by Thomas P.M. Barnett
Bryan Christie Design
Esquire, July 2007, pp. 113-17 & 134-37.
A few years ago, with little fanfare, the United States opened a base in the horn of Africa to kill or capture Al Qaeda fighters. By 2012, the Pentagon will have two dozen such forts. The story of Africa Command, the American military's new frontier outpost.
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 as planned.
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 secret war.
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 this way.
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 better suited.
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 celebrities.
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 depraved.
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 maneuver.
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 strained.
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 bedroom communities.
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 clearances."
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 base.
"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 tensing up.
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 by 2012.
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 mosque.
The captain pays a couple of kids hanging out in the alley to watch the car, and we head up to the unlighted rooftop restaurant.
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 like excitement!"
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 coverage."
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 he remembers.
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 ago.
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," he says.
The man dismisses us with his hand, turns away to finish his soup, and a few seconds later we're gone.