WASHINGTON, April 24, 2017 — The meeting between Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Djiboutian President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh yesterday went to the heart of the U.S. relationship with the African nation, the secretary said, describing it as strong and strengthening.

“I came here to meet with President Guelleh and to spend time with [Marine Corps Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser], our theater commander for all of Africa, here at our only enduring location in Africa,” the secretary said at a news conference with Waldhauser in Djibouti.

Mattis expressed his gratitude to Guelleh in the 40th year of the independence of the modern state of Djibouti “for everything that they have done,” he said. “And you’ll remember, those who go back to those hectic days after 9/11, this was a country that stepped forward at the end of 2001, early 2002, and said, ‘We’re with you,’ and they’ve been with us every day, and every month and every year since.”

The U.S.-Djiboutian strong partnership shows very clearly there, Mattis said, where the nation has hosted American troops for more than a dozen years.

“I emphasized with the president that we stand by Djibouti and its commitment,” the secretary said. “It has made its own commitment to fighting terrorists. It’s got two battalions with the [African Union Mission in Somalia] force. That’s the Africa force stabilizing Somalia by fighting against the al-Shabaab terrorists, and that international mission by African troops there, supported by the United States, is actually commanded by a Djiboutian general officer.”

Respect, Support

The secretary said he also underscored to Guelleh how U.S. presence in Djibouti respects the African nation’s sovereignty and that it contributes to the Djiboutian people.

“We are the third-largest employer in Djibouti with Camp Lemonnier,” he said, adding that the United States has awarded hundreds of contracts to local businesses, which is part of the partnership.

Mattis said following the press conference, he would meet with French troops stationed there.

“We’re all keenly aware of the terrorist attack that France just suffered in Paris and others,” he said. “And the French are great partners in the fight against terrorism. They’ve engaged vigorously against terrorists in this region, and they’re proving stalwart in every fight against the enemy. They always move aggressively against the enemy every time they fight them.”

Japan has its only overseas base in Djibouti, Mattis noted, adding that its presence shows how multiple nations can “work together here at this crossroads, this important geographic crossroads.”

There’s a common goal in Djibouti of ensuring regional security, and each nation represented there respects Djiboutian sovereignty and its sovereign decisions “just the way we do when we deal with other nations,” he said.

The secretary also emphasized how international law is critical to keeping waterways open and the importance of maintaining “the same degree of cooperation in that regard in the future, as other countries come in.”

Africom commander Waldhauser thanked the secretary for his visit.

“This only underscores the importance of the relationship that we have with the country of Djibouti, because this particular piece of geography is very, very important to our strategic interests, especially in this area,” the general said.