The United States appears determined to prevent Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government from falling to Islamist forces said to be linked to Al-Qaeda.
“We believe that it is important to do as much as we possibly can to support this TFG as one of the last opportunities for bringing about stability in that country,” Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson told the US Senate recently. Mr Carson noted that despite heavy recent attacks by the powerful Al-Shabaab insurgency, “The TFG remains standing.”
The Obama administration will help sustain the government headed by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Mr Carson added.
Pointing out that Sheikh Sharif is not a warlord but an educator, Mr Carson said the Somali president, who has been in office since February, “offers the best chance for a possible reconciliation and peace in Somalia that we have seen over the past decade.”
The State Department’s top Africa official noted that Washington has given the TFG $10 million to establish a national security force while also contributing $135 million in support of an African Union force dispatched to Somalia in 2007.
“We plan to continue this level of support in the future,” Mr Carson said in regard to the 4,800 Ugandan and Burundian troops who are protecting the TFG under the banner of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom).
The United Nations Security Council is also giving unequivocal backing to Amisom, which is viewed as the final bulwark against an Islamist takeover of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.
The 15-member council voted unanimously last week to extend its mandate for Amisom for another eight months. The council also agreed for the first time to help finance Amisom’s operations through UN member-states’ assessed payments, with British UN Ambassador John Sawers estimating that the funding could amount to $300 million in the coming year.
At the same time, the Obama administration is being cautioned against giving direct military support to the TFG.
“That would play into the hands of the Shabaab,” Prof Ken Menkhaus, a US expert on Somalia, told the same Senate panel that heard from Mr Carson last week. “The Shabaab have every interest in framing this current fight as Somalis versus foreigners,” Prof Menkhaus said.
“They would love to attract Ethiopia back in. They would benefit enormously from US air strikes, were that to happen.”
President Barack Obama has so far refrained from ordering missile attacks inside Somalia. The Washington Post reported last month, however, that President Obama is being urged by some military advisors to strike at Shabaab training camps.
The head of the State Department’s Africa Bureau added, “There clearly are foreign fighters operating in Somalia.”
He said that information is based in part on reports from the Ugandan military contingent in Somalia. The United States does not know how many foreign fighters are operating in Somalia, Mr Carson added, but he described claims of up to 400 as “a significant exaggeration.”
The Obama administration intends to help Kenya ensure that it does not “unwittingly” serve as a transit point for outsiders bound for Somalia to join Al-Shabaab, Mr Carson said.
The United States should also press the Kenyan government to allow the UN to start work on an additional refugee camp for Somalis, Oxfam advisor Shannon Scribner told the Senate panel.
Mr Carson also renewed US warnings to Eritrea to stop providing “extremists and terrorist elements” inside Somalia with weapons and munitions. His comments coincided with a recent call by a grouping of East African nations for Eritrea to be slapped with international sanctions because of its alleged support for Al-Shabaab.
The reasons for the Obama administration’s determination to prevent a Shabaab victory in Somalia may have been articulated by Prof Menkhaus under questioning from members of the Senate subcommittee on Africa.
Shabaab’s links to Al-Qaeda and the presence of foreign advisors in its ranks would cause Ethiopia to move back into Somalia if the Islamist militia were to defeat the TFG, Prof Menkhaus predicted. Such a scenario could also lead the United States to intervene as well, he added.
“Somalia could then become the site of a regional or even globalised armed conflict,” Prof Menkhaus warned.
“An insurgency victory over the TFG could also produce a different outcome, one in which two rival Islamist groups begin fighting among themselves,” he continued.
“There are sharp tensions over leadership, ideology, foreign patronage, clan interests, and tactics, both between and within Shabaab and Hizbul Islam” another Islamist force that is fighting to topple the TFG.
Al-Shabaab is also not assured of a stable base of support among Somalia’s Sufi Muslim majority, Prof Menkhaus said.
The jihadist group won respect for its successful resistance to Ethiopia’s occupation, but most Somalis find Al-Shabaab’s “radical application of Sharia law, its desecration of Sufi tombs and its close links to Al-Qaeda very disturbing,” he said.