REVIEW: Article

Good Things Come in Small Packages: The US-Djiboutian Security Partnership

The small, East African nation of Djibouti is little known to most Americans. Fewer people (800,000) live in the arid country than in Austin, Texas. Its economy, no larger than that of College Park, Maryland, produces little in the way of manufactured goods, agricultural crops, or exports. Almost half of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. 

Small and remote though it is, Djibouti holds considerable strategic importance for the United States. Situated at the Red Sea’s mouth, bordering Somalia, and just a short dhow ride from Yemen, it resides in a tough neighbor­hood. Djibouti hosts the only en­dur­ing US military presence in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, headquarters for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). The Camp houses about 4,500 US military personnel and con­trac­tors, who are here to support Djibouti and our other partners in East Africa and the Middle East. CJTF-HOA carries out a number of critical missions, from partnered counter­terrorism opera­tions to rapid-reaction deploy­ments that protect US embassies in the region. 

Because of its location and its willing­ness to host US and other foreign militaries, Djibouti has become essential to US responses to many pressing re­gional security concerns: transnational threats like terrorism and piracy, conflict-driven refugee movements, and assertive non-allied nations. American soldiers and diplomats in Djibouti work together on these challenges every day. Their partnership shows that close coordination between the Departments of State and Defense is more important than ever, especially in the field.  

The US Military Presence in Djibouti: Origins and the 2014 Breakthrough

Djiboutian President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh offered the US military access to Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion base, soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The United States Marine Corps began operations at the Camp in 2002, and in 2003 the United States and Djibouti signed an agreement governing the US military presence in Djibouti. The US footprint at the Camp grew steadily. Soon, Camp Lemonnier became the only major American military installation on the African continent, with all services of the United States Armed Forces present. CJTF-HOA is currently commanded by an Army Major General, and reports to United States Africa Command.     

Recognizing Djibouti’s strategic value, the Obama administration has sought to deepen our bilateral partnership. In May 2014, President Obama welcomed President Guelleh to the White House. During the visit, the two nations signed a new “Implementing Arrangement” that extends the US lease on Camp Lemonnier and other facilities for 20 years, with an option for another ten-year term. The Arrangement doubled the annual lease payment made by the United States to Djibouti, to $63 million, and committed the Obama administration to seek legislative authority to provide Djiboutian companies with preferential access to base-related contracts. Working closely with Congress, the Obama administration made good on that promise with the passage in December 2014 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which contained a “Djibouti First” provision for contracts at Camp Lemonnier. The two governments also established the US-Djibouti Binational Forum (BNF), a mechanism for regular bilateral discussions on economic, development, and regional security issues. The first BNF meeting took place in Washington in February 2015, with high-level participation on both sides. The three-minister Djiboutian delegation met sepa­rately with Secretaries Kerry and Carter.  

Last year’s Implementing Arrangement negotiations ushered in a new era of US-Djiboutian partnership. The BNF dialogue continued in Djibouti, with Embassy and CJTF-HOA officials working intensively with Djiboutian counterparts to clear away obstacles to more effective US military operations in Djibouti. At the same time, the United States Department of Defense embarked on an ambitious military construction program to continue improvements to Camp Lemonnier, ensuring that this expeditionary facility is prepared to address the range of 21st century challenges. Construction projects valued at $500 million are underway at the Camp, with another $350 million planned in the next five years. The message from both governments is clear: the United States is in Djibouti for the long haul.

Why Djibouti Matters for US National Security

Over time, the Obama administration’s ability to reinforce the US presence in Djibouti may prove one of its most enduring foreign policy accomplishments. The ability to operate in the Horn of Africa with maximum operational flexibility is profoundly valuable to the United States, empowering us to address several foreign policy imperatives: the struggle against terrorism, the maintenance of diplomatic presence in fast-growing but insecure regions on either side of the Gulf of Aden, and the strengthening of capable partners across the African continent. 

At West Point last year, President Obama identified terrorism as the single biggest threat to the United States. Djibouti is on the frontlines of the struggle. Two of Al-Qaeda’s four affiliates, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, are right on Djibouti’s doorstep. Al-Shabaab carried out an attack on a restaurant in the heart of Djibouti’s capital last year. US access to Djibouti gives us the opportunity to reach two of the world’s most nefarious organizations before they attack innocent civilians—or US diplomatic and military installations. Because of the operational freedom that Djibouti provides, American forces have in the past year eliminated much of Al-Shabaab’s core leadership, including the organization’s chief and the planner of the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya that killed 67 people.

Camp Lemonnier also plays a critical role in keeping the 16 US embassies in the region safe and open to the public. For example, CJTF-HOA’s East Africa Response Force enabled the United States Embassy in Juba to stay in business last year despite fighting in South Sudan. Because of the rapid-reaction capability that our military presence in Djibouti supports, the United States has the luxury of diplomatic presence in capitals with security challenges, enabling us to play a proper leadership role in the region.       

Another central US foreign policy objective is to build regional capacity. We need partners around the world who can contribute to global peace and security. Here, too, the US presence in Djibouti makes a difference. Using Camp Lemonnier as a base, CJTF-HOA works with partner nations throughout East Africa, beyond the Horn and into the Indian Ocean, and with Central African countries like Rwanda and Burundi. The CJTF-HOA team collaborates with American embassies across the region to coordinate security and counterterrorism policy. From Camp Lemonnier, US military trainers traverse the region to assist African peacekeepers who deploy to conflict zones in Africa and beyond.  

