CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti – To grasp the changes that are rapidly transforming the American military presence in the Middle East and nearby environs, consider that in a few days there will be more U.S. troops based here, in a tiny country on the Horn of Africa, than in Iraq.
Since 2002, Djibouti – a former French colony – has played host to the only permanent U.S. military base on the African continent. Camp Lemonnier has grown steadily from a small outpost to an operation with more than 3,500 military personnel, most of them dedicated to combating terrorism in Somalia, Yemen and other countries in the region.
While U.S. troops are withdrawing from Iraq after nearly a decade of war, they are modestly reinforcing their numbers here. With Osama bin Laden dead and many of his lieutenants eliminated from their traditional bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the U.S. military and intelligence services are refocusing their attention on al-Qaeda regional affiliates on the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa.
Which is why Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta made a brief stopover here Tuesday to meet Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guellah and to give a pep talk to about 500 troops at Camp Lemonnier.
“Djibouti! Djibouti!” Panetta chanted as he greeted the troops, seemingly bemused to find himself on an outcropping of black volcanic rock at the southernmost point of the Red Sea. Aides said it was his first visit here.
Panetta gave his best holiday wishes to the troops dressed in desert-camouflage but then got right to his point about Djibouti’s geographic significance: its location sandwiched between Yemen and Somalia, both of which are home to al-Qaeda networks.
“Djibouti is a central location for continuing the fight against terrorism, and we’ve made a hell of a lot of progress,” Panetta told the troops in the Camp Lemonnier Thunderdome – a grandiose name for a rubberized basketball court and a volleyball pit with a canvas roof stretched overhead.
“Al Qaeda is what started this war, and we have made a commitment that we are going to track these guys wherever they go to make sure they have no place to hide….whether it’s Yemen or Somalia or anyplace else.”
Panetta shied away from operational specifics, but Djibouti is known as a base from which the military has used drones to conduct airstrikes against terrorist targets in Yemen and Somalia. More recently, the military has also expanded drone operations from bases in Ethiopia, the Seychelles, and a secret location in the Arabian Peninsula.
Panetta made his stopover in Djibouti en route to Afghanistan, where he’ll also meet with troops and top commanders as he reviews the war there. Even before he landed in Kabul, he sounded optimistic.
“We’re moving in the right direction there as well,” he said, noting that U.S. and coalition troop withdrawals had begun in Afghanistan as well, and that the Afghan security forces were taking primary control of more and more territory.
Panetta announced that his trip also would include stops in Turkey, Iraq and Libya, part of a tour of a tumultuous region that a Panetta said was looking better for the United States than it has in a long time.
“There are changes going on,” he told reporters on his plane. “This trip will also look at a turning point after 10 years of war. We’ll be touching a lot of key places that will reflect a lot of the achievements that have been accomplished over the last 10 years.”