By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
DJIBOUTI, April 24, 2006 – The complexity of operations in the Horn of Africa boggles the mind. A person may be tempted to throw his hands up and decide that conditions are too dire, the people are too many, the politics are too tangled to make any changes in the region.
But that person would be wrong, said Navy Rear Adm. Richard Hunt, commander of Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa. Hunt leads a small command dedicated to improving lives in the region so the people do not embrace extremist ideologies or shelter terrorists.
The command includes Djibouti – where the headquarters is – Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and Yemen. It is an area two-thirds the size of the continental United States with 181 million people.
The command was originally conceived as one that would block terrorists from coming into the region once their safe havens in Afghanistan and Iraq were gone. “The mission morphed from direct action to doing theater security cooperation,” Hunt said during a recent interview. This overall term includes civil military cooperation, humanitarian assistance, military-to-military training, and capacity building to improve regional security.
On the military side, this embraces border security, maritime security, and training units to handle things at a national level.
But this is a huge region facing a potential humanitarian disaster, and one four-man Army civil affairs team in Ethiopia handles an area the size of Connecticut. And the region has almost the same coastline as the U.S. eastern seaboard.
Hunt said that when he speaks with commanders from Iraq, they are worried about getting casualties to treatment facilities sometimes taking as long as an hour. He said some American servicemembers serve in places on the Horn of Africa where it may take up to 12 hours to get them care. In addition to this geographic challenge, the region is in Year 5 of a drought, and 1.8 million people in the region are at risk of starvation.
The task force’s area of operations has political challenges as well. When Eritrea and Ethiopia fought in the late 1990s, some 100,000 people were killed. The two countries are once again facing off against each other. “If that gets hot, I just get consumed doing things like doing (a noncombatant evacuation) and providing support in that area,” Hunt said.
The genocide in Darfur is in the region. The civil war in Sudan – while nominally over – still has pockets of fighting. Terrorists and homegrown “liberation fronts” also pock the area. And in the midst of this is Somalia – the largest ungoverned area in the world. Some warlords in Somalia have adapted a Taliban-style government, and others are flirting with al Qaeda and al Qaeda influenced groups.
“We have human trafficking, smuggling of drugs and arms between Yemen and Somalia,” Hunt said, “and in the south, the beginnings of extremist activity.”
“The size and complexity of the region is just unbelievable, and drought and disease make this puzzle even more difficult,” he said. “But we have had successes, and we can capitalize on them.”
Facing all this complexity are about 1,500 combined joint task force members in Djibouti and another 500 “outside the wire” doing projects.
“We have to continually ask ourselves questions: How do we change the conditions that foster terrorism? How do we block the bad guys who are out there?” Hunt said.
Once conditions settle in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hunt said, he fully expects terrorists to try to escape to the Horn of Africa. “That requires us to be ready, to see these things coming and adjust resources accordingly,” he said.
The key is helping Africans to help Africa. “I went out with (representatives of the U.S. Agency for International Development) and visited a place where UNICEF is trying to save ‘very distressed’ children under 5 years old – they were trying to build them up with high-protein diets and try to monitor their condition,” Hunt said. “That’s an end-game kind of thing – a response to an emergency – and we spend lots of resources on that. What we want to do is get aid in early and help the people develop their capabilities so we don’t have to have emergency relief to stop children from dying.
“Food aid just teaches people to stand in line,” he said. The joint task force has humanitarian teams in the region looking to build sustainable economies. They are working with the people to develop resources. And they are working with local, regional and national authorities to build the capabilities of the region.
Military-to-military capability building is key to government success in the region. “We need to teach these folks to be professional military forces who follow human rights and behave properly,” he said. “The local people need to have confidence that their armed forces will be fair with them. We are working that aspect.”
Hunt said he will work to build the coalition in the region. “The United States cannot do this alone,” he said. “In next several months we will work with nations who may want to stand with us. This may be folks who do not want to be in Iraq or Afghanistan for political reasons, but who want to do good and help against terrorism on a global level.”
Part of the problem is the challenge of selling this approach to the host nations. The nations are fine with the United States providing aid and instruction, but some of the former colonial powers have a more difficult time convincing regional leaders to allow them in.
Hunt wants the combined joint task force to work far more closely with USAID. “In every project, we will work with USAID from the beginning and turn them over to them for the sustainment piece to make sure the proper effects are in place for the long term,” he said.
USAID, a State Department organization, works closely to nongovernmental organizations. NGOs have traditionally been leery of affiliating with the U.S. military. “But in this region, we need to plan strategically and align our efforts,” Hunt said. “We can facilitate that by getting the NGOs talking among themselves and with us.”
Hunt said some of the mistrust is breaking down. He said NGOs seem to be more understanding because of the U.S. military’s work in the Balkans and Afghanistan. “I think we can have tremendous impact if we plan strategically together, and work the long-term goals,” he said. “If people get the capacity to be self-sustaining, you stop the extremists.”
Hunt said he is going to take a look at all the command has accomplished in the past 24 months and measure the effects. “We’ll look at all the projects and have our customers to grade us,” he said. He will ask the U.S. embassies in the region, USAID and the host nations to see if the efforts have helped and how to strengthen procedures for better results in the future.
He said the command will keep working in the Ogadan section of Ethiopia. The drought is toughest there, and the infrastructure poor. Armed groups are in the region, and it borders Somalia. Efforts there will isolate terrorists and possibly save millions of people, the admiral said.
He also said the command will look to the south, where an extremist undercurrent is running in some areas of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The command will adjust resources if needed, he said.
In the maritime domain, Hunt said, the command has a good working relationship with the U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Task Force 150. Crime on the seas and piracy are problems that could be costing people in the region billions. “Every single official I speak with expresses concern about criminal activities on the sea and how it impacts them,” he said.
Nothing is more important, Hunt said, than recognizing that success in the region requires interagency cooperation. “We need to bring all elements of national power together,” he said. Working with embassy teams, reaching back to U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., and to federal agencies in Washington will help. The bottom line, though, is the area needs “sustained, long-term leadership from the interagency process,” the admiral said.