Concern that US military aid and support to the government of Somalia may have breached a number of international laws turns the spotlight on Washington's involvement in a country it was supposed to have left years ago.
US involvement is aimed at stopping Islamic extremism
Mogadishu is a city constantly at war with itself. The capital of Somalia is a microcosm of the countless conflicts that have been plaguing the failed East African state for decades, leading to hundreds of thousands of Somalis starving to death and countless others being killed.
The Western-backed transitional government has been teetering on the edge of collapse for years under the weight of continued attacks by the al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab militia and fellow Islamist militant group Hizbul Islam. The two groups control much of central and southern Somalia, leaving only a few small parts of the capital under government rule, protected by the Somali military, its Ahlu Sunna Waljama militia and African Union peacekeepers.
The Islamist insurgent groups battle government troops, pro-government militia and even each other in a never-ending struggle for control of a country which hasn't had an effective government since 1991.
Even in government-controlled areas, the battles rage. Troops loyal to Somalia's government fight within their ranks for scraps of power on the capital's scarred streets. They have even engaged in gun fights with their own police forces as corruption and organized crime eats away at the fragile state security systems in place, playing into the hands of the radical Islamist insurgents who aim to take control of the whole country. Meanwhile, to compound the problems, pirates continue to operate off the Somali coast.
In the midst of all the chaos, the inter-clan fighting and religious battles, the Somali government is accused of deploying child soldiers, some as young as 12, with assault rifles to protect its interests in Mogadishu.
Somali use of child soldiers reveals concerns over US aid
Somalia's use of child soldiers has raised UN concern
A United Nations Security Council report into Somalia's "persistent violations" in the use of child soldiers has not only heightened the international community's deep concern at the continuing practice in African wars and the state of near-constant war in Somalia but has also turned the spotlight on the involvement of the United States in the fight for control.
Washington has been the main source of Western aid for the transitional government since it came to power three years ago and has pumped millions of dollars into the Somali military for weapons and soldiers' salaries. Last year alone, the US government provided Somalia with some 40 tonnes of arms and ammunition.
Somalia is also expected to benefit from the Obama administration's 2011 budget request for security assistance programmes in Africa which includes $38 million (30.9 million euros) for arms sales to African states, $21 million for training African officers and $24 million for anti-terrorism programmes.
There is some concern that by supporting the Somali government, Washington has violated a number of international human rights laws and laws against the use of child soldiers.
While it has yet to be proved that the US has actually contravened these laws, they have been complying with other UN restrictions, albeit with a certain amount of creativity of interpretation, which allow arms sales to Somalia.
"The arms embargo which was put in place in 1992 was amended by the UN in 2006 to allow arms to be sold to the transitional government," David Hartwell, an expert at Jane's Defense, told Deutsche Welle. "The international community has no other choice but to support the Somali government and the Americans have exploited this to sell arms via the Ethiopians and the Ugandan peacekeepers, who have bought weapons on behalf of the US and billed Washington."
Hartwell says that the Americans aren't the only ones providing weapons. "On the other side we have Eritrea which is arming the militants," he added. "The Eritreans have been complaining about double standards because they are seen as breaking the embargo because they're not supplying the Somali government and yet the US and Ethiopia, which is fighting a proxy war against Eritrea in Somalia, are flooding the country with weapons."
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Memories of damaging US losses in Mogadishu
US relief forces were drawn into bloody fighting in Mogadishu
While this information will dismay the American public, the fact that the United States is again actively involved in Somalia may also come as a shock, especially considering what happened the last time the US was publicly acknowledged as having a role there.
US involvement in Somalia has a long history going back to August 1992 when its troops were deployed as part of Operation Restore Hope to prevent mass starvation in Somalia. However, once the initial crisis seemed to be over, the UN took control of relief operations leaving a small US logistical, aviation, and quick reaction force behind.
Soon the US forces became involved in Somalia's inter-clan power struggles which eventually led to American soldiers being killed or wounded in fierce fighting in the streets of Mogadishu. One of the most psychologically damaging events of the ill-fated campaign took place in early October 1993 when news reports showed dead US soldiers being dragged through the streets by cheering Somali mobs.
All UN and US personnel were finally withdrawn almost a year later in March 1995. As far as the American people were concerned, that was the end of US involvement in Somalia.
"The US got a bloody nose in the Restore Hope debacle," David Hartwell said. "It was initially very wary of getting involved in Somalia again. But then 9/11 happened and the US started to see Somalia through the prism of al Qaeda and Islamic extremism. The insurgents also began to see themselves through this prism so there was a development on both sides where they felt they had to confront each other."
Covert operations signal a US return to Somalia
Last year it was reported that a US Special Operations raid in Somalia had killed the alleged head of al Qaeda in East Africa. There were also reports that the US had backed Ethiopia with military and logistical aid in its 2006 invasion of Somalia aimed at eradicating the Islamist threat.
A report in the New York Times earlier this year revealed that the United States - through its AFRICOM command center in nearby Djibouti - had begun a new operation in March in support of the transitional government in Somalia, the justification being the fight against Islamic extremism.
"Over the past year and a half the US has provided some arms, ammunition, and cash to the transitional Somali government," EJ Hogendoorn, the director of the Horn of Africa project at the International Crisis Group think tank in Nairobi, told Deutsche Welle. "It is also providing transport to government units being trained abroad. There are also allegations that it provides some intelligence support and training."
Al Qaeda suspect Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan was killed by US troops in Somalia
"The only recent covert operations I am aware of are the well-documented killings of Saleh Ali Nabhan, a Kenyan sought in the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned resort in Kenya, and al-Shabab military commander Aden Hashi Ayro who reportedly trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan before 2001. Both are alleged to have played a role in terrorist attacks against US targets."
"The US has had a focus on the region for some time in the context of its strategy to stop the spread of Islamic extremism," said David Hartwell .
"But it knows that the situation in Somalia is very fluid. It may be al Qaeda this month but it could be a nationalist civil war the next. What it has to do is support the government as best it can. This is difficult because it controls so little of Mogadishu and the troops it trains are easily bought and turned. If the US really wants a secure Somalia, it will have to step up its efforts and change its approach."
Reports suggest that this change in approach is already underway. US military advisors have allegedly been training Somali forces and intelligence officers in the fight against the Islamists, and providing logistical, surveillance and material support. One anonymous US source told the paper that the US was also prepared to launch its own air strikes and more Special Forces raids on the ground in Somalia in support of the government.
"The US has been indirectly involved through the Ethiopians and also through - highly unconfirmed - covert Special Forces operations within Somalia, targeting al Qaeda operatives," Hartwell added. "Clearly, with the US command center at Djibouti, they certainly have the assets in place to do this in Somalia and also in Yemen but they'll never admit to active involvement on the ground."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge