January 12, 2011

Somalia's Security Forces in Catch 22

Despite the African Union’s eagerness to increase its forces in Mogadishu, courtesy of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, it is nevertheless aware of this strategy’s unsustainable nature. Pumping in thousands of AU troops serves as a temporarily filling to Somalia’s vacuum until its own security forces can stand on their feet. At least that’s the theory; the African Union Mission for Somalia's (AMISOM) mandate specifically includes the training of Somalia’s Police Force.

Thus from time to time, amid the AU’s clamor for more troops, one reads of various units financed by the EU and UN, training away in Uganda or Kenya.

The historic problem is that Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its AU guardian don’t always pay these troops. Those training in neighboring lands are fortunate compared to the soldiers deployed on Mogadishu’s streets, or in the al-Shabab-controlled border cities of Beledweyne or Beled Hawo. Accounts of the TFG’s fighting abilities aren’t flattering; they prefer to stay behind their AU or Ethiopian support, often remaining inactive during battle.

Few can blame them either. Untrained and ill-equipped, unpaid for months, and likely hungry - who wants to fight al-Shabab like that?

The good news, for now, is that the lights are back on. Having fulfilled December’s $100 salary, Defense Minister Abdulhakeem Mohamud Haji promised that January's paycheck would also arrive in full. Given the TFG and AU’s latest push for new resources from the West, it appears that a sum has been deposited in the TFG’s bank account. And not a moment too soon. With TFG and AU officials publicly declaring a city-wide clearing operation of Mogadishu, their ideal offensive will likely peter out if AU troops go in alone.

Not because the AU necessarily needs the TFG’s help, but because the AU cannot fight Somalia’s counterinsurgency alone indefinitely. The TFG needs to stick its face out in front.

“As the government takes care of you, we ask that you increase your efforts in defending the country from enemies both from within and from without,” Haji ordered in a statement on Monday.

Unfortunately too much time has already elapsed, potentially wasting a death blow to al-Shabab. According to Colonel Hassan Muse, a TFG commander, salaries hadn’t been paid for seven months before December, a sober reality that spawned numerous accounts of al-Shabab defections. The group even set up kiosks to absorb TFG soldiers into its ranks and pay out small sums for government weapons, often supplied by America. Conversely, those seeking to defect from al-Shabab had nowhere to turn.

“A number of soldiers left the job and some of them went overseas as refugees, while others are joining the insurgents to make a living,” Muse said. “I am optimistic that if the government continues to pay the soldiers on a regular basis, security will improve.”

Without underestimating al-Shabab, Somalia's security forces don't need to be built up to extreme levels like the 300,000-man Afghan army. If the TFG can manage to keep Western funds flowing - a condition predicated on good performance - then AU and EU trainers are still capable of drilling Somalia’s military and police to a functioning level of 20,000-30,000. This, of course, is a big if.

Although Somalia’s new cabinet, selected by incoming Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed "Farmajo,” was designed to impress the West, another political dispute may be rearing its ugly head in anticipation of the TFG’s expiring mandate in August.

With nearly 100 seats empty in Somalia’s 550 seat Parliament, political sources told Garowe that President Sharif Ahmed is attempting to fill them with allies in order to pass a term extension (hello, Yemen). Speaker Sharif Hassan refused to swear in new MPs chosen by Sharif, insisting that a new Federal Constitution will ultimately give way to a presidential election. Somalia’s constitutional void wasn’t addressed by its new cabinet, and debating it until August could lead the TFG to focus more on its own survival than Somalis’.

This magnifies the problems facing the army and police, as their training process doesn’t stop with their deployment. The TFG must continue to train and pay its soldiers which requires governance, a notorious challenge in Somalia.

As for the West, its own dilemma also hinges on the TFG’s performance. With corruption an ever-present ghost to foreign aid, America and the EU are forced to chose whether to release money before the TFG is prepared to handle it, or wait until the TFG has instilled more accountability. The situation is no different than Afghanistan or Yemen.

It’s hard to argue in favor of pouring money down the drain, but delaying also squanders potential opportunities in the field.

Viewed another way and the TFG’s salaries couldn’t come at a worse time. al-Shabab’s transnational and national factions just spent the last three months waging a power struggle, its members resort to theft to fund themselves, and violent treatment of Somalis has pushed at least a few al-Shabab fighters into the TFG’s ranks (although they can’t be many when the government is boasting of seven recruits).

The time to start paying was September.

Now, according to various reports, al-Shabab’s leadership has crystallized around its deputy Mukhtar Robow. With the help of al-Qaeda no less, Robow managed to supplant the transnationalist Moktar Ali Zubeyr “Godane” after the latter refused to merge with Hizbul-Islam, Somalia’s secondary insurgent group. Once the two groups formally united in early December, Zubeyr called for the public execution of Hizbul-Islam chief Hassan Dahir Aweyes. Robow and his supporters also accused Zubeyr of clan politics, which seems redundant in Somalia.

Regardless, the majority of al-Shabab’s ranks allegedly turned on Zubeyr and al-Qaeda leadership inside the country finally cast him out.

With the triumph of Robow, the “moderate” half of al-Shabab’s leadership may be able to retain fighters at a higher rate. al-Shabab’s treatment of civilians probably won’t improve much with the promotion of Robow and addition of Hizbul-Islam, but the nationalistic ideology preferred by most of its soldiers has won out for the moment. An opportunity has been lost during al-Shabab’s power struggle.

Sadly the TFG and AU didn’t even need to militarily pressure the group into splintering. Doubtful that they had the capacity to anyway. But there’s no telling how many recruits could have been sucked out of al-Shabab’s ranks with the simple lure of regular pay. This could become one of the TFG’s main weapons - Somalis must trust in the government's ability to protect them not just month to month, but throughout their lives.

Any future interruptions to the cash flow could knock the wheels off of the TFG's ambitious campaign.

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