The Pentagon is considering dispatching surveillance drones and other limited military support for a Somali government offensive against al-Qaida-linked insurgents, U.S. officials said, part of a cautious move to increase U.S. assistance to the anarchic African nation.
U.S. diplomats are pressing Somali leaders to detail the goals of the looming assault, in order to figure out the most appropriate ways the U.S. can help.
Determined to avoid a visible American footprint on the ground or fingerprints on Somalia's shaky government, U.S. officials are struggling to find the right balance between seizing the opportunity to take out al-Qaida insurgents there and avoiding the appearance of a U.S. occupation.
Any U.S. moves in Somalia are haunted by the disastrous 1993 U.S. military assault into the Somali capital — made famous in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down." The strike left 18 U.S. soldiers dead.
American diplomats have been meeting in Kenya with leaders of Somalia's embattled government, urging them to think beyond military objectives and focus more on improving their governing.
U.S. officials want the Somali government to determine how to provide services to its people once the fighting is over, and work to gain support among more moderate groups.
While American diplomats are huddling with the Somalis in the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Pentagon leaders are preparing a range of options to help boost Somalia's weak security forces.
One proposal would move surveillance drones to the Horn of Africa from an island in the Seychelles, where several unarmed Reaper systems were sent last fall for counter-piracy operations in the western Indian Ocean. The move would represent a more enduring U.S. commitment, which also would be largely invisible to the population.
Armed versions of the pilotless aircraft have been used to tail and fire missiles at militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, but the U.S. has also used them in Yemen to monitor insurgents from the air.
U.S. defense and Western diplomatic officials spoke about the deliberations on condition of anonymity because final decisions have not been made.
While administration officials said that sending U.S. troops into the embattled country is not seen as a viable option, they say they are not ruling out the use of small numbers of U.S. commandos when necessary for specific operations — much as they have done in the past.
Right now, however, there are no American military advisers in Somalia assisting the government there, and the U.S. is not managing or planning any of the military operations. Officials said the Somali government has not yet made any specific request for military aid.
"This is not an American conflict," Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson told reporters in a recent briefing. "It will be up to the Somalis to ultimately resolve this conflict. The U.S., along with others in the international community, can contribute in a supporting role, which we do and acknowledge, but not to become directly engaged in any of the conflict on the ground there."
Officials are concerned that any taint of U.S. interference or direct military support will only fuel the Somali insurgency. Over the past year or two, al-Shabab has grown from a clan-based collection of militants to a terror organization more closely aligned with al-Qaida.
U.S. officials have become increasingly concerned that battle-hardened al-Qaida insurgents are moving out of havens along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border into Somalia, where vast ungoverned spaces allow them to train and mobilize recruits without interference. Officials also warn that militants frequently cross the Gulf of Aden, moving between Yemen and Somalia.
At the same time, young Somalis have traveled from the United States back to Somalia to fight with the insurgents, stoking fears that they could return to plot attacks in the U.S.
The bulk of U.S. aid that has recently been sent to Somalia has been delivered to Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti. Several African nations have pledged forces to the African Union's peacekeeping force in Somalia, known as AMISOM, and there are now more than 5,000 troops stationed in the country.
But in several previous operations the U.S. has provided intelligence and surveillance information, and — as recently as last September — delivered a surgical strike against a convoy that reportedly killed powerful insurgent Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan.
The Somalis have been saying for months that government troops will soon launch an offensive against al-Shabab in an effort to expand the government's area of control. But widespread problems, including corrupt officials and a lack of supplies, have delayed the launch.
Urged on by Osama bin Laden, al-Shabab is trying to topple Somalia's government and install a strict form of Islam.
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