July 30, 2011

Somalia’s Battle For Aid

Parallel battles are unfolding amid Somalia's epic drought. On the bureaucratic side, Western governments and aid organizations continue to struggle with financing a multi-billion dollar rescue operation. In far-off Washington, al-Shabab’s red tape conceals ulterior suspicions of a corrupt Transitional Federal Government (TFG), despite its improving performance. This political friction multiplies once it hits the parched earth, where thousands of tons of aid must be distributed throughout some of the world’s worst infrastructure.

Waiting on these roads is al-Shabab, blamed by the U.S. and African Union for obstructing the flow at Mogadishu.

As the UN untangles itself from the controversy of a full storehouse, AU troops have launched a pincer assault on al-Shabab to seize new districts in the capital. Military campaigns usually involve multiple objectives and the AU appears to be tossing the UN an umbrella in the melee. With al-Shabab tied up with Somali and Ethiopian troops on the southwestern front, the opportunity to seize entire districts has drifted in front of AMISOM’s positions. al-Shabab simply has too many obstacles to identify and the AU senses weakness - but commanders have also blamed the group for blocking humanitarian aid.

Each day several planes land in Mogadishu to unload their foodstuffs. As the UN's World Food Program (WFP) feeds some hundreds of thousands in the capital (half of its 1.8 million people are estimated to be IDP’s), the AU reports that al-Shabab just sent reinforcements to hold their remaining territory.

The latest AU offensive began Thursday and immediately ran into an ambush while encircling the Bakaara market. AMISOM has spent the last six months securing those districts around Villa Somalia and the parliament building (Bondhere and Hamar Weyne) and encroaching upon the infamous arms market, which al-Shabab taxes to considerable effect. The AU has since taken Hodan and parts of Hawl Wadag, where the Bakaara market lies, in an attempt to squeeze al-Shabab into the neighboring districts. This process resulted in numerous militant and civilian casualties, but has so far avoided the bloodbath of a frontal raid. AU spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said the force now controls the west, south and eastern flanks, meaning an assault could be coming sooner than later.

He also claimed that AU units are already moving toward al-Shabab’s next stronghold, Mogadiscio Stadium, located roughly a mile northeast in Wardhigley district. Even recent gains, however, leave the AU with a sizable expanse of territory to rest away from an increasingly desperate group. al-Shabab needs popular support to topple the government, but concentrated mobile warfare could maintain a stalemate in the capital. 3,000 additional AMISOM troops are scheduled to deploy by the end of summer to counter this possibility.

The main question in terms of aid is where al-Shabab is holding up distribution, and where the government and NGOs simply cannot deliver food and medicine. The insurgency remains split on allowing open access to all NGOs; only a handful have flown low enough under the radar to continue operations. Al-Shabab’s reinforcements haven’t been independently confirmed as obstructing Mogadishu’s aid, and instead appear to be reinforcing their positions. A paradox also exists in the TFG’s claim that 60% of the city, including the area surrounding Mogadishu’s airport, and 80% of the population is now secured by the government. Why, if al-Shabab is presumed to be choking aid at its source, is the TFG having a difficult time moving supplies south through its own territory?

If these reinforcements do exist, though, they were most likely sent by northern commanders or al-Qaeda operatives firmly opposed to Western agencies. The majority of local reporting has confirmed the opposite feeling within al-Shabab’s southern leadership, which is locally based and more willing to grant access. Last weekend the International Red Cross said it distributed 400 tons of food to Lower Shabelle, one of the hardest hit regions controlled by al-Shabab. Mohamed Bashir Ibrahim, the managing director of Kuwait Direct Aid, said that assessment teams found a child malnutrition rate of 70%, leading them to contact al-Shabab’s regional administration. Two food distribution points were eventually set up.

“Initially, we expected to feed at least 500 children daily in each of the feeding centers located in Kurtunwarey and Bulo-Mareen,” said Ibrahim, “but the number increased to about 1,800 children of every age, including pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers. On average, at least 800 people now come to these feeding centers daily."

Though meager numbers compared to the vast suffering of millions, the food centers themselves demonstrate the patchwork that aid officials must operate under. They also fear that al-Shabab’s orders won’t trickle down to the foot soldiers and local commanders even if they’re given. When officials aren’t navigating al-Sbabab’s hierarchy, they’re swimming through a tribal patchwork to gain access. The slow response to Somalia’s humanitarian disaster can be attributed to all of these factors, rather than the West, TFG or al-Shabab specifically.

In light of the situation's unique circumstances, the international community and TFG/AU do not have the luxury of squabbling with each other. Political friction has impeded Somalia’s resuscitation and is now strangling the response to its drought. An emergency network must be established to coordinate relief efforts; the TFG is working the problem but this operation must be sped up. The TFG faces an immediate dilemma after seizing al-Shabab territory: restoring a semblance of governance to the area. While social services and programs aim to increase their range, Mogadishu’s isolated demands far exceed the TFG’s capacity even if it possessed the necessary authority. Because the political and military tracks multiply each other’s friction, bureaucratic efficiency is key to focusing on security and distribution concerns.

An ideal concept in Somalia, to be sure, but the most realistic option to minimize the people’s suffering.

The question also arises as to whether al-Shabab’s local leadership can be divided by the use of aid. The group is presumed to be allergic to negotiations or compromise, and perhaps nothing exists to pursue if al-Shabab closes ranks. However war normally creates opportunities to foster division, and these efforts don’t seem to be pursued so much as a blunt military offensive. The southern leadership may become more vulnerable to Western aid, allowing the TFG and AU to maintain its focus in Mogadishu and Somalia’s central region, which al-Shabab continues to infiltrate. Waiting becomes less useful now that al-Shabab is stalling and regrouping under the drought and aid organizations - nor does time favor millions of Somalis.

Somalia’s emergency demands immediate action, everywhere and in every possible form. Otherwise the TFG, AU, al-Shabab and the international community will all become mired in an even wider catastrophe.

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