January 23, 2011

Somali PR Contains Blackwater Leak

Abdulkareem Jama says his country has no need for mercenaries. Yet with few soldiers and policemen of its own, Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) clearly needs all the outside help it can get.

African Union (AU) forces guard the presidential palace, Villa Somalia, and the airport from al-Shabab. European Union (EU) officials busy themselves training Somali recruits in Kenya and Uganda. TFG officials have encouraged periodic U.S. air-strikes on high-profile militants, and an international flotilla patrols Somalia’s horn for pirates.

Though none of these external forces qualifies strictly as mercenaries - each possesses its own security concerns - all of them seek to gain from Somalia's crisis. Having supplied 6,000 of the 8,000 AU troops in Somalia, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni deftly exploited the Kampala bombings to promote his own regional ambitions, and relies on his Western necessity to buffer criticism of his domestic rule. With negligible sympathy for Somalia’s plight, the EU and Asian states vigorously patrol shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden to protect their profits.

Foreign investors envision fields of oil platforms.

And beyond preventing another al-Qaeda safe haven (too late for that), America still entertains hopes of militarizing the region through a semi-stable Somalia. Blackhawk Down compromised the region to U.S. operations and while Washington isn’t eager to deploy ground forces, General David Petraeus has indicated the general direction of U.S. policy with his 2009 Special Forces directive. Securing the Bab-el-Mandeb is a key goal for developed nations going into the 21st century.

TFG officials such as Jama, Somalia’s information minister, understand these quid pro quos and concede them to maintain political and financial support.

Furthermore, the present center of controversy has little to do with real mercenaries. Reports of Saracen International training local anti-piracy forces surfaced in November under a veil of secrecy, generating legitimate concerns over Somalia's arms embargoes and an improper chain of command. Supposedly a resurrection of Executive Outcomes, a security firm populated by South African special forces, Saracen’s Uganda subsidiary was implicated in a 2002 UN Security Council report for training DRC rebels who later went on a criminal spree.

But so far one “fact” has remained consistent: Somalis are being recruited into the force. Whether the United Arab Emirates or Saracen funds and trains these forces is largely irrelevant so long as they’re mostly local. Somalia has ample room for “mercenaries.”

It’s Blackwater that Jama has no use for.

“At this point, our collective thinking is that this is not a good thing,” he said after the company’s founder, Erik Prince, surfaced in connection to Saracen. “We don’t want to have anything to do with Blackwater. We need help, but we don’t want mercenaries.”

Abdulhakim Mohamoud Haji Faqi, Somalia’s defense minister, added, “We will not accept any mercenaries.”

As noted in our previous post, the TFG has spent the last three months setting itself up for a city-wide campaign in Mogadishu. New Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed streamlined Somalia’s cabinet to 18 members while picking what is considered Somalia’s most competent executive branch since 1991. A power-rift in al-Shabab’s leadership allowed for modest gains in the capital, which TFG and AU officials crafted into propaganda by declaring 60% control of Mogadishu.

Hoping to land another 4,000 AU troops before the TFG’s mandate expires at the end of August, Somalia’s new government intends to secure an extension by seizing the entire capital. For that it needs the population’s support, and it has managed to gradually win them over. But Blackwater could flood the TFG's counterinsurgency.

So tainted is the name - Jama listed some of its crimes in Iraq - that the mere specter of Prince jeopardizes both land and sea operations.

“Piracy can only be solved on land,” goes the frequent criticism from TFG and AU officials, starving Somalis, and international observers (including ourselves). And 2010’s statistics bolster a logical conclusion. Despite vigorous patrolling and evolving counter-measures such as laser blinders, pirates captured a record 1,016 hostages in 2010 and currently hold 32 vessels and 746 crew members, according to a recent report by the International Maritime Bureau. Eight hostages died and 13 were wounded, up from four dead and 10 wounded in 2009.

al-Shabab had free reign on land for much of 2010 and continues to operate throughout Somalia.

Naturally international states are responding with even heavier force, as if this will solve the problem. Alan Cole, the head of the U.N.'s anti-piracy program at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said the South Korean and Malaysian navies resorted to commando raids out of frustration: “There is a good chance that navies will increase the numbers of patrols and step up military activity to try and deal with this problem.”

South Korea has already begun consulting Somalia’s neighbors to find a new method for processing pirates, and is hinting at a more aggressive approach and punishment. More money, more problems.

Conversely, UN officials have warned that the AU’s trust fund for Somalia has reached its lowest level. And though the TFG managed to pay its soldiers for December and January, their first paycheck in seven months, it needs $3 million per month (an estimated 10,000 are payed $300) to maintain a national force. A meager sum in itself, corruption has siphoned away much of the funds and scared away donors, while leaving TFG recruits no choice except to consider switching sides.

Naval operations allow for full control and no concern for Somalia itself - a not-so-blissful ignorance. Talk about land affecting sea and vice versa. The naval emphasis already diverts (and wastes) resources by endlessly chasing pirates; now Blackwater’s tainted image threatens the TFG’s land campaign, in turn limiting security efforts at sea. Permanent international navies are no substitute for a local anti-piracy force.

Also noted in our previous post, these private forces have historically generated friction between Somalia, Puntland, and Somaliland. Jama said he hoped that Puntland would, “follow the direction of the federal government and not continue with Saracen.” One week after vowing not to cooperate with the TFG until it established a “federal” government, Puntland’s government just banned the region to all TFG officials lawmakers.

It’s all the more likely to push ahead if the TFG cancels its contract with Saracen.

However, if the TFG does publicly sever its ties with Saracen or Prince (if he’s truly involved), verification is unlikely to follow. Having kept the program secret to “surprise” the pirates, they could simply lie and continue the operation under an even thicker screen. They could keep Saracen’s contract and eliminate Prince so that he doesn’t show up in AU disclosures, or they could start fresh with a new PMC.

In any case, the poison running in Blackwater’s name has proven itself as potent as ever, and the TFG is wise to extinguish this fire before it spreads any further. Prince has already cost the TFG enough time and energy.

What Somalia’s government really doesn’t need is another distraction from its war against al-Shabab.

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