The Americans Have Landed
By 2012, the Pentagon will have
two dozen forts in Africa. The story of Africa Command, the American
military's new frontier outpost.
by Thomas P.M. Barnett
The word came down suddenly in early January
to the fifty or so U.S. troops stationed inside Camp Simba, a
Kenyan naval base located on that country's sandy coast: Drop
everything and pull everyone back inside the compound wire. Then
they were instructed to immediately clear a couple acres of dense
forest. Task Force 88, a very secret American special-operations
unit, needed to land three CH-53 helicopters.
"We had everybody working nonstop,"
says Navy Lieutenant Commander Steve Eron, commander of Contingency
Operating Location Manda Bay, a new American base in Kenya, including
a dozen or so on-site KBR contractors. By the next day, every
tree had been hauled off and the field graded and packed down
using heavy machinery. The pad was completed in thirty-six hours.
Soon after, U.S. special operators flying
out of Manda Bay were landing in southernmost Somalia, searching
for survivors among the foreign fighters and Al Qaeda operatives
just targeted in a furious bombardment by a U.S. gunship launched
from a secret airstrip in eastern Ethiopia.
The 88's job was simple: Kill anyone still
alive and leave no unidentified bodies behind.
A few weeks later, the president would
announce the creation of a new regional command -- Africa Command
-- that would commit U.S. military personnel to the continent
on a permanent basis. The January operation would be, in effect,
the first combat mission of Africa Command, and it would not go
Ethiopia's Meles regime, which American
Central Command officers describe as "xenophobic to the core,"
was going into Somalia last December whether the Americans approved
or not. The recently installed Somali Council of Islamic Courts,
with its loose talk of getting back another star point in its
flag (otherwise known as Ethiopia's Ogaden region), simply had
to go. As it happened, the Americans, who had been quietly training
the Ethiopian troops for years, did approve.
In fact, Centcom was very eager for the
operation. Most press leaks made it sound like our main targets
were a trio of Al Qaeda senior operatives responsible for bombing
American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania a decade ago. But the
real story is one of pure opportunism, according to a knowledgeable
source within the headquarters: "There were three thousand
foreign fighters in there. Honestly, nobody had any idea just
how many there really were. But we wanted to get them all."
When the invading Ethiopians quickly enjoyed
unexpected success, Centcom's plan became elegantly simple: Let
the blitzkrieging Ethiopian army drive the CIC, along with its
foreign fighters and Al Qaeda operatives, south out of Mogadishu
and toward the Kenyan border, where Kenyan troops would help trap
them on the coast. "We begged the Kenyans to get to the border
as fast as possible," the Centcom source says, "because
the targets were so confused, they were running around like chickens
with their heads cut off."
Once boxed in by the sea and the Kenyans,
the killing zone was set and America's first AC-130 gunship went
wheels-up on January 7 from that secret Ethiopian airstrip. After
each strike, anybody left alive was to be wiped out by successive
waves of Ethiopian commandos and Task Force 88, operating out
of Manda Bay. The plan was to rinse and repeat "until no
more bad guys," as one officer put it.
"We could have solved all of East
Africa in less than eight weeks," says the Centcom source,
who was involved in the planning. Central Command was extremely
wary of being portrayed in the media as Ethiopia's puppet master.
In fact, its senior leaders wanted to keep America's participation
entirely secret. The goal was for Ethiopia to get all the credit,
further bolstering America's controversial but burgeoning military
ties with Meles Zenawi's increasingly authoritarian regime. Proud
Kenya, still visibly nervous from the 1998 embassy bombing, would
have been happy with a very quiet thank-you.
It was a good plan. And it was leaked
to the press almost as soon as it started.
Those involved in the Central Command
operation suspected two sources: 1) somebody in the Office of
the Secretary of Defense who couldn't wait to trumpet their success
to bitter personal rivals in the State Department, or 2) a dime
dropper from our embassy in Kenya who simply couldn't stand the
notion that the Pentagon had once again suckered State into a
The first New York Times piece in early
January broke the story of the initial AC-130 bombardment, incorrectly
identifying a U.S. military base in Djibouti as the launching
point. That leak just let the cat out of the bag, tipping off
the main target, a senior CIC leader named Aden Hashi Ayro, who,
according to Centcom intelligence, had been completely fooled
up to that point, thinking the Ethiopians had somehow gotten the
jump on him. Ayro survived his injuries, and he's now back in
action in Mogadishu and, by all accounts, mad as hell at both
the Ethiopians and the Americans.
