In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, many service members deploy to Africa. Northeastern Africa is a region where the U.S. military works to abate the growth of terrorism. The Combined Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) focuses on regional stability in order to prevent the rise of extremist activity.
The senior enlisted leader for the region, Command Chief Master Sgt. John Harris, spoke with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan about the U.S. military role in Africa. Stationed out of Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, Harris arrived in Djibouti in September 2006 and will return to his wife and daughters this October.
Can you tell us about your assignment? I’m the command senior enlisted leader to CJTF HOA. Our mission statement is to prevent conflict in the region, promote regional stability and protect coalition interests in order to prevail against extremism in the local area. The two key areas are military to military training and civil-military programs.
We deal with multiple countries: Yemen, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya where we have direct oversight. We also have areas of interest: Uganda, Tanzania, Madagascar and Comoros. It’s constant work with the leadership of each of the countries and with our ambassadors to make sure that as we go out to better Africa, we are in an area where we can help the most people.
We have about 1,800 folks here and about 400 of them are outside the wire in these countries. So that’s a very small footprint that has a large impact. Americans try to change the hearts and minds of the region.
What does military-to-military training involve? The country itself asks and sends an invite to conduct some training. A lot of what we teach consists of basic infantry, counter-terrorism, maritime security, human rights. Human rights is a very important area. We also talk about land warfare and train-the-trainer to help each of the militaries operate and secure their borders.
What is “human rights” training? We’re teaching how to interact with the local populace. There was a time when a butt of rifle against a forehead may have been a reaction rather than asking a question or understanding and treating folks the way they’d wanted to be treated themselves: the ability to communicate with the local populace; to stop and understand what they’re trying to tell you and to pursue a goal that’s both good for the military and the people. They [the local populace] can tell the difference between troops we’ve trained and haven’t by the way they’re treated by their own troops. It’s a very positive story.
What’s going on in Somalia? The Somalia piece is always an area of interest. Many try to call this an ethnic war. Absolutely nothing could be further from the truth. Under Islamic courts, pockets of extremism were popping up. In our interest as a nation, and NATO’s interest of the local area, we continued to try to make sure that items like that do not prevail.
HOA is a vast region; how do you prioritize the efforts? Ambassadors work hand in hand with the countries’ leadership to bid on projects and we ensure we have supplies on hand. Once a project’s approved it’s put on a basic chart, from its thought process to its conception, delivery, completion. For a lot of our projects, we go out and dedicate a clinic, a graduation ceremony for mil-to-mil training, open a well or hospital or school.
In President Bush’s recent speech, he called for increasing the troop level in Iraq and an update on U.S. strategy. What’s the reaction there in HOA? I’ll share with you that the controversy is more in the public than the military. I have soldiers, marines, airmen that complain every day that they’re not in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s the way we’re brought up and a lot is about the country, about serving the nation’s interest. Does that mean if you interviewed all 1,800 you wouldn’t find a handful that did not want to go to Iraq, Afghanistan, or HOA? Sure. You could walk into any company in the U.S. and find that exact situation, where somebody doesn’t want to be with the company
The most amazing thing is that we’re an all-volunteer force; there’s no draft, everyone’s here because they want to be here. Everybody comes multiple times; enlistment rates are higher than they’ve been. The Air Force and Navy are looking at a down-sizing. I’m actually stuck telling some people that they cannot continue to serve.
Sometimes the American public gets wrapped around the axle over something – and don’t get me wrong if you’re losing one life, it’s one life too many – but as military people we understand that. You know, if we’re not in the areas we are around the world, then the chances of somebody doing something at home increases.
That’s one of the most important things as we continue this war on terrorism: can we stay the course? It’s not a question of the military. It’s a question of can the civilian population stay supportive long enough that we can finish our job?
How would you evaluate the mission in HOA? It’s the difference we’ve made in people’s lives. It’s about the pictures you see, lives you’re able to affect. When you open a vet clinic, hospital or dental clinic and you see 1,000 patients in a day for every day you’re there and never have a repeat customer; that’s part of how you get that feeling or that sense.
It’s a follow up with the elders in a local community to make sure we’re making a difference in the right way. With some of the mil-to-mil training, the hope is they can go out and do the same stuff that we’re doing today for their own country.
Have you mitigated terrorism and extremist activity in the region? So many times we hear about Somalia and it’s not about just Somalia. Extremism isn’t popping up in Yemen, Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is this continual process and monitoring of what’s going on and our ability as a military is to get into places that the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] can’t. When you’re in an area where the average income is less than $1,100 per year, someone with very little money can make a difference and provide the ability for badness can grow.
What are your concerns for the region? The greatest concern I have is, as we give birth to Africa command and begin to grow, to make sure HOA doesn’t hit a point where we recess back and lose ground. Africa will be a unique experience … doing something different than we’ve done in the past. It’s about spreading goodness, preventing badness and keeping in touch with folks in the region.
Anything else you wish to share? We have a lot of America’s best and brightest sons and daughters in non-traditional roles that continue to make a tremendous difference in the people’s lives here. We’re extremely appreciative of the support we get from the U.S. from people we’ve never met. At home, if a box of cookies arrives, and it was not addressed to you, you’d turn around and throw it in the trash. Over here it’s amazing – we’d pick up that box of cookies and share it. The American public stays supportive. Thank you.
The Tribune arranges these interviews with service members through U.S. Central Command. MyLinh Shattan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Keyword: Commentary, to read other recent Voices From The Front stories and more on the media coverage of Iraq.