The U.S. State Department Thursday confirmed that Washington is providing arms and ammunition to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia in a bid to thwart its defeat by a loose coalition of radical Islamist militias which, according to some analysts, are linked to al-Qaeda.
The move, which State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said was sanctioned under existing resolutions of the U.N. Security Council, marks an important escalation in U.S. support for the five-month-old presidency of Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a former chairman of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).
"At the request of that government, the State Department has helped to provide weapons and ammunition on an urgent basis," the Department’s spokesman, Ian Kelly, told reporters. "This is to support the Transitional Federal Government’s efforts to repel the onslaught of extremist forces which are intent on destroying the Djibouti peace process."
Washington is also quietly providing training to government officers and recruits in neighboring Djibouti, where hundreds of U.S. troops, including Special Forces, have been based since 9/11, according to other officials.
The transitional Somali government led by President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed is struggling to defend itself against a major offensive launched early last month by al-Shabaab, a hard-line Islamist group that now controls much of southern and central Somalia and all but a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu.
Al-Shabaab (the Youth), which the U.S. labels a terrorist group, is trying to overthrow the U.N.-backed government and install a strict form of Islamic law similar to that imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. They are allied with Hizbul Islam, an umbrella group headed by Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former comrade of Sheik Sharif’s in the ICU.
Senior U.S. officials have expressed fear that, if successful, the loose-knit coalition could, like the Taliban, provide a safe haven for Muslim extremists from other nations, including al-Qaeda. Aweys, however, has disclaimed any connection to al-Qaeda.
In addition to using mortars and other indiscriminate weapons in the current campaign, the insurgents, who are reportedly backed by Eritrea, have used suicide bombings and targeted attacks against key figures associated with the government. Nearly half the members of the parliament have reportedly fled the country in the last several weeks. Among the victims have been the government’s interior minister and a former prime minister.
"The prospect of the government collapsing is sending alarm bells ringing in Western capitals, but whether this latest move will succeed remains to be seen," said Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).
Asserting their power in the capital, al-Shabaab reportedly carried out amputations of the hand and foot on each of four young men accused of stealing pistols and cell phones from Mogadishu inhabitants Thursday after their conviction by an ad hoc Sharia court earlier in the week, according to the BBC.
"The horrific nature of such acts that were carried out in front of a crowd adds further injustice and dehumanizes these teenagers," London-based Amnesty International charged.
Somalia has been without an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew the long-reining dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre. In 2006, militias under the ICU’s command were able to create a semblance of stability in most of the country, but that collapsed after U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops routed ICU forces and took control of Mogadishu in December, 2006.
Under mounting pressure from al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam forces, Ethiopia withdrew in January at the same time that Sheik Sharif replaced an unpopular president who had been unwilling to engage more-moderate elements in the rebel coalition as part of an accord worked out by the TFG and more-moderate factions of the former ICU.
The new president began talks with insurgent leaders, including Aweys who returned from exile in Eritrea, but he "misjudged the deep personal antipathy and mistrust that now animated many of his opponents," according to the ICG’s Daniela Kroslak and Andrew Stroehlein. "As far as they were concerned, he was a traitor and part of the enemy camp."
In an audio tape released in March, al-Qaeda leader Osama bid Laden declared Ahmed an enemy and called on insurgents to topple his government.
Several hundred foreign fighters from countries including Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and even a handful from North America, have reportedly entered Somalia over the past several months to join the insurgents.
Since the insurgents launched their latest offensive, some 159,000 people have fled their homes. Altogether, an estimated 3.2 million Somalis, or almost half the country’s total population, are dependent on food and other humanitarian aid.
There are currently about 4,300 African Union (AU) troops (AMISOM), mostly from Uganda, protecting key sites in Mogadishu, including government buildings like the presidential palace, and the city’s main airport, and seaport. Their UN mandate enables them to use force only in defense; they have no authority to attack the rebels.
The TFG has called for the U.N. and the AU, which holds its annual summit in Libya Jul. 1-3, to send more troops, but some analysts say that that is unlikely and could even prove counter-productive. Kenya and Ethiopia have so far ruled out sending in their own troops.
"Going further than providing arms, to actually sending in more foreign forces would be a mistake," Abdi recently told BBC. "The government would then play right into the hands of the militants, who would accuse them of accepting foreign meddling."
"By all means, go ahead with the training of people who are willing to fight and die for the cause .and provide them with the equipment they need," said ret. U.S. Amb. David Shinn, an expert on the Horn of Africa. "On the other hand, if they are just sending in more foreign troops, all that does is postpone the inevitable by propping up a government that is that is unable to stand on its own."
Shinn, whose last diplomatic post was ambassador to Ethiopia, said Somalis also resented the growing presence of foreigners among the insurgents and did not believe that the government would collapse in the near term.
"I see it more as a most unfortunate standoff where a lot of Somalis pay the price. It’s still possible (for the TFG) to co-opt parts of al Shabaab and Hizbul," he said, adding that he supported providing military aid and training to stave off the government’s defeat. "You have to deal with the military component of the situation," he noted.
John Prendergast, another veteran Horn analyst who co-directs the Enough! Project here, largely agreed with that assessment, stressing that the TFG had to improve military performance and political outreach at the same time to avoid its collapse.
"The events unfolding in Mogadishu are more a reflection of the TFG’s weakness than the strength of the opposition," he said. "If the U.S. sends military aid alone without working assiduously to address the structural defects of the government, the assistance will have little impact."
"It really needs to ramp up its diplomatic engagement with the TFG and neighboring governments and encourage Sheikh Sharif and the TFG to articulate a positive agenda for Somali and reshuffle the cabinet to bring stronger and more inclusive voices into the government," he said.
(Inter Press Service)