Six weeks and a second Times story later,
the shit really hit the fan in Addis Ababa. Now the intensely
proud Ethiopians, who had done all the heavy lifting in the operation,
were being portrayed as bit players in their own war -- simpleton
proxies of the fiendishly clever Americans. After angry denials
were issued (Meles's spokesman called the story a "fabrication"),
the Ethiopians decided that if the Americans were so hot to mastermind
another intervention in Somalia, they would just wash their hands
of this mess as quickly as possible.
The return of the foreign fighters to
Mogadishu's nasty mix, along with Ethiopia's fit of pique, quickly
sent the situation in Somalia spiraling downward. The transitional
Somali government, backed by the United Nations, is faltering,
and in scenes reminiscent of America's last misadventures in Mog,
both Ethiopian troops and African Union peacekeepers are taking
fire from 360 degrees' worth of pissed-off Somali clans determined
to -- once again -- drive off the invading infidels. Osama bin
Laden himself couldn't have written a better ending.
Naturally, it wasn't supposed to happen
America's Central Command set up shop
in Djibouti in May 2003, moving ashore a Marine-led Joint Task
Force that had been established six months earlier aboard the
command ship Mount Whitney to capture and kill Al Qaeda fighters
fleeing American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. The task force
did register one immediate big hit in November 2002: A top Al
Qaeda leader was taken out in Yemen by a Hellfire air-to-ground
missile launched from an unmanned Predator drone in a scene right
out of Syriana. But other than that, the great rush of rats fleeing
the sinking ship has not yet materialized, and so the Marines
took up residence in an old French Foreign Legion base located
on Djibouti's rocky shore, just outside the capital.
Uncomfortable just sitting around, the
Marines quickly refashioned the task force with the blessing of
General John Abizaid, then head of Central Command, who envisioned
Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) as a sort
of strategic inoculant. If the Marines weren't going to get to
kill anybody, then they'd train the locals to do it instead.
But CJTF-HOA, whose area of responsibility
stretched from Sudan down to Kenya, soon evolved into something
so much more: an experiment in combining defense, diplomacy, and
development -- the so-called three-D approach so clearly lacking
in America's recent postwar reconstruction efforts elsewhere.
Because the task force didn't own the sovereign space it was operating
in, as U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq did, the Marines were
forced to work under and through the American ambassadors, their
State Department country teams, and the attached U.S. Agency for
International Development missions. If little of that cooperation
was occurring in Kabul and Baghdad, then maybe Africa would be
The Horn of Africa was supposed to be
Washington's bureaucratic mea culpa for the Green Zone, a proving
ground for the next generation of interagency cooperation that
fuels America's eventual victory in what Abizaid once dubbed the
"long war" against radical Islam. But as its first great
test in Somalia demonstrated, the three D's are still a long way
from being synchronized, and as the Pentagon sets up its new Africa
Command in the summer of 2008, the time for sloppy off-Broadway
tryouts is running out. Eventually, Al Qaeda's penetration of
Muslim Africa will happen -- witness the stunning recent appearance
of suicide bombers in Casablanca -- and either the three D's will
answer this challenge, or this road show will close faster than
you can say "Black Hawk down."
After being ignored since the beginning
of time (save for its slaves and its treasure), Africa just got
strategically important enough for us to care about. And the Bush
administration's decision to set up Africa Command is historic,
but not for the reasons given or assumed.
There aren't enough Islamic terrorists
in Africa to stand up a full combatant command. If all we wanted
were flies on eyeballs, a small number of special-operations trigger
pullers would have sufficed for the foreseeable future.
There's oil here, but the United States
would get its share whether Africa burns or not, and it's actually
fairly quiet right now.
