U.S. is the driving force behind the fighting in Somalia
Washington has been quietly equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to wage a widening proxy war against the Shabab, the Al Qaeda ally that has sparked alarm as foreign militants join its ranks.
The soldiers stood at attention, rifles at their sides, as U.S. Army Maj. Gen. David Hogg walked down the ranks, eyeing the men heading off to fight in Somalia.
“You will push … the miscreants from that country, so Somalia can once again be free of tyranny and terrorism,” he told them, according to a video of the May ceremony. “We know you are ready.”
These weren’t American soldiers. They were from impoverished Sierra Leone in West Africa. But Hogg, a top U.S. Army commander for Africa, was in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, because this was largely an American operation.
Nearly 20 years after U.S. Army Rangers suffered a bloody defeat in Somalia, losing 18 soldiers and two Black Hawk helicopters, Washington is once again heavily engaged in the chaotic country. Only this time, African troops are doing the fighting and dying.
The United States is doing almost everything else.
The U.S. has been quietly equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to wage a widening proxy war against the Shabab, the Al Qaeda ally that has imposed a harsh form of Islamic rule on southern Somalia and sparked alarm in Washington as foreign militants join its ranks.
Officially, the troops are under the auspices of the African Union. But in truth, according to interviews by U.S. and African officials and senior military officers and budget documents, the 15,000-strong force pulled from five African countries is largely a creation of the State Department and Pentagon, trained and supplied by the U.S. government and guided by dozens of retired foreign military personnel hired through private contractors.
Like CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and Somalia, and the overthrow of Moammar Kadafi’s regime in Libya, the U.S. backing of African troops in Somalia is an example of how, after a decade of ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is trying to achieve U.S. military goals with minimal risk of American deaths and scant public debate.
The U.S. can underwrite the war in Somalia for a relative pittance — the cost over four years has been less than $700 million, a tenth of what the military spends in Afghanistan in a month — but the price tag is growing. More than a third of the U.S. assistance has been spent since early 2011.
A shadowy organization estimated to have as many as 14,000 fighters, the Shabab emerged in 2007 when it vowed to overthrow the weak fledgling central government in Mogadishu, the capital. The militia gradually took control of large parts of the capital and other towns, defeating some of Somalia’s well-armed clans and allying with others. U.S. officials say its ranks include foreigners linked to Al Qaeda, which the Shabab announced it had joined this year, and they worry that Al Qaeda could gain a larger foothold in Somalia unless the homegrown group is defeated.
The administration has not disclosed much in public about its role in Somalia, in part because African Union officials do not want their force seen as a Washington puppet. But Wafula Wamunyinyi, deputy head of the African Union mission, calls the U.S. “our most important partner,” noting that its assistance has been “quite enormous.”
Pictured: U.S. Army Maj. Gen. David Hogg, center right, inspects Sierra Leone troops in Freetown during a deployment ceremony this year. (U.S. Army Africa / July 28, 2012)