On a seven-nation tour of Africa this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will pledge more U.S. assistance, including military aid, to Somalia's shaky government as it fights for survival against Islamist extremists.
U.S. officials say the Obama administration plans to go ahead with additional weapons supplies to double an initial provision of 40 tons of arms. The U.S. also has begun a low-profile mission to help train Somali security forces in neighboring Djibouti, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities surrounding U.S. involvement in the program.
Clinton will see Somalia's beleaguered interim president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, on Thursday in Kenya, the first stop on her trip. She intends to reaffirm American backing of Ahmed's Transitional Federal Government.
Critical juncture for Somalia
Clinton's meeting with Sheik Ahmed comes at critical juncture for Somalia, which has not had a functioning government since 1991 and is home to a growing radical Islamist movement known as al-Shabab. The group, which U.S. officials say has links to al-Qaida, was designated a terrorist organization by Washington last year.
It is not clear if Clinton will make a specific contribution at the meeting. The administration's top diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, said last week that "we are prepared to provide additional assistance to the (Somali) government." Carson added that the U.S. would also continue to support a small African Union peacekeeping force manned by soldiers from Uganda and Burundi.
Carson did not elaborate on the assistance. Other officials said a second batch of up to 40 tons of new weaponry, added to 40 tons that arrived over the past several months, will come from stockpiles held by African militaries. The United States would pay for it, officials said.
One senior official said the Pentagon, which has a base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, is providing facilities such as tents for the training and is assisting with logistics.
Officials say the U.S. military is not conducting the training and will not put any forces in Somalia. The administration is making a concerted effort to avoid putting any American footprint in Somalia, which would risk alienating allies and add to charges by Islamic extremists of a Western takeover.
Memories of 1992-94 American intervention
U.S. commanders still have sour memories of the 1992-94 American military intervention that began as a humanitarian mission to deliver aid supplies to Somalia. It ended in a humiliating withdrawal months after the 1993 "Blackhawk Down" incident in which Somali militiamen shot down a U.S. helicopter and 18 servicemen were killed in the crash and subsequent rescue attempt in the streets of Mogadishu.
Djibouti is one of several nations mentioned as willing to help train Somalia's rudimentary police and military.
Last week, the European Union agreed in principle to send military advisers to Djibouti to train Somali forces in counterinsugency and anti-piracy tactics. In mid-July, two French security advisers in the country to train Somali security forces were abducted from a hotel in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
Al-Shabab has claimed responsibility and said the French hostages would be tried under Islamic law for alleged spying and "conspiracy against Islam."
Violence in Somalia has surged in recent years, catapulting the nation into the top 10 most violent countries in the world for the past two years, according to the National Counterterrorism Center. NCTC data, which covers attacks against civilians or noncombatants, shows that there were 767 terrorism-related deaths in 2007 and nearly 2,000 in 2008.
Only three countries saw more killings in 2008 — Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Somali government holds only a few blocks in Mogadishu, with support from the peacekeepers, although it still controls the port, the airport and key government buildings. The top U.N. envoy for Somalia said last week that the country is at a "turning point" and in desperate need of international support, especially military equipment, training and money.
Surge in piracy on Somali coast
Somali coast has At the same time, the Somali coast has seen a surge in piracy. Hijackers have carried out hundreds of attacks this year, including one in April involving an American cargo ship that ended with U.S. naval intervention. Somali pirates are currently holding for ransom about a dozen vessels.
In addition to voicing support for the Somali government, officials said Clinton will also take aim at Eritrea, a small Red Sea state that the United States and United Nations accuse of supporting the Islamists with money and weapons. Eritrea denies the charges but questions the legitimacy of Sheik Ahmed's government.
"Somalia is a place where they have been spoilers," Carson said of the Eritrean government. The U.S. and U.N. Security Council have threatened to punish Eritrea.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, warned last week that Eritrea has only a "small window" of time to change policy or face penalties.
In January, Eritrea's archrival, Ethiopia, ended a two-year military deployment in Somalia to help the Somali government hold off the Islamists. But the Ethiopian army, one of Africa's largest, was viewed by many Somalis as abusive and heavy-handed.
Many analysts say government-allied Sufi militias in central Somalia have received weapons and training from neighboring Christian Ethiopia, which is concerned about the Islamists' links to rebels on Ethiopian soil.