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Helping hands boost U.S. goals
In the remote northern highlands of Ethiopia, where news travels by word of mouth and the occasional signal from battery-powered radios, six farmers serving as part-time militiamen guard a deteriorating stone bridge.
With AK-47s slung low on their backs, they question each approaching traveler: "Where are you going? Why?"
Some can't remember the last time that their Russian-made weapons were fired, but they stand ready. The bridge, one of the most famous in this East African country, connects two important trade regions of Amhara state, and no one can afford for a battle to break out.
Most people here live on less than $1 a day. Some keep their children out of school because extra hands are needed to shepherd animals and guard crops.
Their main security concern is domestic terrorism, after years of border conflicts with neighboring Eritrea. But the militiamen also watch for international terrorism.
"There is al-Qaida in Ethiopia," said Negese Belay, a teacher who lives near the bridge. "We are all fearful that al-Qaida (from) Somalia … have missions in our region. Maybe it is to recruit, maybe it is something we don't understand. But we have to protect ourselves to keep the peace."
It's not a concern void of evidence. Al-Qaida was linked to the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in neighboring Kenya and nearby Tanzania. In 2000, the group was deemed responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole, a Norfolk-based destroyer, in the Yemeni Gulf of Aden.
The U.S. military is watching the area, also, and employing a different sort of pre-emptive tactic. In military parlance, it's called "nonkinetic warfare." It's taking the fight to insurgents by improving the lives of poverty-stricken villagers before they can be recruited by terrorists.
It's recognizing, as former Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "the war against terror is bound up in the war against poverty."
"You can't kill all the terrorists," Navy Capt. Kurt Scott said. He's with the Norfolk-based U.S. Joint Forces Command and last year helped manage military operations in East Africa. "You have to stop the fertile ground that's breeding the terrorists. These people are hopeless, and terrorism breeds on desperation. If you give people hope, it's amazing what you can do."
STRATEGIC VALUEIn December 2002 — following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan to rid that country of the regime that harbored the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — the U.S. military's Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa started operations.
Its mission: capture terrorists who flee to the Horn from Afghanistan.
"The problem … is al-Qaida has always liked the Horn," retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni said. "The Horn is really unstable. The Horn is appealing to them."
Zinni, of Williamsburg, led Central Command — which oversees operations in the Middle East — in the years before the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The task force soon realized that its work in the Horn region — covering Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Yemen — would be more than ensuring terrorists didn't have another place to go.
"Winning the people over is critical to winning the war on terrorism," said Paul Melshen, the task force's first political adviser. He now teaches at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk. "You have to get in the mind-set that this will be a long-term event. If you take that as your critical assumption, you lay the groundwork for a successful campaign."
Because getting terrorists out of Africa is a long-term endeavor, Melshen said, "the people of the countries had to be supportive of us." To get that support, "you create a better life for them," he said.
Navy Rear Adm. Tim Moon said, "The new goal was this: overcoming the underlying conditions that create a recruiting ground for terrorists."
Moon, of York County, works with Joint Forces Command. He returned from Djibouti in April, after a 14-month stint as deputy commander of the Horn of Africa task force. Joint Forces Command, among other duties, helps prepare the task force's commanders for their deployments to Africa.
"If the international community can win this shaping effort," Moon said, "we can prevent a future battleground on the continent of Africa."
Reaching the goal boils down to two main missions: training African militaries to quell insurgencies within their borders and completing humanitarian aid projects to improve people's lives. The two missions work hand in hand, Moon said, as "a major part of the global war on terrorism."
The task force has only about 2,000 troops at its headquarters in Djibouti. There are no resources to fight with, Moon said: "In fact, we went to great pains to avoid being associated with the capture-kill mission."
East Africans are still learning to trust the U.S. military on that point. "The African press was saying that we were there to invade Somalia," Army Lt. Col. Brenda M. Reinhart said. She's a Joint Forces Command officer who worked as a planner for the Horn of Africa task force in 2006. "Anytime you have a large group of military in a place, you get impressions."
Drilling for wells was once suspected to be prepping for missile launchers, said Navy Capt. Scott, the task force's civil-military operations director in 2006.
You fight those impressions with good work: Building schools. Training African troops in human rights and basic infantry. Providing medical and veterinary care.
"No good deed goes unpunished in Africa, either," Scott said. "We still could build something that didn't work, that would upset the power structure of a community."
Passing out soccer balls, which cost the equivalent of a teacher's weekly salary, can upset the economic balance of a village, he said.
Drilling a well too close to one tribe can give that tribe power over a neighboring village. And giving candy to children outside a school — without realizing that a young woman sells sweets to the same kids — can put her out of business.
"You don't stop what you're doing," Scott said. "You get smarter about how you do it."
For instance, "there's lots of coordination going on with nongovernmental organizations," Moon said.
Moon emphasizes coordination, and not partnership, because some nongovernmental organizations — NGOs — don't want to identify with the military for fear of losing their effectiveness.
