Utilizing foreign surrogates is nothing new. Since ancient times, empires and nation-states have employed foreign troops and indigenous forces to wage war or have backed them when it suited their policy aims. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the tactic had become de rigueur for colonial powers like the French who employed Senegalese, Moroccans, and other African forces in Indochina and elsewhere, and the British who regularly used Nepalese Gurkhas to wage counterinsurgencies in places ranging from Iraq and Malaya to Borneo.
By the time the United States began backing the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, it already had significant experience with proxy warfare and its perils. After World War II, the U.S. eagerly embraced foreign surrogates, generally in poor and underdeveloped countries, in the name of the Cold War. These efforts included the attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro via a proxy Cuban force that crashed and burned at the Bay of Pigs; the building of a Hmong army in Laos which ultimately lost to Communist forces there; and the bankrolling of a French war in Vietnam that failed in 1954 and then the creation of a massive army in South Vietnam that crumbled in 1975, to name just a few unsuccessful efforts.
A more recent proxy failure occurred in Iraq. For years after the 2003 invasion, American policy-makers uttered a standard mantra: "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." Last year, those Iraqis basically walked off.
Between 2003 and 2011, the United States pumped tens of billions of dollars into "reconstructing" the country with around $20 billion of it going to build the Iraqi security forces. This mega-force of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police was created from scratch to prop up the successors to the government that the United States overthrew. It was trained by and fought with the Americans and their coalition partners, but that all came to an end in December 2011.
Despite Obama administration efforts to base thousands or tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for years to come, the Iraqi government spurned Washington's overtures and sent the U.S. military packing. Today, the Iraqi government supports the Assad regime in Syria, and has a warm and increasingly close relationship with long-time U.S. enemy Iran. According to Iran's semiofficial Fars News Agency, the two countries have even discussed expanding their military ties.
African Shadow Wars
Despite a history of sinking billions into proxy armies that collapsed, walked away, or morphed into enemies, Washington is currently pursuing plans for proxy warfare across the globe, perhaps nowhere more aggressively than in Africa.
Under President Obama, operations in Africa have accelerated far beyond the more limited interventions of the Bush years. These include last year's war in Libya; the expansion of a growing network of supply depots, small camps, and airfields; a regional drone campaign with missions run out of Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of Seychelles; a flotilla of 30 ships in that ocean supporting regional operations; a massive influx of cash for counterterrorism operations across East Africa; a possible old-fashioned air war, carried out on the sly in the region using manned aircraft; and a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders. (This mission against Kony is seen by some experts as a cover for a developing proxy war between the U.S. and the Islamist government of Sudan -- which is accused of helping to support the LRA -- and Islamists more generally.) And this only begins to scratch the surface of Washington's fast-expanding plans and activities in the region.
In Somalia, Washington has already involved itself in a multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against Islamist al-Shabaab militants that includes intelligence operations, training for Somali agents, a secret prison, helicopter attacks, and commando raids. Now, it is also backing a classic proxy war using African surrogates. The United States has become, as the Los Angeles Times put it recently, "the driving force behind the fighting in Somalia," as it trains and equips African foot soldiers to battle Shabaab militants, so U.S. forces won't have to. In a country where more than 90 Americans were killed and wounded in a 1993 debacle now known by the shorthand "Black Hawk Down," today's fighting and dying has been outsourced to African soldiers.
Earlier this year, for example, elite Force Recon Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12 (or, as a mouthful of an acronym, SPMAGTF-12) trained soldiers from the Uganda People's Defense Force. It, in turn, supplies the majority of the troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) currently protecting the U.S.-supported government in that country's capital, Mogadishu.
This spring, Marines from SPMAGTF-12 also trained soldiers from the Burundi National Defense Force (BNDF), the second-largest contingent in Somalia. In April and May, members of Task Force Raptor, 3rd Squadron, 124th Cavalry Regiment of the Texas National Guard, took part in a separate training mission with the BNDF in Mudubugu, Burundi. SPMAGTF-12 has also sent its trainers to Djibouti, another nation involved in the Somali mission, to work with an elite army unit there.
At the same time, U.S. Army troops have taken part in training members of Sierra Leone's military in preparation for their deployment to Somalia later this year. In June, U.S. Army Africa commander Major General David Hogg spoke encouragingly of the future of Sierra Leone's forces in conjunction with another U.S. ally, Kenya, which invaded Somalia last fall (and just recently joined the African Union mission there). "You will join the Kenyan forces in southern Somalia to continue to push al Shabaab and other miscreants from Somalia so it can be free of tyranny and terrorism and all the evil that comes with it," he said. "We know that you are ready and trained. You will be equipped and you will accomplish this mission with honor and dignity."
Readying allied militaries for deployment to Somalia is, however, just a fraction of the story when it comes to training indigenous forces in Africa. This year, for example, Marines traveled to Liberia to focus on teaching riot-control techniques to that country's military as part of what is otherwise a State Department-directed effort to rebuild its security forces.
In fact, Colonel Tom Davis of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) recently told TomDispatch that his command has held or has planned 14 major joint training exercises for 2012 and a similar number are scheduled for 2013. This year's efforts include operations in Morocco, Cameroon, Gabon, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal, and Nigeria, including, for example, Western Accord 2012, a multilateral exercise involving the armed forces of Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Gambia, and France.
Even this, however, doesn't encompass the full breadth of U.S. training and advising missions in Africa. "We" conduct some type of military training or military-to-military engagement or activity with nearly every country on the African continent," wrote Davis.
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