but remained one of France’s largest overseas bases (2), providing desert training.

In exchange for protecting Djibouti from neighbouring Ethiopia and Somalia, France enjoyed exclusive use of the country as a base and training ground. It had a valuable stronghold in a sensitive region, with a quarter of the world’s oil passing under its nose, while preserving status in the area. For the military it meant unlimited access to a training ground, facilities for naval forces in the Indian Ocean, and for flights to French dependencies (Madagascar, Comorros, Reunion, Mauritius, Mayotte). France is now afraid of being sidelined in the Horn of Africa, with its presence ever harder to justify.

Djibouti may suffer anti-US terrorist attacks (3). An Allied unit was set up to pool intelligence, but the first months of coexistence were difficult. Communication between US and French commanders was poor and troops from both countries came face to face several times in exercises, adding to risks . General Alain Bvillard, who commands the French in Djibouti, is not worried: No one is disputing our presence—before, during or after. The others are passing through, because of recent events.

The US forces have not forgotten the attack on the USS Cole two years ago in Aden, just across the strait. The attack on the French oil tanker Limburg last October, again off Aden, increased fears of a seaborne jihad threatening the West’s supply of oil (4). The US thinks al-Qaida may take refuge in Yemen or Somalia. In 2002 an attack in Mombasa, Kenya, targeted Israeli interests. In1998 explosions wrecked the US embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania).

Fear has encouraged the US to make Djibouti a major, permanent base, a military marshalling yard (5). It is close to the Red Sea, Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf, and near Sudan, which has barely recovered from its Islamist days, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, all relatively unstable. The Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) controls a US fleet, accom panied by British and Spanish ships and a small German squadron, patrolling the Gulf of Aden and the coasts of Somalia and Yemen. Last December the US state department negotiated access to airports in Ethiopia and ports in Eritrea.

Djibouti is turning into a valuable base for the US, as it has been for France, with scope for training, and modern ports and airports. The US army has been able to mount miniature wars as a prelude to an attack on Iraq. It has also set up a regional marine and aerial intelligence system to prevent al-Qaida activists from reaching the coasts of Yemen, Somalia and Kenya. A missile from a Predator drone, which was controlled by the CIA, eliminated six presumed members of al-Qaida, including one of its leaders, in the province of Marib, in Yemen, across the strait. The drone took off from Djibouti but was controlled from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Pressing a computer key 15,000 km away was enough to pulverise the target.

Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, Djibouti’s minister of international cooperation, explains: We readily enrolled in this global war on terror after 11 September, and we’ve given the Americans everything they have wanted. But for now, we haven’t seen anything from the US in return (6). He took it as an insult when a visiting US delegation offered $4m in aid, three-quarters of which had to be spent on improving security at the airport. As Youssouf points out, the country has basic needs: food, schools, roads, healthcare. Before negotiating a formal agreement for a military base, with a development bureau, the US administration allocated $500,000 to pay for the January parliamentary elections (7). It has already obtained approval for Voice of America to broadcast from Djibouti, targeting Yemen and Somalia.

America, America, we want a job, shout the crowds of young people who gather outside the US army job centre, usually without success. Thousands of their compatriots hang around outside Camp Lemonier in the hope of picking up work. But US soldiers are nowhere to be seen behind the baked earth walls and surveillance systems. They rarely emerge from their quarters and their air-conditioned tents, in contrast with the French soldiers, who have always liked to mix with the locals.


(1) In October 1993 a routine mission by US special forces (Task Force Ranger from Delta Force) to capture two warlords in a district of Mogadishu ended in a fiasco. Two helicopters were shot down and 18 soldiers were killed. A vehicle belonging to the militia dragged one of the bodies through the streets. See the account by the French ambassador Alain Deschamps, Somalie 1993: premire offensive humanitaire, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2000.

(2) The French base has shrunk with the end of national service in France. It houses 2,800 men, including an airbase, the 5th Overseas Regiment and the 13th demi-brigade of the Foreign Legion. Almost a third are only there for short-stay missions.

(3) La Lettre de l’Ocan Indien, Paris, 30 November 2002.

(4) Since the attack on the Limburg insurance premiums for ships stopping in Yemen have increased fivefold.

(5) US practice in a new hub, International Herald Tribune, 18 November 2002.

(6) Impoverished Djiboutians see no payoff for US presence, Los Angeles Times, 23 December 2002.

(7) The Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), led by Ismael Omar Guelleh, won the first truly multiparty elections, but the opposition, led by the former prime minister and rebel chief Ahmed Dini, claimed the vote had been rigged.