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.”

The U.S. is supplying the African forces with surveillance drones, ammunition, small arms, armored personnel carriers, night-vision goggles, communications gear, medical equipment and other sophisticated aid and training, documents show.

Before the soldiers deploy, they receive boots, uniforms, protective vests and 13 weeks of basic training in combat skills and detecting hidden bombs. There’s also more specialized instruction for medics, intelligence officers and combat engineers.

That may not be enough, according to some African officers who contend that the U.S. must do more if it expects the troops, many of whom are experienced at bush fighting, not counterinsurgency, to defeat the Shabab.

“The U.S. government has done extremely well in providing for us and we are grateful for that, but they can do more,” Brig. Gen Komba Mondeh, Sierra Leone’s chief of operations and plans, said in an interview. “This is real war, and we expect to see the body bags coming back home.”

Dozens of African Union troops have already died. But their efforts have achieved substantial success, at least recently. Last August, the 9,800 troops from Uganda and Burundi that for years had been battling the Shabab for control of Somalia’s capital finally drove out the militants. In June, the troops took Afgooye, a key town in the southeast.

The mission could still go badly wrong. In 2006, Washington backed Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, which aimed to drive the precursor to the Shabab from power.

The Ethiopian forces quickly captured Mogadishu, then became targets of insurgent attacks. Ethiopia withdrew most of its forces three years later, leaving behind an even more powerful Islamic movement.

The latest effort has a better chance of success, U.S. officials say, because most of the African troops are not drawn from Somalia’s immediate neighbors and are operating under the African Union banner; they are perceived more as peacekeepers than occupiers. To actually stabilize the country, however, will require building a working Somali central government, a task that remains far off.

“You can win the war, but without political stability, you will not have won,” Wamunyinyi said.

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