DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti — The spring sun is already pushing the thermometer to 90, but a handful of Seabees are slogging through the humid afternoon to carve a space in the African earth for the footers of a new cantina they’re building for Grand Doda Primary School in Djibouti.

The men and women of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 11 remain in good spirits as they work. They’ve gotten to know many of the children who attend the school. They throw shovels of dirt out of the narrow ditches, doing their part to win America a few more friends.

"I love doing it because I actually get to talk to the (school) director," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Davis. "We sit down and talk. I ask about his family, and he asks about my family."

The project is straight out of a counterinsurgency textbook, except for one thing: Peaceful Djibouti is far from being the next Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, military leaders in the Horn of Africa are using humanitarian efforts like these as a sort of inoculation against insurgency. By initiating projects in areas at risk of conflict, commanders hope to stave off extremism before it gets out of control — or, as with Djibouti, to secure a stable core and just be a good neighbor.

"What we’re doing here is the indirect approach to countering violent extremism," said Rear Adm. Anthony M. Kurta, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, the American unit responsible for this part of the continent. "It’s concentrating on a different area of the spectrum of conflict than DOD has in the past, but it’s the exact right approach."

Lt. Col. Lawrence White, commander of Marine Wing Support Squadron 471, is ostensibly responsible for the security of Camp Lemonier, a hub for operations in the Horn of Africa. Yet he also has Marines assigned as a point of contact for each of the 10 villages that surround the base. They visit the villages weekly and, through this continuous interaction, learn how they can help the villages.

One of the needs they uncovered was school textbooks. Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jay Testa, the Company A executive officer, worked with a St. Paul, Minn., school to have 15,000 textbooks shipped to the unit for distribution to local schools. Navy Seabees even built shelves to hold the books.

"My job is security of the camp," White said. "In a narrow interpretation, this would be outside our interest. But the way we approach security here, it’s a whole effort."

White’s Marines constantly perform many small service projects to help local Djiboutians, such as building sun shades with the camp’s scrap lumber or setting up barriers of engineer stakes and concertina wire to protect goats from wild dogs.

"When we roll into a village, we get smiles and waves because they know us," he said.

While military leaders have taken the lead in Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are out in front for the Horn of Africa. Projects must meet the objectives of the ambassador for the country where they’re done, and they are coordinated with each country’s USAID representative.

When they’re complete, the ambassador is responsible for evaluating their impact. To help everyone work together smoothly, CJTF-HOA has embedded officers, usually O-5s or O-6s, in the embassies to help make the agencies aware of the resources that the military can provide.

"We don’t do things in [a] country without the knowledge, consent and active support of each of the ambassadors," Kurta said. "I think people have realized that no element of the government is going to control instability in Africa on its own — not DOD, not USAID, not the State Department.

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