Members of a relatively small U.S. military force based in the Horn of Africa have been called "aid workers with guns." The American troops are drilling wells, vaccinating livestock, building school facilities and performing a variety of other humanitarian missions in Djibouti. They have weapons, but their mission is to defeat terrorism without using force. Local people in the mostly Muslim region welcome the assistance. Malcolm Brown reports for VOA from the tiny east African state.
U.S. troops drive through the arid landscape of southwestern Djibouti. Their mission is to provide clean water for the nomadic people who survive in this super-hot environment.
At the wheel of one of the vehicles is Staff Sergeant William Brown, a member of a squad that specializes in drilling wells. Their destination is an oasis close to the border with Ethiopia. An ancient trail used by humans and animals passes nearby, making this a vital stopping point.
"We are currently looking at this area, to see what we can do to develop this oasis, so that they can better use it,” Sergeant Brown says. “Right now, the way they are using it, they are actually contaminating their own water. The water is good for drinking, but because they are allowing their animals all around it, it is getting contaminated with feces. So we're trying to develop a plan so that we can fix that for them."
Sergeant Brown and the troops know very well that they are right next door to Somalia, torn by civil war between Islamist groups and the weak government in Mogadishu. The Americans carry weapons for self-defense, but their mission is peaceful – to improve life for those who exist in this harsh environment, a role that falls under the umbrella of what the U.S. military calls civil affairs.
Rear Admiral Timothy Moon is deputy commander of the U.S. task force in the region.
"If you think about it, it's obvious that someone who is constantly hungry, doesn't have a roof over his head, [is] going to be more susceptible to extremist ideology and easily succumb to recruiting efforts," he says.
Central to the effort to make sure that does not happen are the American troops of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, housed at this former French military base in Djibouti. The original mission was to capture or kill terrorists; action like the U.S. air strikes in Somalia earlier this year, aimed at suspected al-Qaida members.
These days, a typical mission for the task force is very different. In this video shot by the U.S. military, veterinarians care for Kenyans' livestock.
Captain Gwynne Kinley, a military veterinarian, says the response has been very gratifying.
"They are extremely grateful. I have never had any degree of suspicion or any type of unwelcoming attitudes,” he says. “Everyone has been very grateful that we have been able to be present and help them to help their animals."
This is the generation the U.S. military really wants to reach. Better prospects stop young people becoming radicals later in life, the thinking goes.
So the U.S. military, in conjunction with America's civilian overseas assistance agency, USAID, is working to improve education and health care in the region.
On this visit to a school in the Djiboutian town of Tadjoura, local officials like Alwan Daoud, who was school principal for almost three decades, had only good things to say.
Daoud, the president of the Regional Council of Tadjoura, says "The American assistance has done many things to improve education and health. But there are many other needs, so we want the help to continue."
American personnel are also encouraged to help out in their free time. There are regular outings to this orphanage close to the base.
Nathaniel Young is a U.S. Navy military chaplain's assistant and his bodyguard. On the basketball court, he's a cultural ambassador.
"Basically, what we did was, we got together and said, 'OK, how can we help the boys' orphanage? What can we do? What's the best way that we can relate to them on a level that crosses cultural boundaries?' Sports does exactly that," Young says.
That sporting outreach has expanded the horizons of 23-year-old Abdul Dakar.
"I [would] like to go [to] America to practice in English and practice some basketball. I like basketball very, very much," he says.
For Americans like these Marines at Camp Lemonier, the modern military requires them to be flexible enough to go from hard combat in places like Iraq to this hearts-and-minds operation on the Horn of Africa.
Kenneth Bacon is a former Pentagon spokesman who now heads the NGO [non-governmental organization] Refugees International. He welcomes the emphasis on what is often called ‘soft power,’ but worries about routinely using military units to perform humanitarian work.
"In rare and emergency cases it makes sense for the military to do what only it can do very quickly,” Bacon says. “On a day-to-day basis, I don't think it makes sense for the military to be out distributing aid, vaccinating kids, [and] drilling wells. These are things that can be done by other groups. They can be done much more cheaply and much more effectively by operations like Oxfam or Save the Children or International Rescue Committee or CARE."
There is also concern that having American troops in this role might blur the line between soldiers and civilian aid workers, and thus endanger conventional NGOs.
While that debate continues, the U.S. military's projects are having a transformative impact on some lives in this region.