AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The U.N. Security Council has approved a new 2,500-strong combat force for eastern Congo. Its mission is to do what the more than 19,000 troops stationed there for two decades have not done: keep the peace. The new force consists of African soldiers led by African commanders from Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa.
CORNISH: They're also authorized to pursue and engage rebel groups and enter into far riskier battles than international peacekeepers usually have the clearance for. Welcome to what might be a new model for intervention in African trouble spots: Western money, African boots.
It's happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It may happen soon in Mali. And it's been happening for more than six years and working in Somalia. NPR's Gregory Warner went to Somalia to learn why, and he found a secret that African commanders don't like to discuss.
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GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: OK. Here's the situation. I've got a Ugandan soldier to my right, a Burundian to my left. We're bouncing along in an armored convoy built by South Africans, paid for by Western taxpayers and emblazoned with the logo of the African Union.
And outside, the peeling billboards show two crossed machine guns - AK-47s - over an open Quran. It's the mark of al-Shabab, who, up until last year, were still controlling this very area. Brigadier Michael Ondoga is a contingent commander with the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM.
BRIGADIER MICHAEL ONDOGA: We can fix our problems in Africa. All we need is your support.
WARNER: It's not at all hard to see why this proposal of African troops led by an African political organization intervening in African conflicts is so agreeable to the American government. AMISOM has driven al-Shabab out of Somali cities and major towns, and it's done so fairly cheaply.
America's contribution in weapons, wages and training for these troops is around 350 million. That's less than Washington spends on the war in Afghanistan in a day and a half. But most of all, this model means that American lives aren't being put at risk, like they were that Sunday in 1993.
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WARNER: That battle, Black Hawk Down, changed how Americans get involved in overseas conflict.
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WARNER: It's one of the reasons we're paying African troops to fight Somali terrorists today. But less well known is that in the winter of 2011, the African troops hit their own Black Hawk Down experience, with a very different ending. It was called the Battle of Gashandiga.
ONDOGA: Gashandiga had been their command and control center.
WARNER: The headquarters, says Commander Ondoga, of the terrorist group, al-Shabab.
ONDOGA: So taking over Gashandiga was very critical.
WARNER: And just like in Black Hawk Down, what was supposed to be this straightforward, quick and easy military strike fell victim to deadly ambush on the tight streets of Mogadishu.
ONDOGA: But to put the record straight, Gashandiga - taking over Gashandiga itself was not a tough battle. It was holding which became a problem and moving in supplies along that route.
WARNER: Even the number of dead was identical: 18 soldiers. Somali TV, again, showed this horrifying image of soldiers' corpses dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
But in 2011, the Burundian army did not withdraw from the war. In fact, the opposite: It dispatched more troops. Six months later, Commander Ondoga says that AMISOM had pushed al-Shabab out of the capital.
ONDOGA: For us, we know that if we don't stop this spirit of terrorism from spreading in the region, 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.
WARNER: The will, of course, of the soldiers fighting, but also the will of their families back home. Consider Ernest Nimubona(ph). He's one of those soldiers. He flew 1,400 miles away from his wife and children in Burundi to fight this war in a country he's never been to.
ERNEST NIMUBONA: Because for us, we say that when your neighbor's house is burning, don't sleep. Yours might be the next.
WARNER: It may help his neighborly feeling that his salary is set by international donors at around $1,000 a month. That's 10 to 20 times what he'd make at home. And his family will get $50,000 if he makes the ultimate sacrifice.
DR. JOHN SSENTAMU: OK. So you are welcome to the AMISOM level two theater.
WARNER: At the AMISOM military hospital, Major Dr. John Ssentamu leads me past barbed wire into a concrete bunker that houses the surgical theater.
SSENTAMU: Last year alone, over 400 surgeries, lifesaving surgeries were carried out in this theater.
WARNER: Out of 17,000 soldiers fighting here, the number of dead is around 500. That's according to official reported estimates. Some top officials have said it's over 1,000. But at AMISOM, no one will confirm any of these numbers at all. Major Ssentamu, the hospital director, can rattle off every stat except that one.
SSENTAMU: Yeah. I may not be able to give the exact figures because that really requires a proper look at the statistics.
WARNER: I encountered this reticence about death tolls across AMISOM. Consider just for a moment how different this is from the international mission in Afghanistan where every day we get a published update on contributing nation casualties. Whereas at AMISOM, I had to take my question all the way up the military chain of command until the head guy on the ground, Deputy Force Commander Lieutenant General Andrew Gutti, ventured to name me a figure. It was lower than the most lowball estimates out there.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL ANDREW GUTTI: OK. Last year is - cannot be a big number, not really more than 10.
WARNER: You're saying 10 soldiers lost in all of 2012?
GUTTI: I'm not saying 10. I'm saying not more than 10 registered figure.
WARNER: Later, I was told that Deputy Force Commander Gutti is forbidden from releasing the real casualty figures because of a gag order inscribed by the African Union in the AMISOM charter.
ONDOGA: Information is power.
WARNER: Commander Ondoga says this secrecy about casualties is to avoid emboldening the enemy. But it may also be to avoid provoking questions from the home front.
ONDOGA: You'd start asking yourself those questions: Why should we die here? After all, we have no vital interest here.
ONDOGA: My brothers, the Americans, started asking themselves those questions: What is our vital interest in Somalia?
WARNER: America asked that question in 1993, and it couldn't find a good answer. Now that Africans are intervening in these conflicts, those tough questions about the cost of intervention have not gone away. They've just been outsourced. Gregory Warner, NPR News.
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