July 25, 2011

Al-Shabab Starving Itself to Death

Somalis are dying one of the slowest, most painful deaths imaginable. Unable to find food or water, thousands continue to stream out of the southern region to Somalia's borders, or to Mogadishu. Cyclical drought has imploded the agro-economy by killing off 80% of livestock, reducing Somalis’ possessions to their clothing. Of an estimated 3.8 million people in need of immediate humanitarian assistance, World Food Program (the UN’s food and aid division) says it can only reach 1.5 million.

The scale of Somalia’s disaster has tragically exceeded the international community’s capabilities; remove all the red tape and people are still going to die in large numbers. UN officials admit that despite al-Shabab’s defiance of its surroundings and the West, its main strongholds in Bakool, Gedo and Lower Shabelle haven’t fared qualitatively worse than the rest of southern Somalia. Nevertheless, the insurgency poses one of the main obstacles to alleviating mass suffering.

"We know that the epicenter of this famine and drought are in Somalia,” explains Josette Sheeran, executive director of WFP. “We are able to reach about 1.5 million people in Somalia. But there's about 2.2 million people that are not able to be reached. We welcome the opening to look to ways to reach people. We'll talk with local authorities and we'll act where we can go."

Days ago al-Shabab reverted from its previous position that aid groups can begin operating in their territory. This move was expected given reports of internal disagreement, but the UN’s definition of “famine” touch a hyper-sensitive nerve. As if waiting for an excuse to backtrack, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told reporters in Mogadishu, “The UN is exaggerating the droughts in Somalia. They say famine exists here, it is lie, it is false. The report was written by unaware individuals and is politically motivated.”

Rage also issued the usual claims of foreign intelligence agents embedded as aid workers.

Our last analysis predicted that al-Shabab’s main objective was to stall for time, regroup and use aid groups as a shield against TFG and AU operations. Flipping its posture doesn’t cancel out this plan, but instead adds new complications and delays. TFG officials say the humanitarian crisis has assumed top priority and, even if it refuses aid, al-Shabab is still hiding behind the disaster. A “hearts and minds” campaign appeared to be a strategic component rather than the primary goal, and was accordingly sacrificed first.

The flaw in this strategy isn’t reneging on the aid groups so much as losing a starving population and what was left of its support. Now Somalia’s catastrophe, whether a “famine” or not, is shaping up as the final straw that could break al-Shabab. On top of the drought, increasing drain on its recruitment and finances, and the threat of government/AU/Ethiopian assault, TFG spokesman Omar Osman has mused on the possibility of an international intervention.

As the UN Food and Agricultural Organization convenes an emergency summit in Rome, the summit already announced that it will not seek additional aid pledges for the 1.6$ billion Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has appealed for. Instead it “will look at possible measures to address the crisis,” starting with an airlift into al-Shabab territory. The first airlift of aid, estimated to relieve 175,000 people, is due for a trial run in Mogadishu, and WFP says it wants to establish 70 distribution points in four districts. One must assume that if the UN cannot fully distribute aid in Mogadishu, the safest part of Somalia, the south will receive only a superficial level of assistance.

"We feel an imperative to try to get closer however we can,” said Sheeran. “Humanitarian aid at scale cannot get into hard-core areas of (militant) control, but you build up the ability for people to come out in different directions and get the aid they need.”

Osman doesn’t explicitly speak of military intervention is asking for outside help. However the thought appears to be on his mind; a massive civilian initiative demands equivalent security arrangements. Likely seeing an opening to kill two birds with one stone, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) may seize this opportunity to expand the country’s U.S.-African military presence. A new UN-mandated peacekeeping force could establish dual missions with AMISOM, working in tandem on the military and civilian side. Large-scale airstrikes would be counterproductive, but Western tactical units already operating inside the country could expand their presence and raise a sufficient diversion by themselves.

Any Western military intervention has the potential to backfire through civilian causalities and historic distrust, and inherently presents a myriad of financial and logistics challenges. Al-Shabab will certainly attempt to rekindle its anti-American/anti-interventionist narrative. However Somalis are largely consumed with their own survival and they might welcome any outside assistance at this point. Although we don’t necessarily approve of the idea, it remains the most feasible military response to Somalia’s emergency.

al-Shabab will likely reverse course again on its aid ban, but it will not survive without adapting to a historic drought and looming famine. Mother Nature's fury is infinitely stronger than the TFG.


  1. The children, the children.

    Why is it that it is always the innocent children that suffer the most.

    Food and water have been weaponized.

  2. Tragic doesn't do justice to Somalia's catastrophe.

    I don't blame it all on the West, but only now is the international community truly starting to pay attention. I get the feeling that Western capitals are more concerned with their reputation than the Somali people.