The Chinese are here en masse, typically
embedded with regimes we can't stand or can't stand us, like Sudan
and Zimbabwe. But the Chinese aren't particularly liked in Africa
and seem to have no designs for empire here. Beijing just wants
its energy and minerals, and that penetration, such as it is,
doesn't warrant Africa Command, either.
America is going to have an Africa Command
for the same reason people buy real estate -- it's a good investment.
Too many large, hostile powers surround Central Asia for the radical
jihadists to expand there, but Africa? Africa's the strategic
backwater of the world. Nobody cares about Africa except Western
So as the Middle East middle-ages over
the next three decades and Asia's infrastructural build-out is
completed, only Africa will remain as a source for both youth-driven
revolution and cheap labor and commodities. Toss in global warming
and you've got a recipe for the most deprived becoming the most
The U.S., through its invasion and botched
occupation of Iraq, has dramatically sped up globalization's frightening
reformatting process in the Middle East, and with Africa on deck,
the United States military is engaging in a highly strategic flanking
Africa Command promises to be everything
Central Command has failed to become. It will be interagency from
the ground up. It will be based on interactions with locals first
and leaders second. It will engage in preemptive nation-building
instead of preemptive regime change. It will "reduce the
future battlespace" that America has neither intention nor
desire to own.
It'll be Iraq done right.
Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa
here in Djibouti is the clear model for what comes next, according
to Rear Admiral Bob Moeller, who heads up the Defense Department's
transition team planning Africom's structure. It is the franchise
that will be replicated across the entire continent.
Camp Lemonier, home to CJTF-Horn of Africa,
is one nasty, hot, and oh-so-stanky chunk of rock adjoining the
Red Sea, a place where the view of the night sky is routinely
blocked by the thick black smoke rising from the capital city's
burning garbage pit located just outside the base wire. Take away
the port and there's not much reason for anyone to come here,
where the bulk of Djibouti's 750,000 citizens live.
Djibouti welcomes the Americans as a counterweight
to its neighbors, none of whom have the country's best interests
in mind. To the north is Eritrea, which broke off from Ethiopia
years back and favors Somalia against their common archrival.
Landlocked Ethiopia to the west wants a stable Djibouti primarily
for its access to the sea. But as Addis Ababa doesn't mind fomenting
trouble in Somalia, to Djibouti's south, the relationship is frequently
Besides being welcoming, Djibouti was
a natural place for the United States to plant its first African
precinct: It's where Africa meets the Persian Gulf.
Camp Lemonier was just a bunch of tents
surrounded by walls filled with sand for the first three years,
with the serious settling in beginning when the Navy took over
the command from the Marines in early 2006. Until recently, the
camp's roughly fifteen hundred sailors, marines, Army, Air Force,
Coast Guard, and civilians were crammed into a very cramped hundred-acre
plot, buttressed on one side by the sole runway the task force
shares with both the Djibouti International Airport and a French
marine base still operating there. Now, thanks to a new five-year
lease signed with the Djiboutian government, the camp has expanded
to roughly five hundred acres, to include a sprawling suburb called
"CLU City," named after the rows and rows of containerized
living units, housing two thousand people in all, plopped down
in what is certainly one of the world's most brutally utilitarian
I got a glimpse of CLU City from the guard
tower just inside the eastern wall of the base late one Sunday
afternoon. The task force's public-affairs officer, Major David
Malakoff, was right on my elbow the entire time. Malakoff had
walked me around the camp the day before, carefully pointing out
the "wire within the wire" that is the special-operations
compound. He said no one would be answering questions about them
because no one on base knows anything about what they do.
This is a common theme from senior officers
at Lemonier. Captain Bob Wright, who heads up strategic communications
for the task force, told me that he had "absolutely no access"
to the special-ops unit there, despite having "all the right
As I stood up on the guard tower, snapping
photos of CLU City, I looked over toward the Djibouti airport,
and my eye was drawn to the sight of men dressed in black scrambling
down the side of a nondescript building on the north side of the
"What's going on over there?"
I asked, pointing.
"Over where?" Malakoff answered
slowly. "I don't see anything."
