A top US official has admitted that recent strikes against suspected Al-Qaeda leaders in southern Somalia failed to eliminate the individuals the US was targetting. Earlier reports from the transitional Somali government announced success in killing Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who the FBI believe was involved with the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
It’s very hard to know what’s actually happening on the ground in Somalia. There have been reports of additional strikes from US aircraft, which have been denied by the TFG (transitional federal government of Somalia). The TFG is increasingly emerging as an unreliable source for journalists – Xan Rice, writing in the Guardian notes:
The [TFG] official said there had been a single strike, and that reports of further aerial attacks on Tuesday and yesterday, causing significant civilian casualties, were wrong.
“We have reason to believe that elements of the Council of Islamic Courts are putting out false reports,” he said.
Most of the incorrect information so far has come from top members of Somalia’s transitional government.
The AP story which revealed that the US had missed its targets includes news that US special forces have been on the ground in Somalia for some weeks now:
The U.S. forces entered Somalia with Ethiopian forces late last month when Ethiopians launched their attack against a Somali Islamic movement said to be sheltering al-Qaeda figures, one of the officials said.
This would represent the first (known) time that the US had a military presence on the ground in Somalia since the US ended “Operation Restore Hope” in 1994 after 18 Rangers were killed in Mogadishu. (Many Somali experts believe that the CIA began funding the “Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism” in early 2006, which might have meant that CIA operatives were on the ground at that point.)
It’s certainly possible that senior Al-Qaeda leaders were on the ground in Mogadishu, shteltered by the UIC, and that the Ethiopian (apparently “Ethiopian and US”) invasion forced them to scatter to the south. The US military might not have moved against the Al-Qaeda suspects because they were afraid of collateral damage with an aerial attack on Mogadishu, or because they didn’t become aware of their presence in Mogadishu until Ethiopian troops forced them to scatter. (This latter explanation begs the question of why US special forces were in Baidoa with the Ethiopians…)
But it’s worth entertaining another possibility as well – the warlords who make up the TFG have scores to settle with the warlords who sided with the UIC. And when it comes to settling scores, there’s nothing like having the US military and an AC-130 gunship at your disposal. If the TFG sent the US government bad, or merely incomplete, information that led to the deaths of UIC-affiliated fighters, it would forward their goal of holding Mogadishu, even if it didn’t help the US military achieve its aims.
Matt Bryden with International Crisis Group offers a variant of this analysis to the Christian Science Monitor:
“If the attacks have managed to kill or capture some of the top East Africa people in Al Qaeda then it vindicates the actions of the US and Ethiopia, and it shows the ICU has been deceiving everyone,” says Matt Bryden, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Nairobi.
“But if they haven’t, then it compounds what has in the past been a strategy of errors, and makes the US look like it’s been sold a lemon by [Somalia’s] transitional federal government.”
US support for the TFG is unlikely to increase their popularity in Mogadishu. Reports of US support for the Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism helped build popular support for the UIC as they swept through southern Somalia in mid-2006. And resentment of Ethiopian troop presence in Somalia – who are coming under fire from warlords and civilians – is also unlikely to help TFG in the long run. And the US is coming under criticism from everyone, more or less, other than the UK for aggravating an already difficult situaiton
Everyone seems to agree that an international peacekeeping force in Mogadishu and southern Somalia is a critical next step – the continued presence of Ethiopian troops is bound to be provocative, and US airstrikes aren’t much help in securing neighborhoods awash with guns and gunmen. But African nations aren’t exactly champing at the bit to deploy troops in Somalia. A senior South African official, quoted by the IHT, sums up the problem African leaders are facing in considering deploying troops:
“For us to send troops would be to enter a serious quagmire. We would be perceived to be fighting the U.S. war on terror. Any peacekeeping force there would lose credibility,”
Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and Benin – all regular contributors to UN and AU peacekeeping efforts – have also dragged their feet regarding participating in an AU force. Uganda has offered 1,500 troops, but hasn’t moved decisively to deploy them, perhaps because they’re waiting for other countries to fill the troop gap. But some experts are suggesting that any force might have difficulty securing southern Somalia, which has a long record of resistance to foreign troop presence, and has proved difficult for well-equipped, highly trained forces like the US Army Rangers to secure.
“But when African military bosses impress upon politicians the realities and true risks, they will realise it is just not realistic,” said U.S. Somalia analyst Ken Menkhaus.
“They cannot move into a non-permissive environment, they will be slaughtered … My fear is that they won’t deploy in time, Ethiopia will withdraw, and this risks a quagmire, with Somalia reverting to the pre-war situation of anarchy.”
This time around, it may be a quagmire that no other nation wants to get stuck in. If the stalwarts of African peacekeeping aren’t willing to give Somalia a try, it’s hard to know who else could be expected to step up.