Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta kicked off a trip to various countries, December 13, 2011, thanking members of Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa in Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti for their role in maintaining stability and preventing conflict in the region.
The visit was Panetta's first to Djibouti, to be followed later in the week with a stop in Iraq, where he will participate in ceremonies marking the end of the U.S. military mission there. The secretary also will visit Turkey and become the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Libya.
Panetta met with President Ismail Omar Guelleh at the Djiboutian White House to discuss what he told reporters has become "a very important partnership" in dealing with counterterrorism, counter-piracy and outreach into Africa.
He noted that with significant progress against al-Qaeda in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, some terrorist elements have migrated to key nodes such as Yemen and Somalia.
"Efforts to go after them require important partnerships in that part of the world," he said. "And Djibouti helps provide that partnership for operations that continue, not only against al-Qaeda, but obviously against al-Shabaab as well."
Panetta's talks focused on the ongoing struggle against al-Shabaab, a terrorist group that controls large sections of southern Somalia, and on Djibouti's upcoming troop deployment to the African Union Mission to Somalia, a senior defense official traveling with him said.
The secretary kicked off his visit in Djibouti meeting with about 500 troops assigned to Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa to thank them for their service.
"I can't tell you how proud I am as secretary of defense to visit you" and extend "thanks on behalf of a grateful nation," he told the group.
"You have done everything the nation has asked you to do," he said, "continuing the American dream of ensuring a better life for the next generation."
Camp Lemonnier is the only enduring U.S. base in Sub-Saharan Africa, with nearly 3,500 members representing all services as well as the National Guard and reserves, Navy Captain Owen Travis, the task force's director of plans, told reporters.
The task force initially stood up in November 2002 as a seafaring force aimed at blocking terrorists fleeing Afghanistan from setting up a new safe haven here. But within six months, it moved ashore to this former French Foreign Legion base.
Today, CJTF-HOA uses a "whole of government" approach to focus on challenges in a region strategic because of its geographic location, resources and struggles with instability, Travis said.
In doing so, they apply multiple elements of U.S. national power -- the so-called "three Ds" of defense, diplomacy and development –- to their mission with an array of military-to-military efforts aimed at building capacity and humanitarian and civic-support activities.
Projects go beyond digging wells and building or refurbishing schools. The task force ensures that the host nations are able to sustain what's done and that the work contributes to the big-picture goals here.
The ultimate goal, Travis said, is to help African nations build capability so they can promote regional security and stability and prevent conflict.
Panetta thanked CJTF-HOA's members for their contributions toward counterterrorism, counter-piracy and humanitarian assistance that are making a difference in the region.
He noted Djibouti's central location in the fight against extremism and the role CJTF-HOA plays in helping make the region less hospitable to al-Qaeda and other terrorist fringes.
"We have made a commitment," he said. "We will track these guys wherever they go and make sure they have no place to hide."
The goal, he said, is to ensure al-Qaeda never again has the opportunity or capacity to attack the U.S. homeland.
As they do so, Panetta promised to work to ensure the U.S. military remains the world's best, even in the face of looming budget challenges.
He vowed not to repeat mistakes of the past in creating a "hollow force" and to use a balanced approach in setting budget priorities. Most of all, he promised to "keep faith with all of you" and protect the benefits they and their families deserve.
Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Joseph Howell, with almost 27 years of service under his belt, said he was gratified to hear Panetta promise to ensure retirement benefits are grandfathered.
For Air Force Colonel Dave Barnes, Panetta was "spot on with his message."
"It's important to have an advocate and know he is in our corner," he said. "I think he hit a home run."