The US military secretly deployed a small number of trainers and advisers to Somalia in October, the first time regular troops have been stationed in the war-ravaged country since1993, when two helicopters were shot down and 18 Americans killed in the “Black Hawk Down” disaster.
A cell of US military personnel has been in the Somali capital of Mogadishu to advise and coordinate operations with African troops fighting to wrest control of the country from the al-Shabab militia, an Islamist group whose leaders have professed loyalty to al-Qaeda.
The previously undisclosed deployment – of fewer than two-dozen troops – reverses two decades of US policy that effectively prohibited military “boots on the ground” in Somalia. Even as Somali pirates and terrorists emerged as the top security threat in the region, successive presidential administrations and the Pentagon shied away from sending troops there for fear of a repeat of the Black Hawk Down debacle.
In recent years, the Obama administration has slowly and cautiously become more directly involved in Somalia.
Drones from a US base in Djibouti – a neighbouring Horn of Africa country – conduct surveillance missions and occasional airstrikes from Somalia’s skies. Elite Special Operations forces have also set foot on Somali territory on rare occasions to carry out counter-terrorism raids and hostage rescues, but only in the shadows and for no more than a few hours at a time.
In January 2013, the United States officially recognised a new federal government of Somalia, re-establishing diplomatic relations for the first time since the country’s political structure collapsed in 1991. The State Department has not re-opened an embassy in Mogadishu but US diplomats often make brief trips to the capital.
The CIA has quietly operated a base in Somalia for years and finances Somali security forces, but largely keeps its activities there under wraps.
US intentions to become more involved militarily became apparent in the northern summer, when General David Rodriguez, the commander of USforces in Africa, visited Mogadishu.
In October, Amanda Dory, the Pentagon’s top policy official for Africa, told Congress that the military would “increase our presence in Mogadishu in tandem with the State Department”.
Although Ms Dory did not provide details, the US Africa Command around the same time deployed a handful of advisers to Mogadishu to establish a coordination cell with Somali security forces and a regional coalition of African troops, according to the three US military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the mission had not been publicly announced.
In a statement late Friday, Army Colonel Thomas Davis, a spokesman for the Africa Command, confirmed the deployment. He said a military coordination cell was established in Somalia in October “and is now fully operational”.
October marked the 20th anniversary of the Black Hawk Down battle in Somalia between a task force of US Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos, and fighters loyal to Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed.
US military forces were in Somalia at the time to support a United Nations humanitarian operation. But the heavy losses – and haunting images of dead Americans being dragged through the streets – prompted a quick US withdrawal and discouraged Washington for years from intervening in other conflicts.
Since 2007, the US government has spent more than $500 million to train and equip an African Union force of more than 18,000 soldiers that has sought to bring order to Somalia and strengthen the weak Somali national government. Most of the soldiers come from Uganda and Burundi and receive training in camps outside Somalia from US contractors and uniformed military advisers.