. . . “Djibouti is the central location for continuing the effort against terrorism,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said during a visit to Camp Lemonier last month.
The trend in favor of a small American footprint overseas is expected to grow as Mr. Panetta must cut about $487 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next decade, even as he shifts more forces to Asia while not diminishing American deterrence and influence in the Middle East.
This military math may require the size of American forces to shrink in Europe and elsewhere — and bases like Camp Lemonier will be expected to manage the risk at a modest cost.
Jennifer G. Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy center here, said the mission of the military’s Africa Command originally was to upgrade the abilities of local security forces — “so the U.S. would not be drawn into conflicts or crises.”
“But the United States may not have the leeway of waiting to build up partner capacities to take on these kinds of challenges,” she said. “So, being nimble and flexible with a light footprint in a place like Djibouti, the U.S. military may be required to tackle these crises immediately as they arise.”
Another important military mission that deploys a small force on the huge African continent is in Uganda.
In October, President Obama ordered 100 Special Operations advisers to Uganda to help train regional forces combating the Lord’s Resistance Army, a notorious renegade group that has terrorized villagers in at least four countries with marauding bands that kill, rape, maim and kidnap with impunity.
When Mr. Panetta visited Camp Lemonier, there were about 3,500 American personnel assigned there, up from the several hundred Marines and members of Special Operations forces that landed in 2003 when the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa relocated. It had been based on a warship when the mission was conceived a year before, dedicated to hunting for remnants of Al Qaeda in the wake of the Taliban’s ouster from Afghanistan.
The units include a headquarters staff, civil affairs teams that include doctors and veterinarians, as well as engineers and military trainers. Mostly invisible to the local population, the task force has responsibility for a vast area of Africa that includes Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden — almost 70 percent the size of the continental United States.
KHARTOUM, Sudan — Around 2 a.m. Wednesday, elders in the Somali village of Galkayo said they began hearing an unusual sound: the whirl of helicopters.
It was the culmination of a daring and risky mission by about two dozen members of the Navy Seals to rescue two hostages — an American aid worker and her Danish colleague — held by Somali pirates since October. The commandos had dropped down in parachutes under a cloak of darkness while 8,000 miles away President Obama was preparing to deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. The commandos hiked two miles from where they landed, grabbed the hostages and flew them to safety.
For the American military, the mission was characterized by the same ruthless efficiency — and possibly good luck — as the raid on Osama bin Laden in May, which was carried out by commandos from the same elite unit. Nine Somali gunmen were killed; not a single member of the Seals was hurt.
One pirate from the area who seemed to have especially detailed information about the Seal raid said it involved “an electrical net-trap, flattened into the land,” which presumably was the parachute. “Then they started launching missiles,” said the pirate, who spoke by telephone and asked not to be identified.
Pirates operate with total impunity in many parts of lawless Somalia, which has languished without a functioning government for more than 20 years. As naval efforts have intensified on the high seas, stymieing hijackings, Somali pirates seem to be increasingly snatching foreigners on land. Just last week, pirates grabbed another American hostage not far from where the Seal raid took place.
American officials said they were moved to strike in this case because they had received “actionable intelligence” that the health of Jessica Buchanan, the American aid worker, was rapidly deteriorating. The gunmen had just refused $1.5 million to let the two hostages go, Somali elders said, and ransom negotiations had ground to a halt.
Somali pirates have held hostages for months, often in punishing conditions with little food, water or shelter, and past ransoms have topped more than $10 million. One British couple sailing around the world on a little sailboat was kidnapped by pirates from this same patch of central Somalia and held in captivity for more than a year.
President Obama, who Pentagon officials said personally approved the rescue plan and raid, had called several high-level meetings on the case, the Pentagon said, since the two aid workers were kidnapped by gunmen whom Somali elders said were part of a well-established pirate gang. “As commander in chief, I could not be prouder of the troops who carried out this mission,” Mr. Obama said in a statement on Wednesday. “The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people.”
. . . .
Ms. Buchanan, 32, has been working in Africa for about five years and “could hardly talk about Africa without tears in her eyes,” said Don Meyer, the president of Valley Forge Christian College in Phoenixville, Pa., which Ms. Buchanan attended.
Somali officials immediately suspected that a local employee of the Danish aid group had tipped off the gunmen, and though American officials argued that the kidnappers were criminals with no direct links to any of the pirate bands that have attacked shipping lanes off Somalia, Somali elders said the men belonged to a well-known pirate gang drawn from local clans.
Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, the internationally recognized but relatively impotent authority based in the capital, Mogadishu, has little influence over the pirates.
Neither do the traditional, clan-based militias that still operate in these areas but cannot afford the weaponry or manpower now fielded by well-financed pirate gangs.
Somalia is also considered out of reach for conventional American military operations, though it has been the site of several Special Operations raids, usually to kill wanted terrorism suspects. American forces stage the raids from a constellation of bases ringing Somalia, in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya.