WARARKA BARAAWEPOST TUESDAY 6 april 2010
US seeks delicate balance on Somalia
By KEVIN J KELLEY
The Obama administration may soon increase its already sizable military commitment to Somalia’s weak Transitional Federal Government even as political factors compel the Pentagon to maintain a mainly invisible role in combating an Islamist insurgency.
This delicate balance reflects competing calculations.
On one hand, the United States wants to cripple Al Shabaab militants who it says are linked to US arch-enemy Osama bin Laden and who have threatened to attack Kenya.
That’s the factor driving possible use of US drones in Somali airspace to target Al Shabaab leaders.
On the other hand, Washington worries that high-profile military involvement would serve to strengthen grassroots Somali support for Islamist fighters.
The militants drew on nationalist sentiment in their successful 2008 campaign to evict US-backed Ethiopian occupiers.
Reluctance to intervene directly also stems from what some US officials refer to as “the Somalia syndrome.”
The previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, quickly withdrew US troops from Somalia in 1993 in the face of a political firestorm at home that followed the killing of 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu.
Already at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration clearly has no stomach to dispatch US forces to a third front of the “global war on terror.”
Johnnie Carson, Obama’s top Africa official, was at pains last month to reject suggestions of direct US military action inside Somalia.
“The United States does not plan, does not direct, and does not co-ordinate the military operations of the TFG and we have not and will not be providing direct support for any potential military offensives,” Mr Carson declared at a press briefing.
“Further, we are not providing or paying for military advisers for the TFG. There is no desire to Americanise the conflict in Somalia.”
At the same time, however, the US reserves the option to conduct commando raids inside Somalia when prime targets come into the Pentagon’s sights.
US Special Forces used helicopter gunships to kill a prime Al Qaida suspect in southern Somalia last September.
The Obama administration is also considering expanding its behind-the-scenes assistance to the TFG.
The US has already supplied the government in Mogadishu with 80 tonnes of weapons as well as funds for other military purposes.
Citing unnamed US and Western diplomats, the Associated Press reported last week that the Pentagon may move some drones from a base in the Seychelles to an undisclosed location in the Horn from where they would conduct surveillance operations over Somalia.
Kenya and Djibouti are regarded as two possible sites for a US drone detachment.
Pilotless MQ-9 Reaper aircraft stationed in the Seychelles have been tracking pirates in the Indian Ocean for the past several months.
These drones, with a range of 3,500 kilometres, are potentially more powerful than the type regularly used to hunt and kill Islamist militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But the Reapers operating in East Africa have so far not carried weapons, according to the US Africa Command.
Africom is using facilities in Djibouti and Uganda to train TFG forces as well as African Union troops deployed in Mogadishu.
US military contractors also provide logistical assistance to the African Union force, known as Amisom.
DynCorp, a major Pentagon contractor, recently airlifted 1,700 Ugandan troops into Somalia and removed 850 others as part of a Nato operation to bolster Amisom in the run-up to an expected TFG-led offensive against Shabaab.
Expanded military aid
In co-ordination with Washington, the European Union is also expanding its military aid to the TFG.
Spanish, British, French and German instructors will train 2,000 Somali government soldiers inside Uganda starting this week, the EU announced on March 31.
None of this will make a positive difference, some analysts maintain.
J. Peter Pham, an Africa expert at a US think tank, recently suggested that it is “beyond delusional” to believe that bolstering Amisom forces can succeed where “infinitely more robust” US/UN military contingents failed in the 1990s to defeat a foe less capable than Al Shabaab.
The TFG itself remains inept and unpopular, the United Nations said in a recent report by its Somalia Monitoring Group.
“Despite infusions of foreign training and assistance,” the group observed, “government security forces remain ineffective, disorganised and corrupt — a composite of independent militias loyal to senior government officials and military officers who profit from the business of war and resist their integration under a single command.”
The drone-augmented effort to deter piracy off Somalia’s coast is also falling short of expectations.
Pirate attacks did decline in January and February, but the International Maritime Bureau reported that 5 of 19 attempted ship hijackings succeeded in March.
Similar numbers were recorded in March 2009 when the piracy plague was running rampant.
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