Behind me, the base commander's aide was
I pulled my eye back from my camera slowly,
looked down off the tower, and calculated the drop in feet to
the ground. Better to continue this conversation below.
"Okay, got a nice shot of a plane.
I'm done!" I started heading to the ladder. A rapid-fire
chorus of "Great!" "Good!" and "All right!"
triggered everyone's movement right on my heels.
Back on the ground, Malakoff turned to
me and whispered, "You didn't take any shots of those guys
on the building, did you?"
"Good," Malakoff said. "That
would have been the end of your camera right there, and maybe
more. I'm just trying to look out for you here."
Special-operations enthusiasts, like the
journalist Robert Kaplan, love to romanticize the almost limitless
utility of the trigger pullers in globalization's dark alleys
like the Horn. This makes some sense, as they tend to generate
all the "kinetics," or killing, and that's what draws
in the international press. But with CJTF-HOA, the regular military
is trying to reassume its historical role in the everything else
that accompanies the trigger-pulling: the civil-affairs work,
the humanitarian stuff, the community projects designed to win
hearts and minds. In a pinch, the SOF guys will do these sorts
of things as well, but the long war has become one long squeeze
on special operators, who are now such rare commodities -- recruitment-wise
-- that some are commanding reenlistment bonuses well above $100,000,
lest Blackwater USA hire them all.
So the romantic view of special operations
encouraged by Kaplan and others, that the SOF guys are all you
need for a backwater like Africa, is yielding to a new normal:
a strategic view that recognizes there are too few trigger pullers
to go around, and with the Marines backfilling Special Operations
Command where it can, bases like Lemonier are quickly being taken
over, often by reservists who haven't been on an aircraft, ship,
or submarine for years.
The U.S. Navy now commands the base, freeing
up the Marines for more pressing duty elsewhere in the region,
and although CJTF-HOA's C is supposed to signify a "combined"
effort involving coalition member states, only a dozen or so officers
are actually drawn -- as liaisons -- from ten militaries (five
local, five distant) other than our own. Indeed, the French, with
their roughly three thousand men next door, along with all their
wives and kids living off base, constitute by far the largest
foreign contingent in Djibouti. In comparison, the Americans remain
somewhat isolated on their base with their 10:00 p.m. curfew,
as Lemonier is still considered a "hardship post" that
rules out families.
The task force's stated mission -- a profound
expansion of, and evolution from, its original capture-and-kill
orders -- is to prevent conflict by promoting stability regionally
and, in that prophylactic approach, ultimately "prevail over
extremism" by never letting its seeds find purchase in local
soil. In the Horn of Africa, when you're talking urban, middle-class,
educated, commercial, and connected, you're more likely describing
Christian populations, and when you're talking rural, impoverished,
uneducated, agrarian, and off-grid, you're mostly describing Muslim
villages. So it's not enough to interact with the capital's elites.
You either go "downrange," as task-force officers like
to say, or you might as well stay on base.
In addition to Camp Lemonier, three permanent
contingency operating locations are up and running, two in Ethiopia
(Bilate and Hurso) and one in Kenya (Manda Bay). A fourth base
was established more than a year ago in Gode, Ethiopia, but it
was closed as events heated up next door in Somalia. If CJTF-HOA
does become the model for Africa Command, the United States could
easily be running a couple dozen such military bases on the continent
The pattern of our military's expanding
presence in Africa seems clear: 1) look where the locals or former
colonials set up shop previously; 2) move inside the existing
wire first with your special operators for capture/kill missions
and military-to-military training with the locals to do the same;
and then 3) settle in more formally with new versions of Camp
Lemonier. Once set up, the task force storefront can be used to
flow trigger pullers onto the scene at a moment's notice -- the
precinct that hosts the SWAT team.
To old hands in the State Department and
USAID, the Pentagon's growing incursion into long-neglected Africa
arouses ancient bureaucratic impulses toward territoriality. They
can't help but feel like their turf's being invaded by the gun-toting
crowd, hell-bent on opening a new front in a new war.
If Djibouti is a front, then it's a messy
one, because the fault lines seem more cultural than tactical.
