The Obama administration is intensifying its campaign against an al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia by boosting the number of proxy forces in the war-torn country, expanding drone operations and strengthening military partnerships throughout the region.
In many ways, the American role in the long-running conflict in Somalia is shaping up as the opposite of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: relatively inexpensive, with limited or hidden U.S. footprints.
While the White House has embraced the strategy as a model for dealing with failed states or places inherently hostile to an American presence, the indirect approach carries risks. Chief among them is a lack of control over the proxy forces from Uganda, Burundi and Somalia, as well as other regional partners that Washington has courted and financed in recent years.
All told, the United States has spent more than $500 million since 2007 to train and equip East African forces in an attempt to fight terrorism and bring a measure of stability to Somalia.
Kenya, for example, sent thousands of troops into Somalia last month to fight al-Shabab, a militia affiliated with al-Qaeda, despite U.S. concerns that the invasion could backfire and further destabilize a country ravaged by two decades of civil war.
This week, Ethiopia sent its own, smaller force across the border, according to Somalis. The Ethiopian government has denied these reports but acknowledged that it is considering a military offensive.
These operations are reviving painful memories of an Ethiopian invasion in 2006 that was backed by U.S. forces and preceded by an extensive CIA operation. In that case, the Ethiopian army — with some U.S. air support — rolled into Somalia to oust a fundamentalist Muslim movement that had taken over Mogadishu, the capital. But the Ethiopians eventually withdrew after they became bogged down by a Somali insurgency.
“That effort was not universally successful and led, in fact, to the rise of al-Shabab after [Ethiopia] pulled out,” Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told reporters Tuesday.
Al-Shabab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, has imposed a harsh version of Islamic law in parts of Somalia and organized attacks elsewhere in East Africa, including suicide bombings and kidnappings in Uganda and Kenya. While some foreign radicals — including Somali Americans — have joined the group’s ranks, U.S. counterterrorism officials say the movement is divided between those who share al-Qaeda’s global aims and others who want to confine their actions to Somalia.
The Obama administration has not directly criticized Kenya or Ethiopia for entering Somalia, saying it is legitimate for both countries to defend themselves against al-Shabab attacks on their territory. But the administration has urged both to withdraw as soon as possible and instead help expand a 9,000-member African Union peacekeeping force in Mogadishu that is composed of U.S.-trained troops from Uganda and Burundi.
“We have always been very cautious, prudent, concerned about the neighbors getting involved,” said a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.
Millions in U.S. support
Over the past four years, the State Department has provided $258 million for the African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu. The Pentagon is spending $45 million this year alone to train and equip the force with body armor, night-vision equipment, armored bulldozers and small tactical surveillance drones.
In addition, the Pentagon this year has authorized $30 million to upgrade helicopters and small surveillance aircraft for two countries that border Somalia: Djibouti and Kenya.
The subsidies underpin the Obama administration’s strategy of building up regional forces so they can fight al-Shabab directly, while minimizing any visible role for U.S. troops. Mindful of the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” debacle, in which two U.S. military helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu and 18 Americans killed, the Obama administration has steadfastly avoided deploying soldiers to Somalia, save for small clandestine missions carried out by Special Operations forces.
Instead, the U.S. military has gradually established a stronger presence around Somalia’s perimeter.
To the north, in Djibouti, a small country on the Horn of Africa, about 3,000 American troops are stationed at Camp Lemonnier, the only permanent U.S. military base on the continent. Many are engaged in civil-affairs and training programs throughout East Africa, but the camp is also home to a fleet of unmanned Predator drones and Special Operations units that conduct Somalia-related missions.
To the south, the U.S. military has a smaller but long-standing presence at Manda Bay, a Kenyan naval base about 50 miles from the Somali border. For several years, Navy SEALs have trained Kenyan patrols on the lookout for Somali pirates.