MOGADISHU, Somalia, March 16 (UPI) -- Despite U.S. reluctance to get entangled again in the free-for-all conflict in Somalia, Washington is slowly being caught up in fighting Islamist militants in the lawless Horn of Africa state.
The United States is has been arming the beleaguered Transitional Federal Government penned up in war-ravaged Mogadishu on Somalia's Indian Ocean coast since it was set up, with Ethiopian military support, in December 2006.
Now, as the TFG gets ready for a long-delayed offensive against the Islamists, the United States is getting ready to provide air support and says the fledgling Africa Command is training government troops as well.
The Americans view Somalia -- along with increasingly lawless Yemen across the Gulf of Aden -- as a haven for al-Qaida and its fellow travelers that could threaten both the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.
That makes Somalia difficult to ignore, although memories of the ill-fated Operation Restore Hope in 1992-95, a U.N.-led humanitarian intervention that became a shooting war, militate against another incursion.
The Americans got caught up in Somalia's clan wars. On Oct. 3, 1993, 18 Special Forces troops were killed in a 17-hour battle with heavily armed militiamen in the streets of Mogadishu in which two helicopters were shot down.
The triumphant militia fighters dragged some of the bodies through the streets to humiliate the United States.
It was the longest and bloodiest battle fought by Americans since Vietnam and it made the United States averse to foreign interventions and heavy casualties for years to come.
U.S. forces were withdrawn in August 1995, three years after the operation began.
It was about that time that al-Qaida, then largely unknown in the West, began infiltrating Somalia, primarily to fight the Americans. Osama bin Laden claims his men were involved in the October 1993 fighting, in which hundreds of Somalis were also killed.
These days, U.S. intelligence maintains that al-Qaida is heavily involved in Somalia's chaos and is allied with al-Shebab, the main Islamist armed group fighting the Western-backed TFG.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama does not want to get dragged into another war while it is fighting in Afghanistan and trying to withdraw from Iraq.
But apart from the problems of overstretching U.S. military capabilities, the main worry concerning Somalia is antagonizing the country's war-weary people and driving them into al-Qaida's arms.
This is a dilemma the Americans also face in Yemen and in Pakistan, and it is in this regard that the memories of the 1993 carnage in Mogadishu, enshrined in the book and movie entitled "Black Hawk Down," are sharpest.
"I think the Obama administration would rather the Somalia just went away," said Bronwyn Bruton of New York's Council of Foreign Relations, for whom she has just released a report on Somalia.
She says that Washington cannot afford to ignore what's happening on Somalia, but believes that U.S. support for the TFG will remain limited and won't involve boots on the ground.
"The United States has no desire for a sequel of 'Black Hawk Down' coming out in theaters," said Bayless Parsley, Africa analyst with the global security consultancy Stratfor.
Meantime, as the TFG musters its forces for the push against al-Shebab and its clan allies, the Americans are seeking to coordinate their efforts to provide military to the TFG with the European Union.
This is being done primarily through the Africa Command, established in 2008 to oversee U.S. military operations in Africa, primarily training and non-lethal operations.
However, there is a growing suspicion in Africa that Africom's primary mission is to protect energy resources which the United States wants and the new command's involvement in Somalia could point to a more hands-on presence than has been apparent so far.
On March 4, U.S. Army Gen. Richard J. Sherlock, Africom's director of strategy, plans and programs, visited Brussels and informed members of the EU Council and the European Commission that the command launched a training program for non-commissioned officers in the TFG's armed forces.
He disclosed that the Pentagon is also planning to train TFG troops and those of the 4,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, known as Amisom, in coping with improvised explosive devices.