September 4, 2010

Are US Marines Somalia’s Only Hope?

The propaganda war raging in Mogadishu nears the military activity in its streets. African Union (AU) officials disseminate statements of repelling al-Shabab’s offensive, seizing its bases, and holding territory. Much is propaganda. Though hardly objective, sometimes al-Shabab's actions leave an undeniable impression. A few sparks fizzle when the AU and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) promise a “major offensive.”

When al-Shabab vows a major offensive, hotels are bombed, main roads overrun, and mortars regularly slam into Villa Somalia, the presidential palace.

The last ten days have been particularly ugly in Mogadishu. After storming the Muna hotel and targeting Somali parliament members, al-Shabab fought its way up and shut down Mekka-al-mukarama, a strategic avenue connecting government ministries that also links to the Bakara arms market. Villa Somalia has come under increasing attack, with AU forces halting one al-Shabab incursion at their last line of tanks, and a mortar recently struck the compound killing four AU soldiers. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in the crossfire.

And TFG soldiers, the few that exist, stand helplessly behind the AU ranks. "When you ask the soldiers why they are not fighting, they reply, 'We have no bullets, we have no salaries,'” said Said Yusef Abdullah, 22, who fled his home and was searching for a place to sleep. "I don't blame them."

al-Shabab’s offensive is clearly designed to knockout the TFG before AU reinforcements arrive. Only 750 of the 4,000 soldiers pledged at July’s AU summit in Kampala, Uganda have been deployed and al-Shabab is hoping to beat the rest to Villa Somalia. But it likely understands that its raw numbers cannot displace the AU’s 7,000 troops; al-Shabab’s estimated 5,000 troops cannot all deploy to Mogadishu, as they must hold their southern territory while advancing. Thus al-Shabab is liable to enhance its assault with a series of high-profile bombings on TFG positions to destroy the AU’s credibility and create further doubt in African and Western capitals.

Prematurely toppling the TFG would give contributing countries new reason to reinforce the AU’s AMISOM mission, but could also scare them away from what is now an even deadlier challenge. The end result is financial depravity. Uganda's Chief of Defence Forces, General Aronda Nyakairima, told reporters on Thursday that “inadequate financing by the international community” could cause Uganda to re-think its presence in Somalia. Uganda is the main contributor to the AU’s AMISOM force with 4,750 soldiers.

Though surely a bluff - Uganda is eager for retaliation - a lack of funds is no lie, and coordination isn’t so rosy as US, AU, and UN officials portray in their united front. A UN delegation led by B. Lynn Pascoe, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, is putting on a well-intentioned show in Mogadishu, but shortfalls in troops, resources, and time have generated substantial uncertainty around AMISOM. A lack of US funding suggests nagging doubts in the TFG’s ability to govern and prevent corruption of international funds.

Taking Mogadishu and driving AU forces “into the sea” is too ambitious for al-Shabab, but spreading doubt behind the curtains of a publicly optimistic international community has already been achieved. And the possibility of the TFG’s collapse is real enough to secretly and not-so secretly terrify those government involved.

In Uganda, General Nyakairima told The Daily Monitor that 1,000 troops were prepared for immediate deployment, half of the 2,000 emergency forces pledged in the weeks before al-Shabab bombed Kampala. Highlighting the truth of US strategy in Somalia, Nyakairima said the troops wouldn’t launch until Washington paid up. Though Uganda holds a regional stake in the conflict, Ugandan troops are first and foremost operating as US mercenaries to avoid direct US intervention. Said Nyakairima, “We can even call up to 10,000 but that will depend on whether the United States supports us or not.

He doesn’t mean political cover. Nyakairima explained. "We don’t want to overstretch our budget by calling up our [reserve] forces and then we have to even pay their salary. To my knowledge, America has undertaken to support that undertaking; that when we call up [the reserves], they will do this. But we will be waiting and see what happens."

US officials have yet to comment on the latest developments. They may not, but Uganda is ready for war as soon as Washington approves the transfer.

The sheer number of reports and denials also indicate, regardless of the whole truth, that Ethiopian troops have increased their activity on Somalia’s western border. Multiple incursions were reported during August, all denied by Ethiopian and TFG officials, thus Ethiopia’s military is active to some degree inside Somalia’s border. With Uganda awaiting its funds and Ethiopia itching for a fight after repeated border skirmishes with al-Shabab, Washington could have arranged for a military diversion with Addis Ababa.

Voice of America reports that one of Ethiopia’s objectives, other than “possibly paving the way” for an AU offensive, is to, “draw al-Shabab's attention and resources away from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, where the al-Qaida-linked group has recently redoubled their effort to topple the Somali government.”

These events feed back into al-Shabab’s strategy and methods for responding. al-Shabab cannot hope to take Mogadishu while also holding minor cities like Kismayo and Beledweyne, which Ethiopia allegedly and briefly entered several days ago. So will al-Shabab exhaust its strength before deterring AU reinforcements from reaching the capital? How vulnerable is it to counterattack, both during and after its offensive? And who should counterattack if the opportunity presents itself?

