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The revelations about the America’s covert military involvement in Somalia — where the Al Qaeda spin-off group al-Shabab has been gathering strength for years — keep coming. A recent report in The New York Times lays out the extent of U.S. reliance on private contractors in the fight against Somali militants. The people the State Department has indirectly funded to train African Union troops include a former French army officer named Richard Rouget, who now works for the American private security company Bancroft.

“Urban fighting is a war of attrition, you nibble, nibble, nibble,” he told the Times. “Give me some technicals” — a term for heavily armed pickup trucks — “and some savages and I’m happy,” he joked.

“Savages?” Seriously? As if there weren’t enough parallels with colonialism. The Bancroft team consists of about 40 former soldiers from South Africa, Scandinavia, and France. And yet these contractors, with whatever opinions and backgrounds and training they might have, are increasingly the face of the United States in Somalia.

As is always the case with private military contractors, the United States is still spending money for armed men to represent its government, but without subjecting them to the kind of oversight that applies to the regular military or even intelligence agency. The article also mentions that some of the people hired by these private firms have past experiences fighting in African wars, making it difficult to ascertain their local allegiances and potentially shaky human rights records. (The report adds to last month’s revelation that the CIA is operating a secret training facility and prison in Mogadishu.)

This isn’t to say that Bancroft and other contractors are totally ineffective; on the contrary, they are credited with vastly improving African troops’ skills, and the al-Shabab militants withdrew from Mogadishu for the first time in years. And with fears that the al-Shabab could launch an attack on the West, many consider such gains invaluable.

But the fact remains that the United States is spending millions of dollars on military and para-military operations in Somalia with little public debate.

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