The Landing Zone | 7.15.14
By Alan W. Dowd
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
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."
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
That provides a perfect bridge to Djibouti's role in counter-piracy operations.
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.
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."
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
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.
The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.