The U.S. Defence Department is in the early stages of a project to develop land-based supply routes from the main American military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, to other U.S. camps across the eastern part of the continent, according to contractors involved with the project and officials familiar with the deliberations.

The first part of the trail is intended to link Lemonnier to Baledogle, the U.S. camp in Somalia. The passage traverses areas controlled by the al Qaeda-affiliated group al-Shabab; swaths of land controlled by warlords with private militias; and a tense border region with Ethiopia.

This project will further entrench the U.S. military presence in Africa. It might also be part of a broader American approach to countering China in places across the continent where the U.S. has vital interests, including the strategic Horn of Africa, though one former official said the plan is more likely driven by logistical considerations.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen.
Photo: (March 9, 2018) U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William Zana, (left) greets then U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at Camp Lemonnier – Djibouti.

Sending U.S.-affiliated convoys through these territories is generally considered highly dangerous. Foreigners tend to move in Mogadishu in armoured cars with private security. If they leave the Somali capital, even to go short distances, they generally travel by air. U.S. military personnel usually make the 60-mile trip from the Mogadishu International Airport complex which acts as the base for most internationals, to Baledogle in a helicopter.

As such, a plan to create a passable route that runs through about three-quarters of the country is a hugely ambitious and expensive undertaking. The sources told Foreign Policy that carving out the routes in Somalia alone would cost at least $75 million.

The project falls under the purview of the Virginia-based defence contractor Pacific Architects and Engineers, one of a few companies that support the United States African Command (the body also known as Africom that oversees U.S. military operations in Africa) in Somalia. Neither Africom nor the defence contractor would confirm the project, citing security concerns.

Pacific Architects and Engineers is so invested in Africom’s work in Somalia that last January it opened up a new subsidiary, the Mogadishu-based Africa Expeditionary Services. At least one other company the subsidiary sought to hire for help with the project turned down the job, saying it would be too difficult.

Some Somali and American stakeholders also questioned the viability of investing in this treacherous route.

Hussein Sheikh-Ali, who served as a counter terrorism and security adviser to the current and former Somali Presidents and is the founder of the security think tank, the Hiraal Institute, suggested that given the immense security and logistical challenges posed, building a ground route between two U.S. bases might not be the best use of American money and time. “They should focus on capacitating local forces on counterinsurgency tactics and help local authorities on good governance,” he said.

One Somali security official called the project “adventuristic” but said with a grin that any U.S. investment was welcome.

But the security official also commented that part of the point of building out the route is to create a “mental shift.” The Somali government wants to demonstrate that it is possible for foreign governments and companies to work across the country. He also said that maintaining supply chains was a tenet of the Security Pact that Somalia developed with the support of international partners and the United Nations in May 2017.

American angst about Chinese infringement has been recently brewing. In 2017, China built its first naval base in Djibouti, a development that Thomas Waldhauser, the top U.S. general for Africa, said would have a “significant” impact on U.S. interests. Waldhauser was speaking at a congressional hearing last year that focused on China’s increasingly robust presence on the continent. He also reportedly told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “We are carefully monitoring Chinese encroachment and emergent military presence.”

In October 2018, with broad bipartisan support, the U.S. Senate allocated $60 billion in loans to governments in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to fund infrastructure projects. The fund, overseen by a new government agency – the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation is viewed as a soft power move to counter China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to build a network of railroads and shipping lanes that will span over than 70 countries across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

When U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration rolled out its new strategy for Africa this past December, National Security Adviser John Bolton made plain that the plan is centred on countering China. “Great power competitors, namely China and Russia, are rapidly expanding their financial and political influence across Africa,” he said, early into his comments. “They are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.”

Besides operating as the home to China’s first overseas military base, Djibouti is also the recipient of a largely Chinese-supported railway that connects the country to Ethiopia. The line is a small segment of the Belt and Road Initiative.

But a former senior White House official who worked on Africa policy commented that given the nature and timing of the new American route, “it is much more likely that this project is driven by logistical considerations related to long-standing U.S. military engagement in the region rather than a reaction to China.”

Robert Schrire, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Cape Town, said that despite Washington’s growing concern about Beijing, U.S. infrastructure projects in Africa will always be centred around counter terrorism operations and security concerns. “There is no way that America can really compete with China,” he told after Bolton’s speech. “No real resources are going to flow.”