Many reasons exist to cap foreign troop levels and allow the TFG to sink or swim. One cannot exclude the possibility that this option may improve upon stalemate between al-Shabab and the AU, the inevitable result without a political solution, as counterinsurgency cannot succeed without a functioning government. al-Shabab’s factions could splinter upon losing their AU focus-point, a likelier possibility than al-Qaeda’s transnational agenda dividing the group. Conversely, the AU and the West aren’t in position to gamble Mogadishu’s fate above al-Qaeda’s shadowy hands.

Given this reality, new forces must be anticipated.

Yet 1,000 reserve Ugandan troops offer no answer to one of the world’s most demanding counterinsurgencies, and neither are 10,000 in the absence of a national and regional political solution. Ethiopia, still blamed for the current power vacuum after withdrawing 20,000 troops 2009, remains too unpopular to conduct counterinsurgency. So too goes the theory of US troops. Though Somalia’s conflict doesn’t trace specifically to Black Hawk Down, the event is burned into the US psyche and has inhibited support for proper action. So desperate is President Barack Obama to appear out of Somalia while knee deep in it that Washington has deployed US Special Forces as battlefield shapers and contracted the general mission to Uganda and the AU.

Instead of paying them to fight Somalia’s war, perhaps America should finally overcome its historical fear and pay its own troops to do the job.

The United States Marine Corps might welcome the challenge of exorcising Black Hawk Down. US forces may also attract the least Somali resistance out of all possible foreign troops so long as they operate under a strict counterinsurgency mandate, though that is easier said than done. Colonel Ahmed Mohammed, a TFG commander trying to hold his poorly-equipped troops together, pleaded for US assistance: "They must forget this pain (Black Hawk Down) and realize that we share a common threat coming from international terrorism.”

Adding a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) to the mix would, among many factors, ensure a reliable supply of funds. US Marines have achieved a long record of policing operations, including 1992’s Unified Task Force (UNITAF) in Mogadishu, and the capital still requires the constant presence Marine brigade provides and the AU lacks. Their role would take on a military-police operation over a conventional, urban assault. Of course the Marines would lead the heavy fighting too, concentrating on driving al-Shabab’s rank and file out of the capital and freeing up the AU and UN for peacekeeping operations. The Marines should function as a one or two-year transition to a more stable and robust AU mission.

And given that any new deployments to Somalia necessitate a workable political system, South Africa must be persuaded by a comprehensive strategy to add its forces. A US-South African front would provide the ideal cover for direct US involvement, tapping Africa’s leading nation to push the vital - and currently absent - message of Pan-Africanism to counter al-Qaeda’s own message of Islamic jihad.

There’s no certifiable way of knowing whether the Marines would rescue Mogadishu and, more importantly, establish a sustainable mission going forward. Many foreseen and unforeseen events could stall an offensive during the initial push or deeper in al-Shabab territory. al-Shabab won’t risk its entire force on one final push into Mogadishu; it expects AU reinforcements, anticipates Western air-strikes, and is preparing for rural guerrilla warfare. But insurgencies are based on the past and must be amended if possible, and Black Hawk Down must be confronted rather than ignored.

Somalia has passed the point where America can ignore its history and future in the conflict. All options must be reviewed during a catastrophe.


  1. Corps is spelled with an "s" at the end.
    United States Marine Corps.

  2. Your facts are wrong. First AMISOM has a force of 7000 in Somalia, secondly, it's not propaganda to say that AU forces have established 9 new positions in Mogadishu. These can be viewed by anyone willing to venture in Mogadishu. Thirdly, the forces are not there to bring peace but to create an environment where the Somalis can re-organize their forces and take on Al Shabaab. No foreigner will resolve the Somalis issues for the Somalis. I also disagree that the US marines in Mogadishu would improve the situation. If anything they would galvanize the Somali population against a Western, Christian invader and would turn Somalia into the next battleground for the Global Jihadist. Foreign fighters are already flocking to Somalia in droves and US troops would only exarcerbate the situation.

    I would also like to pay tribute to the two troop contributing countries of Burundi and Uganda. These two countries are poor and could be doing something else with their forces. No amount of money that Western powers could provide would match the sacrifices of these two countries! These are African countries trying to help their African brothers with the limited means that they have. Let's have the decency of respecting their courage to venture in a place that everyone else has ran away from!

  3. It's astonishing that anyone would propose dispaching US marines to Somalia at a time when the US is not only withdrawing from Iraq but is desperately searching for a face-saving way to extricate itself from its disasterous war in Afghanistan.

  4. This analysis was written earlier in the week as Ugandan forces were deployed, and has been updated to reflect that.

    The controversy of US Marines in Somalia cannot be disputed. Most of our previous analysis has taken the position of non-intervention and we do not necessarily advocate US troops, only to stimulate new debate at a time when US militarization appears inevitable. AU forces have already galvanized al-Shabab's base, and in a way are still foreigners, although not to the extent that Americans are. Marines completed a fairly successful tour in Somalia before the events of Black Hawk Down and it's possible that they could repeat the task.

    Nor should US troops be deployed without a reliable political system in place at the national and regional level. The AU does play a major role in Somalia, but the question remains of whether it needs augmentation. Iraq and Afghanistan are victims of bad decision-making and, to an extent, execution. Somalia, though a difficult operation, doesn't need to repeat these failures with proper planning.

    My next analysis will focus almost solely on the regional politics of Somalia, Somaliland, and Puntland.