Somalia: What Sucks, And Why


April 4, 2011: The fighting in Mogadishu died down in the last week, as the AU (African Union peacekeeper) and TNG (Transitional National Government) forces prepare for another push against al Shabaab. There are still skirmishes in and around Mogadishu, where opposing forces are often within sight of each other all the time. Frequently, that's all it takes for someone to start shooting. The only casualties are usually civilians caught in the crossfire. Outside Mogadishu, roadside bombs are showing up more often. The foreign Islamic terrorists brought knowledge of how to build and use roadside bombs. Most of the victims of these bombs tend to be civilians, which is common wherever these weapons are used.

In Mogadishu, "control" is defined as being able to maintain checkpoints and patrols for neighborhoods. Al Shabaab has been more aggressive at this, putting more of its fighters at risk more often, and taking more casualties. The big battles in the last few weeks have been about capturing the compounds or large buildings al Shabaab uses as bases. This is where headquarters, weapons and ammo storage, living quarters and some medical and vehicle maintenance facilities are. Shutting down these bases means fewer al Shabaab checkpoints and patrols, and morale suffers as well, as does recruiting.

On the Kenyan border, over a week of heavy fighting in the town of  Dobley ended as al Shabaab lost control of the town, as well as another one (Liboi). The fighting was intense, with over 500 casualties (for both sides) over the weekend. There were nearly 200 dead. But now TNG forces controls a key border crossing.

The success of the recent fighting has encouraged Uganda and Burundi to send another 4,000 troops. This would give the TNG/AU about 20,000 troops. But some 60 percent of the men, and over 80 percent of the combat capability, comes from the AU troops, and these guys cannot, according to their current peacekeeping orders, leave Mogadishu. Outside the city, it's all on the Western trained TNG troops. This is why the battle for Dobley is such a big deal. But this TNG combat capability can disappear quickly because of the corruption among TNG officials. Stealing money meant to pay the troops, or buy food and other supplies often causes the TNG battalions to fall apart, or go rogue (become bandits or work for some warlord who can pay and feed you on time).  Kenya and local clan leaders along the border are trying to create security and stability by declaring the establishment of an autonomous region along the border, called Azania. This is modeled on Somaliland and Puntland in the north, where they have had peace, prosperity and pirates since the 1990s. Kenya is supporting Azania, if only to make it more difficult for Somali refugees, bandits and raiders to get into Kenya.

Al Shabaab has problems as well, but different ones. The Islamic radical groups have internal disputes that are unresolved, as well as increasing popular resistance within areas they control, or claim to control. While more fanatic than their opponents, al Shabaab, Hizbul Islam and several smaller radical groups tend to be less disciplined and unpredictable. There is still lots of disagreements within and between these groups. The non-Somali Islamic radicals are often a source of friction. The foreigners are simultaneously contemptuous and afraid of their Somali associates. The Somalis resent the superior attitude of the foreign radicals, who often have more experience, are better educated and wish they were somewhere else. As terrorist sanctuaries go, Somalia sucks. The country is poor, with little infrastructure (roads, power plants, sanitation systems, airports) and lots of corruption. Getting anything done often requires some kind of hassle (a bribe, a death threat or a gunfight.) But Somalia has one big advantage; no Western troops, and especially no Americans. While there is a (largely French-American) counter-terror force up north in Djibouti, they don't come south much, and when they do, they stay out of sight. The Djibouti based force is there mainly to keep an eye on the local chaos, especially the pirates and any local Islamic terror groups who are thinking internationally.

The UN has taken the  lead inside Somalia, concentrating on preventing mass starvation and deaths from preventable disease. It has not been easy. To move and distribute food and medical aid requires bribes, and even then, a lot of the stuff is stolen. Al Shabaab has tried to bar some kinds of aid, like food (because it means lower prices for locally grown stuff, or because not enough can be stolen). If drought victims die of starvation because of this, it is God's Will and not to be challenged. Some forms of medical aid (like vaccinations) are seen as part of a Western plot to poison Somali babies or sterilize Somali women. So there is more illness and death because available medicines are banned by hysteria, paranoia and superstition.

