Just what Africa needs; a US-funded, partly privatised military force

The LA Times reveals yet another Washington-led proxy war, this time in Africa. Privatised and essentially unaccountable, this is another example of the US never learning from history. Arming and training such a force will almost inevitably blow back on the West at some point:

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.

No U.S. military personnel are deployed to Somalia with the African troops. Instead, the State Department pays a private firm to hire the retired foreign military personnel who advise the troops on tactics and operations.

“The U.S. is willing to be very open-minded about whatever the key components are that need to be funded, without which this mission would fail,” said Michael C. Stock, president of Bancroft Global Development, the Washington-based company that hires the combat advisors. “When it comes to things like ammunition, when it comes to the mentoring and advising that we do, the U.S. is really playing the most important role.”

Bancroft now has about 75 advisors in Somalia, double the number from a year ago, Stock said.

The only major part of the Somalia operation that the U.S. doesn’t supply or pay for are the troops’ salaries and logistical expenses, officials say. Those are handled by the European Union and the United Nations, although the U.N. contribution is partially funded by U.S. dues. Only Washington is willing to provide lethal aid, officials and contractors say.

“It’s incredible bang for the dollar that we’ve gotten,” said Michael Bittrick, a State Department official who oversees the effort. “It isn’t just about getting infantry shooters to go do their work. We’re training their intel people, we’re training their indirect fire people, we’re training their medical people, we’re training their engineers.”

That training is done mostly by U.S. contractors and small teams of American military personnel before the troops deploy from their home countries. But the military also brings African soldiers to the U.S. for training.

In December, the Pentagon brought eight Ugandan soldiers and one of Bancroft’s advisors to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., to train them to use the Army’s Raven drone. The hand-launched, propeller-powered drone beams live video back to a laptop computer when used on the battlefield, as it was last month in Afgooye.