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.
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.”
Read More: LA Times