The TNG has refused a UN call for a meeting this month between representatives of the TNG, Puntland and Somaliland. The TNG has also appointed itself to another year in their jobs, rather than allowing the clans or areas they represent an opportunity to select new members of the TNG parliament. This is mostly about holding on to a UN supplied paycheck, and opportunities to steal foreign aid, or make money using what little power their TNG jobs provide. This corruption is endemic in Somalia. While the Islamic radicals pledge to eliminate corruption, they are not very clean themselves. The Islamic radicals steal as well, but tend to call it a contribution to the cause (of establishing an Islamic dictatorship to rule the region.) Crippling corruption is common throughout the region, but it is worst in the areas where the TNG and al Shabaab operate.

The UN is also having problems with Kenya, which wants to shut down new Somali refugee camps along the Somali border, and force the Somalis to go back to Somalia. The Kenyans want to do this to cut down on violence inside Kenya. That's because the refugee camps are used by al Shabaab fighters as a place to park their families (where the UN will provide food, medical care and security) or simply as a rest area in between bouts of fighting in Somalia. The UN can usually (but not always) ban armed men in the camps, but the weapons are simply hidden outside the camp, and sometimes used to commit crimes against local Kenyans. For the UN, the humanitarian mission is most important, the Kenyans have other priorities.  

Kenyans who are ethnic Somalis are complaining that the government is not doing enough to stop al Shabaab recruiters from enticing teenagers to leave school and go join the "holy war" in Somalia. The recruits are paid $480 when they depart (often by boat, as al Shabaab controls most of the coast between Mogadishu and the Kenyan border) and another $480 when they arrive. That's the signing bonus, after that, you get paid what you can steal from "enemies of Islam" or extract as "voluntary contributions" from local civilians. Somali religious leaders in Kenya claim that at least ten of these kids were killed in the Mogadishu fighting over the last few weeks. Since one of the first things a new holy warrior will buy with the signing bonus is a cell phone, they tend to keep in touch with family (and just ignore parental demands that they get back across the border). So word often gets back when one of the kids dies in the fighting. That will slow down, but not stop, recruiting efforts. The kids who survive up north, often return home to recruit their friends. The recruiters get paid for each new recruit they bring north. Parents and clergy in Kenya want these recruiters locked up, but the government does not want to risk sparking a riot by arresting these recruiters (who have friends among the young). Being a holy warrior is a popular thing to do, given the high unemployment among Somalis in Kenya. But even areas with better economic opportunities (like Europe and North America), the Islamic radical recruiters succeed.

The UN is providing money to build and run a 460 bed prison in Somaliland. The facility will be used to house men from Somaliland who are convicted of piracy somewhere else. Somali pirates currently hold about 700 sailors and 45 ships.

March 30, 2011: Al Shabaab was repulsed when a group of them launched a night attack on a rural Kenyan police station (to steal weapons and whatever else could be carried away.)

March 26, 2011: Off the Indian coast, Indian navy and coast guard forces, responding to a help call from a merchant ship that had just been attacked, caught up with an Iranian fishing trawler (large, sea-going fishing boat) that had been captured by pirates and was being used as a mother ship. Sixteen pirates were on the mother ship, and were forcing the 18 man trawler crew to operate the ship. The crew went along with this because they would be killed otherwise, and were told they would be let free once the pirates captured a large ship. When the Indian warship showed up, the pirates tried to  speed away, firing on the Indians as they went. The pirates said they would surrender at one point, then changed their mind with a hail of gunfire. The Indians could have just blasted the trawler out of the water, but did not because the captured crew was still on board. The pirates killed one of the crew, to ensure that the fishermen did not try to help the Indians free the trawler. After three hours of this, the pirates tried to flee in a speedboat, and were captured when the Indians sank it. The pirates now face trial back in India, where politicians are under pressure from voters (especially those who work at sea or along the coast) to chase the Somali pirates away from the Indian coast. While the pirates rarely get closer than a few hundred kilometers, that's close enough to threaten local fishermen and coastal ship traffic.





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