August 1, 2011

Updates From Somalia’s Fronts

African Union Schedules Drought Conference
Organizing a global summit requires an unavoidable amount of time and effort. Already confronted with a regional drought stretching over an estimated 12 million people, the African Union has circled August 9th to address Somalia’s humanitarian crisis. The announcement was made after Erastus Mwencha, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), visited Mogadishu to coordinate with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Unfortunately for starving and roofless (and now drenched) Somalis, the next nine days will feel like 90.

As the U.S., UN, TFG and al-Shabaab point fingers at each other, only a combination of factors can fully explain Somalia’s aid controversy. Remove al-Shabaab and the task of feeding over three million people would certainly accelerate. However it remains to be seen where al-Shabaab is responsible, and where a lack of infrastructure poses the real obstacle. The African Union wisely adopted the drought as a political shield, but danger lies in scapegoating al-Shabaab, potentially creating a backlash between Washington, UN and TFG.

The AU claims to have foreknowledge of al-Shabaab’s next Ramadan offensive, which will supposedly target internally displaced (IDP) camps and food distribution centers in Mogadishu. For this reason AU units launched their new offensive “to push the militants' front line farther back from the camps.” al-Shabaab is very capable of attacking IDP camps out of spite for leaving their territory - to send a warning - and highways through Mogadishu must be cleared to reach those still trapped in al-Shabaab territory.

At the same time, the TFG asserts control over 80% of Mogadishu’s population. Why must AU units secure the whole city to feed the majority of inhabitants, to utilize the capital’s port near the airport, or to begin moving supplies south? The AU can have good intentions and still excuse its looming invasion of the Bakaara market, al-Shabaab’s most lucrative stronghold, on “protecting aid agencies.”

Offensive and Counter-Offensive

The AU has eyed Bakaara since landing in Mogadishu and, with momentum finally at its back, is perched to crash upon the market from three sides. This pre-emptive strategy didn’t stop Paddy Ankunda, AMISOM’s spokesman, from releasing a statement explaining, "Our troops have dealt with specific security threats in a short tactical offensive operation.” The assault around Bakaara, he said, was to “ensure that aid agencies can continue to operate and get vital supplies to internally displaced persons.”

It’s true that Wadnaha Road, a key highway fronting the Bakaara market to the south, recently opened to civilians after being locked down by al-Shabaab. Problematically, moving through Bakaara and the rest of Wardhigley will create more IDPs. António Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, warned, "An offensive on Thursday by pro-government forces in and around the important Bakara and Balcad markets has increased the risk for Mogadishu's citizens as well as the estimated 100,000 internally displaced people (IDP) who have fled drought and famine in neighboring regions in recent months.”

AU troops moved all the way up to Ali-Kamin junction, a mile north near Mogadishu stadium, before retreating under heavy insurgent fire. Feeding the starving and protecting aid workers are surely priorities, but the AU appears most concerned with taking advantage of al-Shabaab’s vulnerability under the cover of moving aid. While time is running out for many Somalis, the AU’s offensive may be self-defeating if new casualties are created on the way to their rescue.

al-Shabaab Claims U.S. Kill

Somalia’s insurgency has fallen on hard times since last Ramadan. After failing to topple the government as promised, the AU counter-attacked in Mogadishu as TFG, Ethiopian and Ahlu Sunna forces assaulted al-Shabaab’s western and northern fronts. Coupled with a November-December leadership dispute and an epic drought, and al-Shabaab is now being written off by a number of analysts. Although the group may eventually die out, insurgencies are known to survive longer than anticipated despite a loss of popular support and financing.

The TFG and AU are now sharing the Afghan government’s pain of “controlling” territory, only for al-Shabaab to infiltrate and strike behind enemy lines. In Mogadishu, the insurgents hold actual districts rather than maintaining an active underground presence across the city. Once these maze-like districts are seized, they can still strike into government territory and destabilize security. On Sunday gunmen killed a TFG parliamentarian in Hamarweine, home to many government buildings and usually controlled by the AU.

If al-Shabaab learns from last Ramadan and adopts a more realistic goal of holding its districts, the odds of political assassination likely outweigh attacks on IDP camps or aid centers. The group has also allowed access to "non-political" groups such as the International Red Cross and Kuwaiti-based International Islamic Charitable Organization (IICO).

In another piece of counter-propaganda, Sheikh Abi-aziz abu Mus’ab held a press conference in Mogadishu to declare that a senior U.S. official had been killed in Hodan district. “The man used to train AMISOM and he was also a senior advisor,” said Mus’ab, an al-Shabaab spokesman, adding, “We will soon display his identity and all other documents we have to make it proof.” Although the insurgency is liable to produce disinformation at any time, U.S. trainers likely have more duties than interrogation and maintaining drones.

Jeremy Scahill’s exclusive reporting to The Nation infers a deeper arrangement, one that routinely circumvents the TFG by paying its own agents or outfitting the AU. 30 CIA agents supposedly operate at Mogadishu’s detention center/drone base, and some presumably work in the field training Somali intelligence officials or AU personnel. The Pentagon already “approved plans to send $45 million worth of military equipment to Uganda and Burundi, the two major forces the AMISOM operation.”

Scahill also mentions a draft of a defense spending bill approved in late June by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Another $75 million in U.S. counterterrorism assistance would escalate AMISOM’s budget, specifically because the Somali military cannot “exercise control of its territory.”

Facing enemies on all sides, al-Shabaab hopes to raise the U.S. flag and provoke new local hostility. We believe that, barring civilian casualties, Somalis are too absorbed in their survival to hate the West. Regardless, a U.S. response often follows these types of casualties so the possibility warrants consideration. While some TFG officials have mused over international military action, Washington seems to have its hands full with green-lighting donations.

When, though, does the Pentagon and CIA waste an opportunity to strike?

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