SANKABAR, Ethiopia—This is the war on terrorism that most Americans haven't heard of:
A few days after Christmas, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Adam Reed rode into the parched, hungry village of Sankabar with a present: a new water pump. This month, Reed returned to the village, where elders gleefully showed the soldier from Sidon, Miss., what the simple irrigation system had brought: budding green fields of corn, bananas and oranges, the most promising crops in years.
A small U.S. military task force in East Africa is installing water pumps, rebuilding schools and health clinics, making medical house calls and training national armies—all part of a mission to stabilize a region that's seen as a potential breeding ground for terrorist groups.
"We are coming out of drought because of the pump," said Omar Ahmed, a Sankabar elder. "So we say thank you, America. And thank you, Mr. Reed. He is the first guy to give us help."
What's going here provides a glimpse of the Bush administration's global war on terrorism, which is being fought—mostly in the shadows—elsewhere in Africa and across the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia using different combinations of military, covert, economic and diplomatic weapons.
Separated from the Middle East by only a narrow waterway, the Horn of Africa is home to 90 million Muslims, many of whom live in crushing poverty and political isolation. Al-Qaida has had success in the area, bombing U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, attacking the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000 and nearly shooting down an Israeli charter plane over Kenya in 2002.
The 1,500 troops of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa have been stationed since 2002 at Camp Lemonier, a former French base on the Red Sea in the tiny coastal nation of Djibouti. They were sent to hunt down al-Qaida operatives in East Africa, but there are few known terrorist cells working in the vast area—two-thirds the size of the United States—and the troops haven't made many arrests.
Instead, theirs has become a humanitarian mission, with public relations benefits. By bringing aid to remote villages, commanders say, they help alleviate the poverty and alienation that foster terrorism and score image points against terrorist recruiters who would paint the United States as a villain.
"We are in a generational fight for hearts and minds," said Maj. Gen. Timothy Ghormley, the task force commander. "We do water projects and build schools that help a poor child in a village, and in 20 years that child will remember us."
Ghormley, who as a young Marine in Vietnam helped train militias to fight Viet Cong, likes to boast that his troops haven't fired a single shot. Made up largely of engineering and construction units, the task force has built 52 schools, 23 medical facilities and 25 water wells. It's also trained military forces in six countries, including Uganda and Ethiopia, to shore up their border security.
Though far smaller, it's the most significant U.S. military engagement in Africa since 25,000 troops went to Somalia in 1992, an operation that ended after 18 were killed in the infamous "Black Hawk Down" episode.
The emphasis on Africa in the U.S. war on terrorism has grown in recent years. Last year, the American military launched a $500 million program to train the armies of nine West and North African countries in counterterrorism operations. A similar $100 million project began in East Africa in 2003.
The Horn of Africa task force covers 11 countries: Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Yemen. But there's no troop presence in Somalia—the place analysts think is the most likely terrorist haven in the region.
Without a functioning government or security force, Somalia has devolved into a quasi-nation of warring factions where Islamic militants have strong ties to al-Qaida. No one has asked the United States to come in, so Ghormley says the task force's limited manpower and modest $11 million budget are directed at countries that have welcomed the assistance.
Ghormley's troops are a rare foreign presence in Ethiopia's Ogaden desert region, a drought-stricken area in which most people are poor, ethnic Somali and, officials think, susceptible to Islamic extremism.
American troops—including Army well-drilling units, Navy construction teams and Marines—arrived in the Ogaden last fall, setting up camp in a hotel in the hamlet of Gode, so cut off from the rest of Ethiopia that at first some of them worried they'd be a target.
Until recently, the massive cargo planes that roared into Gode to deliver supplies didn't even shut off their engines. They made quick, combat-style landings, then disappeared back into the sky within minutes.
But troops say the locals have welcomed them. When their dirt-spattered SUVs rumble into a village, children in tattered clothes run to greet them and elders shake their hands warmly, like old friends.
"Before they came, some people were giving us bad information, that the Americans kill people without reason, that Americans hate Africans," said Wali Aden, the tall, thin mayor of the village of Goderay, where the troops installed a $1,400 water pump last fall.
"But we believe now. They are the only guys who give us assistance."
The troops say they don't ask villagers for intelligence or place any conditions on aid.
"I'm not here to fish for information," said Army Sgt. Dave Hoffner of Manahawkin, N.J. "If they want to give us information, we'll pass it up" the chain of command.
In villages where the troops have worked, the feel-good factor is unmistakable. But the region is huge and complex and the mission's budget limited, and some experts wonder whether the military is willing to remain in the region long enough to have a serious impact.
Even the small irrigation projects need ongoing attention. Villagers in Sankabar love their new water pumps—bearing the logo of a Chinese manufacturer—but they used up 55 gallons of diesel fuel in two weeks and had to ask the American troops for more.
If the pump fails, it's not clear that anyone in the village will know how to fix it; a secondhand pump that farmers bought themselves broke down several months ago and now sits alongside the new one, rusted and forgotten.
"It's nice that we can do these things, but this isn't long-term development," said Princeton Lyman, the director of the Africa task force at the Council on Foreign Relations, a research center in New York and Washington. "It's good for our image ... but it doesn't substitute for general development because the troops come and go."
Still, Ghormley sees hope in his mission.
"If we fight this battle here well," Ghormley said, "we won't have to fight battles like we do in Iraq and Afghanistan."