Pentagon chief visits African nation home to key US base

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US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Sunday visited Djibouti to bolster ties with the tiny and impoverished African country that is home to an important base for US counterterrorism forces, including drones.

Mattis, the first Trump administration official to visit Djibouti, planned to meet with President Ismail Omar Guelleh and greet US and French troops. He was accompanied by Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of US Africa Command.|

The US operates drone aircraft from Djibouti for surveillance and combat missions against al-Qaida-affiliated extremists in Somalia and elsewhere in the region.

China building base

China is building a military base in Djibouti, a former French colony in the Horn of Africa.

For years the US has operated a fleet of armed drones from Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier, where French troops also are based. Djibouti took on added importance to the US military after the September 11 attacks, in part as a means of tracking and intercepting al-Qaida militants fleeing Afghanistan after the US invaded that country in October 2001.

Djibouti has a highly prized port on the Gulf of Aden. The country is sandwiched between Somalia and Eritrea, and also shares a border with Ethiopia.

Mattis is using the early months as defense secretary to renew or strengthen relations with key defense allies and partners such as Djibouti, whose location makes it a strategic link in the network of overseas US military bases.

Djibouti also has been instrumental to international efforts to counter piracy over the past decade.

Mattis’ predecessor at the Pentagon, Ash Carter, never visited Djibouti during his two years as President Barack Obama’s defense secretary.

Over the past week Mattis has met with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and Qatar.

The US has a fleet of fighter, bomber, transport, surveillance and refueling aircraft at Qatar’s al-Udeid air base, which also is home to an operations center that coordinates US air missions throughout the Mideast and in Afghanistan.