The place is a great example of the tectonic stresses at work
here, its battered visage almost exemplifying the numerous civilizations
that have crashed into one another here on the streets of this
ancient port city.
Djibouti was hopping my last night in
town before I flew downrange. Several thousand French sailors
were on liberty that Sunday night, fresh off the carrier Charles
de Gaulle and the other ships in its task force. Half the port's
prostitutes are said to be HIV-positive, and the sailors were
taking their lives in their hands.
As the French were landing, I headed out
in a Toyota Land Cruiser with Captain Bob Wright and a few of
his young officers to find the local Ethiopian restaurant that
everyone at Lemonier raves about but no one can ever find. An
hour later, we're still not there. Finally, we head into Djibouti's
main square, to a restaurant Captain Wright knows well. He jumps
out of the Toyota and chats up the owner, who takes the whole
hospitality thing so seriously that he sends Bob back to the car
with his eldest son as our guide.
We careen through back alleys that squeeze
tighter and tighter and finally come upon the Ethiopian Community
Club, nestled between a Coptic Orthodox Christian church and a
The captain pays a couple of kids hanging
out in the alley to watch the car, and we head up to the unlighted
Sitting atop the building in the warm
night air, we are serenaded from three sides in a mash-up only
Tom Friedman could love. The Coptic priest is haranguing his parish
in an endless sermon; on the other side, the looming mosque tower
is booming its taped call to prayers; and, once our waiter gets
around to opening up the makeshift bar on the roof, Eminem joins
in about what a whore his mother is from a boom box in the corner.
Popping beers and shouting through the din, Captain Wright steers
the conversation to the tension between the two halves of HOA's
mission, the civil-affairs stuff and what everyone keeps calling
"the recent kinetics in Somalia." The whole affair was
a nightmare to Wright and his officers, he says, trashing years
of patient effort by hundreds of officers to present a new and
different face of the U.S. military.
"Strategic communications" means
that no one ever sees the men in black rappelling down that building,
the same men in black I hadn't seen the day before.
Walking back to the car, Wright says,
"Stuff like that makes everyone think that what we're trying
to do here at HOA really doesn't count, but it does. You can't
make the Horn a better place simply by killing bad guys."
So the question becomes, Is the civil-affairs
stuff just a continuing cover for the special operations, or will
they eventually yield an Africa that makes American interventions
unnecessary? There's a lot of concern here that the establishment
of Africa Command may do more harm than good -- the poised hammer
that makes everything suddenly look like a nail.
Manda Bay, Kenya
Traveling to HOA's contingency operating
location in Manda Bay, along Kenya's eastern coast, is a multiday
affair from Djibouti, including a couple of long flights on Kenya's
national airline and a two-hour military transport from Nairobi
to a makeshift airstrip a few miles' drive from the surrounding
Kenyan naval base. On the C-130 flight with the task force's deputy
commander, Rear Admiral Tim Moon, we shared the cargo bay with
a couple of huge pallets of well-digging machinery and more cases
of Red Bull than I could count. The ground crew in Nairobi said
we were dangerously overloaded for the short runway, but after
being unable to find a forklift big enough to repack the load
originally put on board in Djibouti, our Air Force pilots just
said, "No worries" (and yes, in Swahili that really
is hakuna matata), and we were off in a plane built the year I
was born (1962).
We skimmed the landing zone on our first
pass to make sure no wild animals were on the strip. From inside
the windowless C-130, that experience feels like a last-second
aborted landing, which I handled okay because I'd skipped lunch
earlier. My seat companion, Major Tesfa Dejene from Ethiopia,
laughed when he caught my grimace. "I thought all you Americans
Camp Simba, the Kenyan navy's name for
the base, is a struggle against nature. Lieutenant Commander Steve
Eron warns you upon entry that the concertina wire strung around
the base perimeter is useful only in stopping humans. The animals
-- baboons, monkeys, hyenas, deer, and probably more deadly snakes
than anywhere else in the world -- "come on through like
it's not even there."
"I call it the zoo in reverse,"
says Eron. "Because they come here to watch us." Something
to remember at 3:00 a.m. when you're making that walk to the latrine
forty yards from your hut, which is kept incredibly cold with
air-conditioning because "keeping it cold keeps those cold-blooded
animals out," Eron says.
