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The January operation would be, in effect, the first combat mission of Africa Command, and it would not go as planned.

But other than that, the great rush of rats fleeing the sinking ship has not yet materialized, and so the Marines took up residence in an old French Foreign Legion base located on Djibouti's rocky shore, just outside the capital.

Uncomfortable just sitting around, the Marines quickly refashioned the task force with the blessing of General John Abizaid, then head of Central Command, who envisioned Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) as a sort of strategic inoculant.

Eventually, Al Qaeda's penetration of Muslim Africa will happen -- witness the stunning recent appearance of suicide bombers in Casablanca -- and either the three D's will answer this challenge, or this road show will close faster than you can say "Black Hawk down."After being ignored since the beginning of time (save for its slaves and its treasure), Africa just got strategically important enough for us to care about.

And the Bush administration's decision to set up Africa Command is historic, but not for the reasons given or assumed.

In fact, its senior leaders wanted to keep America's participation entirely secret.

The goal was for Ethiopia to get all the credit, further bolstering America's controversial but burgeoning military ties with Meles Zenawi's increasingly authoritarian regime.

The return of the foreign fighters to Mogadishu's nasty mix, along with Ethiopia's fit of pique, quickly sent the situation in Somalia spiraling downward.

The transitional Somali government, backed by the United Nations, is faltering, and in scenes reminiscent of America's last misadventures in Mog, both Ethiopian troops and African Union peacekeepers are taking fire from 360 degrees' worth of pissed-off Somali clans determined to -- once again -- drive off the invading infidels.

There's oil here, but the United States would get its share whether Africa burns or not, and it's actually fairly quiet right now.

The Chinese are here en masse, typically embedded with regimes we can't stand or can't stand us, like Sudan and Zimbabwe.

If the Marines weren't going to get to kill anybody, then they'd train the locals to do it instead.


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