While the White House has embraced the strategy as a model for dealing with failed states or places inherently hostile to an American presence, the indirect approach carries risks. Chief among them is a lack of control over the proxy forces from Uganda, Burundi and Somalia, as well as other regional partners that Washington has courted and financed in recent years.
All told, the United States has spent more than $500 million since 2007 to train and equip East African forces in an attempt to fight terrorism and bring a measure of stability to Somalia.
Kenya, for example, sent thousands of troops into Somalia last month to fight al-Shabab, a militia affiliated with al-Qaeda, despite U.S. concerns that the invasion could backfire and further destabilize a country ravaged by two decades of civil war.
This week, Ethiopia sent its own, smaller force across the border, according to Somalis. The Ethiopian government has denied these reports but acknowledged that it is considering a military offensive.
These operations are reviving painful memories of an Ethiopian invasion in 2006 that was backed by U.S. forces and preceded by an extensive CIA operation. In that case, the Ethiopian army — with some U.S. air support — rolled into Somalia to oust a fundamentalist Muslim movement that had taken over Mogadishu, the capital. But the Ethiopians eventually withdrew after they became bogged down by a Somali insurgency.
“That effort was not universally successful and led, in fact, to the rise of al-Shabab after [Ethiopia] pulled out,” Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told reporters Tuesday.
Al-Shabab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, has imposed a harsh version of Islamic law in parts of Somalia and organized attacks elsewhere in East Africa, including suicide bombings and kidnappings in Uganda and Kenya. While some foreign radicals — including Somali Americans — have joined the group’s ranks, U.S. counterterrorism officials say the movement is divided between those who share al-Qaeda’s global aims and others who want to confine their actions to Somalia.
The Obama administration has not directly criticized Kenya or Ethiopia for entering Somalia, saying it is legitimate for both countries to defend themselves against al-Shabab attacks on their territory. But the administration has urged both to withdraw as soon as possible and instead help expand a 9,000-member African Union peacekeeping force in Mogadishu that is composed of U.S.-trained troops from Uganda and Burundi.
“We have always been very cautious, prudent, concerned about the neighbors getting involved,” said a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.