I make a mental note of where the camp's
sole medical corpsman is located.
Manda Bay's origins tell you everything
you need to know about why the Americans showed up here. The Kenyan
navy built the base in 1992, in response to the collapse of the
Siad Barre dictatorship in Somalia the year before, right about
the time U.S. marines were stepping off their amphibious ships
and entering Mogadishu. Kenya's predominantly Muslim northern
coastal area is so remote that it was simply easier to send military
supplies to its border with Somalia along the coast using naval
vessels than to head up inland by vehicles, as the sandy roads
are impassable in the rainy season.
Years later, as Somalia began spiraling
downward yet again, Central Command sent a special-operations
contingent into Manda to begin training the Kenyan navy on antiterrorism
tactics using high-speed patrol craft. That effort laid the groundwork
for Task Force 88's sudden appearance earlier this year.
Rear Admiral Rich Hunt, who commanded
HOA in 2006, likes to brag that "we've never fired a round
in anger," which is a little like saying, "HOA doesn't
kill people; special operators do."
This is a part of the world where military
trucks and helicopters suddenly appearing on the horizon typically
set off alarm bells with the locals, because it has usually meant
that troops from the capital were coming to round them up and/or
kill them, just like our troops were doing to those high-value
targets in southern Somalia earlier this year. Here, you're just
another scary guy in a uniform until you prove differently.
Jumping out of the tail of the C-130 in
Manda Bay's intense March heat, I am surrounded by marines temporarily
bivouacked alongside the remote airstrip in a cluster of tents.
They're here for a bilateral naval exercise with the Kenyans.
The engineering brigade will come ashore soon and help rebuild
a school, and Marine doctors will vaccinate the locals and treat
all their basic maladies. If this is a cover, it is very convincing.
On posts like this, the rank-and-file
American troops tend to fall for the locals. Not in some white-man's-burden
sort of way but simply out of the desire not to be sitting around
on their asses, marking time across their tours, waiting like
firemen for the next blaze.
There's nothing in the traditional military
system that demands, recognizes, rewards, or basically gives a
flying fuck about making friends with local populations. But still,
soldiers like Army Captain Steve McKnight do it.
Team leader of Team B/413th Civil Affairs
Battalion, McKnight is an instantly likable fellow. He's a balding
bear of a guy whose uniform is a Cubs cap and a bike-messenger
bag, and he comes off like a good high school football coach.
And he did coach at a school in an unglamorous part of Miami.
"Suburban kids didn't need me because they've already got
parents," he says.
Unmarried at forty-three, McKnight stumbled
into this African posting because of bureaucratic downsizing.
"I'm a medical-service-corps officer -- direct commission.
I got attached to a reserve combat hospital down in Miami that
folded, and there was a civil-affairs unit next to mine, and I
walked over there and I was like, 'Hey, I need a home. You guys
got a place for me?' "
Civil affairs promised him the most remote
locations with the neediest clients. Now sitting across from me
at a seedy Internet café located in the sweltering waterfront
of Lamu, Kenya, an ancient seafaring port, McKnight downs a huge
beer in a single gulp and leans back, flashing his gap-tooth grin
like Vince Lombardi. He's been in country for almost six months
now and has put in repeated requests to extend his tour of duty,
to no avail. "I'll probably get me something deep in South
America next," he says.
McKnight in his element is a superb intelligence
gatherer (or what they call in spycraft "human intelligence").
We took a long tour of Lamu's labyrinthine back alleys, where
the carved wooden doors mark the homes of some of the world's
oldest slave traders, and the open sewers reek. I'm holding my
nose while McKnight presses the flesh of every shopkeeper we pass,
most of whom warmly yell out his name in greeting. He's like some
muzungu running for office on Lamu's south side: exchanging gossip,
asking how business has been lately, needling them for details
about this or that local issue.
Admiral Moon's visit included a showy
meeting with senior Kenyan military officers down on the coast
to mark the bilateral military exercise with the Americans. A
message had just come down from the embassy, which McKnight relayed
to Moon: "The embassy says it wants everybody in civvies
today, Admiral, just to play it safe."
