Downie says that the Camp Lemonnier basing agreement helps the U.S. to avoid having to pressure governments that are less enthusiastic about hosting a major American military contingent. "Lots of African nations are suspicious of AFRICOM's intentions in the continent and are not very eager to let the Americans in," says Richard Downie, Deputy Director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Africa program, and author of Freedom House's 2011 country report on Djibouti. "Djibouti is where [the U.S.] is going to be in the foreseeable future, in terms of boots on the ground."
Thanks to Djibouti, there isn't an additional and possibly-radioactive point of contention in the U.S.'s relationship with Kenya, or a need to station significant U.S. strategic infrastructure in a friendly yet-unstable state like South Sudan. Camp Lemonnier is both a way of countering the land and sea-based terrorism that has stalked the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, and a way of reducing America's diplomatic exposure in Africa.
Djibouti is also an important element in a larger strategic process for the U.S. In a sense, Camp Lemonnier faces north -- towards Yemen, site of the U.S.'s drone campaign against AQAP, and towards the U.S.-allied oil states of the Arabian Peninsula. But it also faces south -- towards Kenya, the Sudans, Somalia and the Great Lakes, places where the U.S. wants to forestall future instability and build lasting strategic partnerships. Much of AFRICOM's work involves military-to-military exchanges, like joint training operations or other attempts at capacity-building. And it involves more traditional development work.
Rahma Dualeh was a civilian employee at Camp Lemonnier in 2011, where she worked as a "socio-cultural advisor for the command element." Her job was to convey "the social nuances of operating in east Africa" to the base's leadership, many of whom were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and had no experience working in an east African social and cultural milieu.
Dualeh was attached to "civil affairs teams," which were often military engineering units tasked with things like digging boreholes, or building schools. Dualeh told me that during her time at Camp Lemonnier, the military had two civil affairs teams working in Djibouti, compared to five in Kenya, a country with a population over forty times larger than Djibouti's. She said her work was, broadly, to "help promote confidence in the local governmental in the local communities....that had already lost confidence in the government."
The U.S. military's involvement in development has to do with its unique capabilities. The military has the equipment, manpower, and the expertise necessary to take the lead on the kinds of development projects that its civil affairs teams now undertake. But the military's development work serves a strategic interest as well. Thanks in part to the implementation of counter-insurgency strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, development and capacity-building are now accepted elements of irregular warfare -- a way of fostering trust and goodwill towards the U.S. and its partner governments, and of enabling those governments to take on as much of the local security burden as possible. Sometimes this backfires, or at least proves insufficient in preventing a country from spiraling out of control: after all, AFRICOM had helped train some of the Malian officers who overthrew the country's civilian government in March of 2012. But for now, it seems to be working in Djibouti. The country is fairly tranquil, and Dualeh says she detected very little local frustration with the U.S.'s outsized presence there.