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Q&A with the military’s top man in Djibouti

Post by Scott Fontaine on April 9, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
April 9, 2010 4:45 pm

Thousands of American service members have deployed to the Horn of Africa since 2002 as part of what amounts to a new way of doing business. They build schools, dig wells and train alongside African militaries in a way to strengthen partnerships in an area of growing geostrategic importance.

The Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa is the unit with oversight of the work; its area of responsibility includes Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya and Seychelles.

A Tacoma native took command of the task force on March 27. Rear Adm. Brian L. Losey, a 49-year-old with years of experience with the Navy SEALs and other Special Operations Forces, oversees the work of about 2,000 service members.

He spoke with The News Tribune in a phone interview from his office at Camp Lemonnier.

Q: You’re from Tacoma?
A: My dad retired from McChord Air Force Base in 1970, so that’s what brought us to the Pacific Northwest. From the second grade on, I attended schools in the North End – Point Defiance Elementary, Truman Junior High and I graduated from Wilson (High School).

Q: Most of our readers likely don’t know what the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa is. Can you provide a quick explanation?
A: We have members from all four services: the Marines, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. And we have 12 different nations that participate in our international coalition. There are about 20 different officers from those 12 different nations, and they’re embedded with our organization. The task force is comprised of about 2,000 people, and there are people from the civilian community: from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. We have a fairly broad cross-cut from both our government and the international community here.

What we strive to do here is unique and interesting, and certainly exciting to people who are assigned here. And that’s conflict prevention. By doing conflict prevention through the indirect approach, we can address some longer-term issues and risk factors, such as security and things like that. We aim to avoid conflict, which requires more direct action.

So those are the key elements of what we do here: conflict prevention, coalition operations, joint operations – all centered on building capacity (in African nations). And perhaps the most important part of that is that we work for long-term partnerships and relationships with about 13 countries in the East Africa region. It’s those long-term relationships that helps generate the ground we stand on in order to develop those capacities needed for long-term stability.

Q: Can you explain a bit more about the specific missions soldiers assigned to the CJTF-HOA undertake?
A: The primary mechanism we work through is civil-military operations. We mix with people and find out what their needs are. That can be schools, that can be water supplies, that can be a number of things. But what generating the goodwill does for us is allow us to asses an environment that could be vulnerable to violent-extremist influences. The governance factors in the region right now make it vulnerable in certain areas to violent extremists. I’ll cite the example of al-Shabaab and its association with al-Qaida in Somalia. Its influence has grown in the last couple of years.

Some of those influences we can stem through high-impact, fairly low-cost projects that also allows us to assess the environment. Through that assessment, we can partner with the host nation and bring in some of their civil-military capacities and reinforce those and help them generate goodwill with some of those potentially vulnerable populations.

Q: Can you talk a bit about the work you do with the State Department and USAID?
A: We call it a “whole-government approach.” It’s a combination of three things: diplomacy, development and defense. Those three avenues together combine to produce what we need in terms of long-term stability. In defense, you have to have security in the region in order to have stability. You need a viable economy to have sustainable growth – that’s what the development community does. And you have to have good governance; the State Department works on that through diplomatic channels.

That’s the simplified version of the whole-government approach. The State Department drives foreign policy and implementation at each of the countries where they have ambassadors. All of our activities are coordinated through and done with the approval of the ambassadors and the State Department.

Q: What’s life like at Camp Lemonnier?
A: We strive to maintain a good quality of life for the roughly 3,000 people who are assigned here. These people are, on average, away from home on deployment for a year on average. The camp itself is about 500 acres, and we’ve got about 3,000 people on that landspace. At any given time, about 2,000 people to the CJTF, and the rest are assigned to the camp here to provide support functions for the 20 other tenant organizations that live here.

Life is somewhat expeditionary, but I can tell you that we’re improving those conditions and making sure they have the best conditions to carry out their mission.

Q: What do you envision will be the hardest part of your job?
A: I’m not sure I would classify any of this as difficult as opposed to exciting. The most exciting this is to take 2,000 Americans and turn them towards a mission they truly they believe in – and that’s preventing conflict through partnership and building capacity with folks who are our friends. I don’t consider that difficult. I consider that an honor and a privilege. Working with our own government and, most importantly, our African partners, addressing the issues in the way they feel is best to address them and collaborating with closely with them over a long period of time. These are all precepts Gen. (Kip) Ward, who commands U.S. Africa Command and who we work for, those are his philosophies that guide our actions.

Q: There has been talk that AFRICOM will effectively militarize American foreign policy throughout the region. What’s your response to that?
A: We work within a policy framework endorsed by the Department of State, with all the specific implementation activities approved by the U.S. ambassadors of the country we’re working in and at the request of those governments and in close coordination with those embassies, local, regional and international partners.

Q: There’s the issue of Somalia. Groups like al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam are arguably stronger than the transitional government. Numerous media outlets – including the New York Times and the Washington Post – have written about covert American assistance to the government. What kind of relationship does the CJTF-HOA have with the government of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed?
A: To be clear, we do not have any presence in Somalia from the combined joint task force. We work an indirect approach with the countries that surround Somalia, we’re looking at building partner capacities to prevent the population that borders Somalia from becoming vulnerable to those influences.

Q: Is it fair to say the combination of Islamist militias and ungoverned spaces throughout the region is the greatest threat to the horn of Africa?
A: Calling it Islamist is one way of looking at it, but when you have governance issues, economic viability issues, rule of law, drug trafficking, piracy, security – all of those things aren’t necessarily characterized by Islamist militias. They’re issues that for which we’re trying to bring good governance, viable economies and security to the region. I wouldn’t limit it to calling it Islamist. It’s a matter of instability.

Q: So how will you be there?
A: I’m here as I’m told to be here. I got to tell you: I can be here 12 months, 15 months, two years. My family understands what it is we do. In order to do this mission successfully, you have to have an enduring approach. That means assignments that allow you to build long-term relationships. Coming here for three, four or six months at a time really shorts the mission. In order to develop relationships that will allow you move partnerships and capacities forward, you need to have a long-term approach.

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