"The embassy is concerned about some
photojournalist snapping a shot of the admiral standing next to
some Ethiopian officer in uniform," McKnight said. "After
the recent events in Somalia, that could trigger a lot of negative
McKnight and I skip the photo op because
he's got a civil-affairs project to check on: the rebuild of a
local rural school by a U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit's engineering
battalion. McKnight had done the preliminary scouting work with
the Marines weeks earlier, picking out a school that HOA had helped
build three years ago but that was already showing some structural
problems, in large part because the Americans had relied too much
on local contractors, who tend to mix way too much sand in their
cement to cut on costs.
"Handing the money over to the contractor,
disappearing for the life of the project, and coming back for
the dedication? That's a recipe for disaster," says McKnight.
So this time around, the Marine combat
engineers not only rehab all the buildings, they erect a significant
fence to surround the entire school compound to keep out the wildlife
that constantly wanders in, threatening the kids, raiding the
pantry, and eating its way through the crops the staff grow to
feed themselves and provide meals to the kids.
There's going to be a problem when the
Marines fly in the VIPs for the school rededication. Their Chinook
helos need such a large landing space that the school's kitchen,
made of sticks and mud, is put at risk. Huff and puff and blow
your building down. On the spot, the Marines offer to trash the
old kitchen and build a new, wood-frame one from scratch.
The headmaster convinces the Marines to
build a new food pantry right next door. He is elated. "When
you have the food, the kids are so happy, and they come in great
numbers, and we keep them in school."
Having worked that scene, McKnight's on
to connect his next dot: Sammy Mbugua, deputy director of the
local Kenyan National Youth Service facility, a sprawling agriculture
camp that experiments with all manner of crops and helps local
farmers adopt new practices. It's a run-down collection of buildings,
and looking at all the holes that pepper every piece of wood in
the place, you quickly come to the conclusion that ants run the
place more than anybody else.
McKnight has to reassure Sammy about all
those helicopters buzzing by. Mbugua, a slow-moving, middle-aged
man whose rheumy eyes say he's no stranger to tropical diseases,
is looking for explanations to give all the local villagers who
pester him with questions. "Some people are worried, Steve,"
he says. "Can you hear them go, the aeroplanes?"
McKnight does his best to explain all
the activity, emphasizing all the civil-affairs projects being
conducted simultaneously alongside military exercises.
"Please tell them there's nothing
to be alarmed about," he says. "They're doing exercises.
Yeah, that's nothing to worry about."
When the kinetic troop buildup happened
on the border earlier this year, it scared everyone. "They
were like, 'What's happening? Is there going to be a big battle
here or something?' " McKnight says. "The secondary
school that does not exist here anymore was taken over by General
Morgan, a Somali warlord, in 1992. He destroyed it and they haven't
had a secondary school since. The people here remember that."
McKnight confirms with Mbugua that all
the youth-service personnel got checked out by the Marine doctors
running a medical exercise down the road. "Yes, yes,"
says Sammy. "They all got their shots."
This is what McKnight calls "housekeeping."
And in his work, he has the bearing of a Peace Corps volunteer,
not an Army officer. "It's the little things that make the
difference," he says. "It's not the big-picture project
stuff, it's remembering to bring that fourth grader in Kiunga
the English books that we promised her. It's remembering to bring
the chief a new stainless-steel coffee thermos. And it's not just
the material stuff, it's doing the interaction. It's humanizing
the relationship. You know, this business of just giving stuff,
it's dehumanized us and it's dehumanized them."
Promising to meet up with Sammy over drinks
at a cocktail party hosted by the director of the National Youth
Service next week in Nairobi, McKnight is out the door.
Cruising back to Manda Bay, we pass a
couple of Kenya Wildlife Service trucks. McKnight has our Kenyan
driver pull over, and McKnight exchanges information with the
group's leader. "Always got to say hello," McKnight
explains. "Those guys are the best security operating in
this neck of the woods."
