Why the Pentagon Builds Toilets in Africa

In Dire Dawa, shantytown residents used to relieve themselves in a dry riverbed. Lacking bathrooms, they rose early or stayed up late to perform their ablutions under cover of darkness, recalls Jilelu Shemsu, a 23-year-old who lives in a small metal-roof shack in the Ethiopian city. These days, though, things are better. Sixty families now share a new five-pit concrete-floor latrine—all paid for by Washington. The reason: the U.S. military hopes that funding such projects will help it fight terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

It's a far cry from bombing terrorist training camps in Afghanistan or battling insurgents in the streets of Baghdad. But in Africa the U.S military is hoping soft projects like drilling wells and building schools will help it win hearts and minds in an unstable region. The 1,800 American soldiers and civilians who make up the military's Joint Task Force Horn of Africa at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti form the core group of an American military presence whose profile will rise when the United States establishes its new military command, AFRICOM, sometime in the coming months. For Washington, this eastern promontory incorporating Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea is seen as the next crucial battlefield against extremism, prompting the administration to spend millions to help bolster potential allies.

In places like Chad and Niger, the United States has allocated over $115 million to small American units, Special Force soldiers in some cases, who specialize in developing the kinds of relationships America hopes will pay off down the road. For an administration that took office with hopes of scaling back American involvement in insecure corners of the world, the Bush administration is investing heavily in a strategy that could be seen as nation building. "This is all a bit of an experiment," says Lt. Col Joseph (Terry) Gamble, who leads the military's 12-man civil-affairs team in Dire Dawa.

Is it working? Critics—of whom there are plenty—argue that the military isn't well suited to be an aid organization, and that merely sending soldiers bearing gifts isn't enough to change local attitudes. "Many groups have expertise in the delivery of humanitarian aid and can deliver it much more cheaply than the military can," says Sarah Lischer, a professor of political science at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. "A couple of new schools and wells will not go far in changing people's political attitudes, especially when these attitudes are deeply tied to their religion."

And Ethiopia's government, which has become a key U.S. partner in Africa, has become a problematic ally. With U.S. support, the country invaded Somalia last December and successfully ousted the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union that had taken control of the capital. But the Ethiopian Army has been accused of human rights violations both in Mogadishu and in its attempts to put down a separate rebellion in Ethiopia's eastern Ogaden region. In addition, the Ethiopian government has jailed dozens of opposition figures and journalists in the past two years.

The Ethiopian government denies committing atrocities and has expelled Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross from its Somali region. Journalists, too, are barred, but despite these measures reports of abuses nonetheless are continuing. Aid workers and residents in Jijiga, the dusty administrative center of Ethiopia's Somali region, warn of a humanitarian crisis in the Ogaden countryside, where, they say, marauding Ethiopian troops have blocked village food supplies and shot and hanged civilians suspected of aiding the ethnic Somali Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). William Robertson, the head of mission for the Dutch branch of Doctors Without Borders, says his organization's staff has treated civilians who'd been beaten and shot by the Ethiopian Army. "Our teams saw over 30 villages that had either been completely emptied or burned," he says. They had also witnessed Ethiopian troops chasing women and children away from a well.

Washington, meanwhile, is continuing to endorse its ally. Jendayi Frazer, the State Department's top Africa official, last week told a press conference in the capital of Addis Ababa that reports of atrocities in the Ogaden were simply "allegations." "I think the Ethiopian government's intent is not to kill civilians," she said.

The situation in Jijiga, where gun-toting soldiers in blue camouflage have the town under virtual lockdown, further underscores the challenges facing the American initiative. Only three years ago, the U.S. military was building schools and digging wells as part of an aggressive effort to court ethnic Somalis in and around Jijiga. (The soldiers pulled out as fighting intensified between government and rebel forces.) At the time, the American presence in the town was viewed with suspicion by local Muslim clerics, says a former translator for the U.S. military who did not want to risk retaliation by being named. And while there was some initial support for the projects among the local population, that dwindled when Washington backed Ethiopia's incursion to Mogadishu. "[The Americans] spent thousands of dollars here doing schools, wells; I think they did a superb job," he says. "But they destroyed what they did by their involvement in Somalia." The lesson for Washington: It's easier to make friends than to keep them.