This approach is paying dividends. In Somalia, seven nations, including Djibouti, contribute to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping and law enforcement efforts under the auspices of the African Union. In partnership with US embassy country teams in the region, CJTF-HOA works intensively with these peacekeeping units. AMISOM’s 22,000 peacekeepers have reduced Al-Shabaab’s freedom of movement and helped the fledgling Federal Government of Somalia to establish its authority. With substantial gains made in the last year, Somalia has an opportunity to continue on the path towards effective and legitimate governance. The Djiboutian peace­keeping contingent has made a significant contribution. Its troops share a common language and culture with the local Somali population, enabling them to gain trust and help other countries’ peacekeepers to win it as well.  

Djibouti: International Security Crossroads

Several allied militaries are present in Djibouti. France, the former colonial power, has historically maintained a large military presence in Djibouti, and 1,900 French troops remain there today. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces maintain near Camp Lemonnier their only overseas military base, focusing on counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Spain and Italy also maintain enduring military presences. The European Union’s counter-piracy mission, Operation Atalanta, is based in Djibouti. A rotating array of EU member states’ naval vessels operates out of Djibouti’s main port. Djibouti’s willingness to host foreign navies has helped the international community to defeat pirates operating off the coast of Somalia. There has not been a single successful attack against a major commercial vessel in the Indian Ocean in more than three years. 

The value of Djibouti’s geographic location manifested itself again when Yemen erupted last March in violence, leading to the exodus of several tens of thousands of Yemenis and third-country nationals. Djibouti, the closest and safest evacuation point, became a staging area for evacuation efforts by several countries. From March to July 2015, more than 20,000 people of mixed nationalities fled to Djibouti from Yemen. (In relative terms, this would be comparable to an influx of eight million refugees and migrants into the United States over four months.) Djiboutian authorities collaborated with us to help nearly 4,000 American citizens and their family members evacuating from Yemen to find food and lodging until they could continue to their final destinations. Djibouti welcomed almost 10,000 Yemeni nationals to stay in its hotels, private homes, and a UNHCR-administered refugee camp. Its capital also became the operational hub for UN and other relief agencies sending humanitarian assistance into Yemen.

Nations not allied with the United States also appreciate Djibouti’s strategic value. Russia has an active embassy in Djibouti, and Iran recently constructed a new building for Djibouti’s parliament. The most visible of these countries, however, is China. Almost without exception, Djibouti’s largest infrastructure projects, including the rehabilitation of a rail link between Djibouti’s ports and Ethiopia, are financed and managed by China. In May 2015, President Guelleh announced that Djibouti was negotiating an agreement to establish a Chinese naval base, ostensibly to bolster counter-piracy efforts and evacuation capacity for the growing Chinese community in the region. If a Chinese naval facility is indeed established, Djibouti will become the first country to host both US and Chinese military bases. Managing this unprecedented situation would present all parties with challenges. For China, it could represent an opportunity to show willingness to work cooperatively with us and our allies to promote international security. 

Diplomacy: The Key to a Long-Term Security Partnership

Our ability to accomplish so much in Djibouti depends on an excellent relationship with President Guelleh’s government. US military forces can perform their missions in East Africa and beyond because Djibouti allows them to be here. At the Embassy, our job is to engage with Djiboutian authorities at every level to advance our mission’s top objective: preserving US presence and operational flexibility for years to come. We work intensively with our military colleagues so that we understand their operational requirements and they understand Djibouti’s perspectives. As Ambassador, I personally brief every group of incom­ing troops at fortnightly “indoc” sessions at Camp Lemonnier to convey to each newcomer that the Embassy is dedicated to their success. 

The partnership between our two countries rests on a shared commitment to East Africa’s security, but it also depends on the region’s development and prosperity. As President Obama told President Guelleh last year, the United States has a long-term commitment to Djibouti’s economic growth. In collaboration with USAID, the Embassy leads US efforts to make good on our President’s promise: supporting Djibouti’s efforts to develop its renewable energy resources; helping to educate Djibouti’s labor force to compete in the global workplace; and building on a new State Partnership Program between Kentucky and Djibouti to develop new educational and economic opportunities alongside security cooperation. The United States directly contributes more than $100 million a year to Djibouti through wages, fees, and base payments, and is the country’s third largest employer, employing more than 1,700 Djiboutians at Camp Lemonnier and the United States Embassy. 

The United States also has a stake in Djibouti’s system of governance. President Guelleh has been in office since 1999. He may declare his candidacy for a fourth term soon. Even as we partner with Djiboutian leaders, we must advocate for accommodation of new voices. An agreement reached between the government and the Djiboutian opposition in December 2014 is an encouraging first step towards more inclusive governance, and we will work to continue this trend.    

Last May, John Kerry became the first sitting Secretary of State to visit Djibouti. His visit, which included a meeting with President Guelleh, demonstrated that US-Djiboutian relations are better than ever. At a joint appearance with Secretary Kerry, Djibouti’s Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf explained Djibouti’s stake in the bilateral secu­rity partnership: “Djibouti is a good and loyal friend and a good partner to the United States, and it will remain so, given the daunting challenges our two nations are faced with in terms of peace and security.” Now, more than ever before, the United States and Djibouti have a deep sense of common purpose. The United States Embassy in Djibouti and CJTF-HOA will work hard to keep it that way.

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United States Ambassador to the Republic of Djibouti