The captain's been in every room along
Kenya's border with Somalia that Al Qaeda operatives have been
in. He has interacted with every leader they've tried to recruit,
telling me that clerics there immediately renounced these guys
once their identities became known. While conservative, none of
Kenya's Muslims seem, in McKnight's opinion, particularly attracted
to radical ideology promoting violent separation from the outside
world. Rather, the local mullahs are desperate to have roads improved
so that teachers can be attracted from the cities to their remote
villages. "Jihadism is a failed concept here," McKnight
says. "It's like trying to sell a vegetarian steak."
He tells the story of a primary school
deep in the Muslim village of Bargoni where all the girls would
drop out once they hit puberty. In Africa, the impulse would be
to think: AIDS, birth control, clerics bearing down. But it was
something far more prosaic. When I had first arrived inside the
wire at Camp Lemonier, I'd seen a portable toilet labeled "Muslim
female." The girls at the school were forced to quit at puberty
because strict Islamic practice says that males and females can't
share the same bathroom once girls come of age. McKnight and his
crew offered a simple fix: HOA would build the school a bathroom
just for girls.
The impact was immediate. For the first
time, girls stayed in school, parents were happy, mullahs were
satisfied, local leaders immensely gratified. Word got around:
"The Americans did this!" McKnight's eyes well up as
Kinetics is what the military does. Iraq
is a quagmire because kinetics is all we planned for. But in this
new time, on this continent, the military also builds latrines
for girls. That simple act might someday keep trigger pullers
out of this village.
"I don't need to go back to Florida
and my inner-city school," McKnight says. "I've got
it all here. It feels just like home."
For the Pentagon, the corporation that
runs the only military on earth with a global reach, the world
is carved into regional commands. Until now, Africa has been nothing
but a strategic backwater -- the one place where America clearly
had no interests and no bureaucratic structure to manage those
nonexistent interests. Africa was divided haphazardly between
European Command, Central Command, and Pacific Command. In a globalized
world where bad actors live to exploit unguarded seams, we seemed
to be providing Al Qaeda with several to exploit.
The U.S. military's strategic take on
Africa has long been "We have no compelling interests there,
and we sure as hell don't want anybody else to have any, either!"
It was that attitude that got Washington nervous about the Soviet
Union's seeming ideological penetration of the continent in the
late 1970s, and it's what gets the Pentagon nervous today about
China's obvious economic penetration.
But denying other great powers strategic
interests in the region does not constitute a strategy of our
own, nor does the great hunt for "high-value targets."
Which is why America has come to Africa militarily and isn't leaving
anytime soon. The same can be said for China in the economic realm.
To work, a lot of preconceptions about what an American military
presence is really good for in underdeveloped countries will have
to change. What we've not learned in Iraq -- or taken far too
long to learn -- will have to be somehow acquired, soldier by
soldier and tour by tour, on the ground in Africa.
Rounding a corner in Lamu's claustrophobic
back alleys, Captain Steve McKnight leads a military group through
a dirty, cluttered courtyard. It's happy hour, and this multinational
force consists of six HOA liaison officers -- a Brit, a South
Korean, two Ethiopians, a Djiboutian, and a French colonel --
and Admiral Moon, and the whole group is guarded by two "force
protection" infantrymen who hover fore and aft like mother
hens. We stick out like sore thumbs, and must conjure the past,
when Africa was cynically sized up by visiting military officers
for its potential to join what passed for globalization a century
Barefoot, dirty kids, wearing clothes
whose logos faded two or three owners ago, kick up the dust as
they chase one another around the cracked plastic buckets that
serve as their mother's laundry system. She's busy hanging clothes
out to dry on lines strung between the buildings, and we're ducking
under her wash, trying not to interfere.
The woman's husband sits on what passes
for the stoop of their house -- a single slab of rock. He's busy
slurping a bowl of soup.
The grizzled old fisherman looks up from
his bowl at the parade of military officers in mufti and says
in perfect English: "Welcome to another world."
Admiral Moon passes under the clothesline,
straightens up, and stops. "Thanks. We feel welcome,"
The man dismisses us with his hand, turns
away to finish his soup, and a few seconds later we're gone.