Stuart Price/AFP/Getty Images
Ugandan soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia prepare to advance on the central Somali town of Buur-Hakba.
Ugandan soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia prepare to advance on the central Somali town of Buur-Hakba. Stuart Price/AFP/Getty Images
For the past six years in Somalia, Western countries have been putting up the cash and African nations have been supplying the soldiers, a formula that has pushed back al-Qaida-linked militants and allowed Somalia to elect it's first democratic government in 20 years.
"We can fix our problems in Africa," says Brig. Michael Ondoga, a contingent commander with the African Union Mission in Somalia or AMISOM. "All we need is your support."
It's not at all hard to see why this plan is so agreeable to the American government.
AMISOM has driven al-Shabaab out of Somali cities and major towns, and it's done so at a low cost in terms of money.
America's contribution in weapons, wages and training for these troops is around $350 million. That is less than Washington spends on the war in Afghanistan in a day and a half.
And in a new development, the U.N. Security Council on Friday authorized sending 2,500 troops to eastern Congo and gave them the unprecedented mandate to launch offensive operations.
Burundian soldiers assist each other in putting on body armor in advance of their patrol in Somalia.
Burundian soldiers assist each other in putting on body armor in advance of their patrol in Somalia. Gregory Warner/NPR
It's still a small force, and much larger U.N. contingents have been unable to deliver calm there over the past two decades.
The hope is that this new combat force will be successful by relying on African soldiers, led by African commanders, and steered by an African political organization.
There has also been talk of sending an African force into Mali in an attempt to restore order there.
Western Reluctance To Intervene
Americans have been reluctant to get involved in African conflicts since the disastrous battle in 1993 known as Black Hawk Down, when 19 U.S. Rangers, deployed to support U.N. peacekeepers in Somalia, were killed.
Less well known is that in 2011, the African troops had a similar experience, though they followed up in a very different manner.
Just like in Black Hawk Down, what was supposed to be a straightforward military strike fell victim to deadly ambush on the tight streets of Mogadishu.
"Taking over Gashandiga [an al-Shabab stronghold] was very critical," says Cmdr. Ondoga. "But to put the record straight, taking over Gashandiga was not a tough battle. It was holding it that became a problem."
The number of dead was almost identical. And again, as in 1993, Somali TV broadcast the bodies of dead Burundian soldiers being dragged through the streets by Somali children.
But after Black Hawk Down, President Clinton made the decision to withdraw American troops from Somalia.
In 2011, the Burundian army did not withdraw from the war. In fact, it dispatched more troops.
Six months later Ondoga says that AMISOM had pushed al-Shabab out of the capital.
"For us we know that if we don't stop this spirit of terrorism from spreading in the region," he says, "it will catch up with us and already it has affected our economy, you know? So it's a question of will. The will of the people."
Secrecy Over Casualties
For America, keeping troops in Somalia was politically unpalatable in the U.S. AMISOM takes a different tack by declining to disclose the death tolls of its soldiers. There's actually a gag order on releasing casualty figures inscribed by the African Union into the AMISOM charter. Only contributing troop countries reserve the right to make that information public.
Out of the 17,000 soldiers deployed as part of AMISOM, the number of dead is believed to be around 500. That's according to some official reported estimates from Uganda's former top commander. Some top officials have said it's more than 1,000. No one at AMISOM will confirm any figures at all.
Ondoga says this secrecy is to avoid emboldening the enemy. But also avoids questions about the cost of the war.
"You'd start asking yourself those questions, why should we die here? After all, we have no vital interest here," he grins knowingly. "My brothers the Americans started asking themselves those questions, 'What is our vital interest in Somalia?' "