"Whenever the military went out to do anything, the decision was made between the ambassador, (task force) staff and the U.S. Agency for International Development," he said. "We found it was better to combine efforts," so as not to reinvent the wheel.
The coordination has become so formal, a military representative from the task force now works in the USAID office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital.
Michael McCord, a USAID program officer who recently left Ethiopia for Zambia, called it a "unique experiment that was beginning to pay dividends."
It was a huge step forward, he said in an e-mail, that "speaks to the willingness of (the Defense Department) and USAID to collaborate in meaningful ways."
THE STONE BRIDGEThe handful of men guarding the stone bridge in Ethiopia have no idea that the U.S. military has set its sights on them. The only American they know by name is Ken Frantz of York County.
Frantz is the founder of Bridges to Prosperity, an NGO that aims to reduce extreme poverty through the construction of pedestrian bridges.
Fixing this particular stone bridge has been one of Frantz's many projects.
In 2001, Frantz stumbled across a photo of the Sebara Dildiy, which means "broken bridge" in Ethiopia's national Amharic language.
At that time, it had been broken since the mid-1930s, when Ethiopian patriots collapsed the center span to prevent Italy's invading military from crossing the Blue Nile.
Frantz decided — upon seeing people dangerously cross the bridge, tied to a rope — that he would fix it. In 2002, he did, and nearby villagers began to see an economic improvement in their lives.
But several years later, rushing floodwaters ripped away the repair, leaving the villagers back to using the rope.
Because that can be a deadly way to cross, some people stay on their side of the river. Not making the trip can hurt them financially, as there's only one large market in the entire region bordering the bridge.
This fall, with money from Frantz and the expertise from an Ethiopian engineer whom Frantz helped train years ago, a homemade repair was stretched across the gap. It's meant to last only until next spring — before the next rainy season and threat of floods — when Frantz returns to build a new structure upriver on higher ground.
Economist Jeffrey Sachs has written that "more than 8 million people around the world die each year because they are too poor to stay alive." In Sachs' view, poverty is the underlying cause of global insecurity.
Frantz doesn't see his mission as directly connected to the fight against terrorism. But, he said, "we definitely see what we're doing as one little, teeny piece of the overall effort to eliminate extreme poverty in our lifetime."
Once you have eliminated extreme poverty — living on less than $1 a day — families can better afford to send their children to school. Then you'll see people reaching eighth grade, Frantz said.
"Then terrorism is just going to disappear," he said, linking a large part of that problem to a lack of education. "It will disappear to the point where it's no longer a worldwide threat."
THE CONTINENTIf the military could replicate throughout Africa the success that it's had in the Horn, the continent would be in a position to be prosperous within our lifetime, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Ripka said. "In a way, that's what we're trying to do," he said.
Ripka was the highest-ranking enlisted soldier in Joint Forces Command. He has recently been selected for the same position in the Defense Department's newest organization, Africa Command. Africom, as the military calls it, was established last month and is expected to be fully operational within a year.
Until now, military responsibility for Africa was divided among three commands: one that oversees operations in the Middle East, one that focuses on Europe and one that watches the Pacific.
During his time leading the Middle East's Central Command, retired Marine Gen. Zinni said, "Africa got the short shrift. You didn't get to pay a lot of attention because you're constantly looking at volatile regions in the Middle East."
Creating Africom not only unifies the missions there, it highlights the continent as strategically important to the United States.
"Why did the U.S. rush into Yugoslavia when it broke down?" asked Melshen, of the Joint Forces Staff College. "When Rwanda broke down, the U.S. did nothing. My answer then was that Africa wasn't a strategic interest. That's changed because of the worldwide war on terrorism."
Another factor: The United States gets about a quarter of its oil from Africa, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
"The big question you always have to deal with when you deal with Africa is: Why is Africa important?" Zinni said. "Africa has always been the forgotten continent, the lowest of priorities. It's important to the world that this place be stable."
Instability there, he said, is always lurking around the corner. "They're natural-disaster-prone," Zinni said. "It's going to get worse with climate change. If you have a humanitarian tragedy and there's migration of people, it taxes the economy."
Like the task force in the Horn of Africa, Africom will operate slightly differently from the traditional military command.
It will have the standard four-star military commander, but one of the commander's two deputies is an ambassador to oversee civil-military affairs.
Representatives from organizations like USAID and the State Department are spread throughout the command, Ripka said. "For those who have been in Iraq or Afghanistan today, they've learned it really takes everybody," he said. "It's not just a military action."
Nor should it be "just going in and intervening once a crisis has reached its highest point," Zinni said.
And that, too, is the point of Africom.
"If you provide the security — development and diplomacy can take place, and you can reduce the amount of poverty," Ripka said.
"If we can get all three legs of that stool together — defense, development and diplomacy — you can reduce the tendency to be a part of terrorism."