26 January 2019
by AMANDA SPERBER
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William Zana, left, greets then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on March 9, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/AFP/Getty Images)
The U.S. Defense Department is in the early stages of a project to develop land-based supply routes from the main American military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, to other U.S. camps across the eastern part of the continent, according to contractors involved with the project and officials familiar with the deliberations.
The first part of the trail is intended to link Lemonnier to Baledogle, the U.S. camp in Somalia. The passage traverses areas controlled by the al Qaeda-affiliated group al-Shabab; swaths of land controlled by warlords with private militias; and a tense border region with Ethiopia.
This project will further entrench the U.S. military presence in Africa. It might also be part of a broader American approach to countering China in places across the continent where the U.S. has vital interests, including the strategic Horn of Africa, though one former official said the plan is more likely driven by logistical considerations.
Sending U.S.-affiliated convoys through these territories is generally considered highly dangerous. Foreigners tend to move in Mogadishu in armored cars with private security. If they leave the Somali capital, even to go short distances, they generally travel by air. U.S. military personnel usually make the 60-mile trip from the Mogadishu International Airport complex—which acts as the base for most internationals—to Baledogle in a helicopter.
As such, a plan to create a passable route that runs through about three-quarters of the country is a hugely ambitious and expensive undertaking. The sources told Foreign Policy that carving out the routes in Somalia alone would cost at least $75 million.
The project falls under the purview of the Virginia-based defense contractor Pacific Architects and Engineers, one of a few companies that support the United States African Command (the body also known as Africom that oversees U.S. military operations in Africa) in Somalia. Neither Africom nor the defense contractor would confirm the project, citing security concerns.
Pacific Architects and Engineers is so invested in Africom’s work in Somalia that last January it opened up a new subsidiary, the Mogadishu-based Africa Expeditionary Services. At least one other company the subsidiary sought to hire for help with the project turned down the job, saying it would be too difficult.
Some Somali and American stakeholders also questioned the viability of investing in this treacherous route.
Hussein Sheikh-Ali, who served as a counterterrorism and security advisor to the current and former Somali presidents and is the founder of the security think tank, the Hiraal Institute, suggested that given the immense security and logistical challenges posed, building a ground route between two U.S. bases might not be the best use of American money and time. “They should focus [on] capacitating local forces on counterinsurgency tactics and help local authorities on good governance,” he told FP.
One Somali security official called the project “adventuristic” but said with a grin that any U.S. investment was welcome.
But the security official also commented that part of the point of building out the route is to create a “mental shift.” The Somali government wants to demonstrate that it is possible for foreign governments and companies to work across the country. He also said that maintaining supply chains was a tenet of the Security Pact that Somalia developed with the support of international partners and the United Nations in May 2017.