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In Somalia—or Afghanistan—Can Insurgent Defections Change a War’s Course?

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An al-Shabaab defection raised hopes in Mogadishu, but violence, and lessons from another conflict, suggest little has changed

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL — MOGADISHU, Somalia—When a former deputy head of al-Shabaab turned up last August in a Mogadishu hotel to denounce the extremist armed group, government officials were exuberant.

Mukhtar Robow, after all, was among the most notorious leaders of Somalia’s al Qaeda affiliate. Luring senior insurgents like him to switch sides is a major war aim for the Western-backed Somali government—and for the U.S. military, which has deployed more than 500 American troops to fight al-Shabaab.

“Defections in general, including by Robow, show that the government’s strategy is working, that people are realizing that this government is the best hope for Somalia,” Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre said in an interview this week. “It shows that the Shabaab are weakened and are being defeated—not only militarily but politically, economically, judicially and ideologically, and that public support is on the side of the government.”

Yet, though a few dozen al-Shabaab fighters joined the government since Mr. Robow’s August defection, and despite frequent U.S. airstrikes, the tide of war has hardly turned. Al-Shabaab, which continues to dominate much of rural central and southern Somalia, carried out Africa’s deadliest bombing two months after Mr. Robow’s surrender, killing more than 500 people in Mogadishu.

The Somali movement—like Afghanistan’s Taliban—still holds sway over one of the world’s largest jihadist footholds.

Last month, al-Shabaab finally broke its silence about Mr. Robow—who, in the Mogadishu hotel appearance, had condemned the group’s ideology as “not in the interest of the religion, people and the country.” Mr. Robow, al-Shabaab retorted, was “deluded” to think the group could be undermined.

The question of whether defections by militants, including senior leaders, really matter has been hotly debated by military commanders, intelligence officials and policy makers ever since the U.S. became embroiled in counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq following the 2001 attacks.

The U.S. military’s Africa Command said last year that its policy is “to support Somalia-led efforts to encourage members of al-Shabaab and ISIS to defect and pledge support to the Somali Government.”

A similar effort, deployed for several years at great cost, has proved largely futile in Afghanistan, a conflict that bears many parallels to Somalia.

There, the Taliban insurgency—like al-Shabaab in Somalia—controls a large chunk of the countryside and retains the ability to carry out devastating attacks in the capital city. The fighters who defected to the Afghan government often did so for opportunistic personal reasons and usually didn’t represent forces that the Taliban couldn’t easily replenish.

“There certainly have been some individuals who have been reconciled or reintegrated as a result of that effort,” said Laurel Miller, an expert at Rand Corp. who served as acting U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until last June. “But I have never seen any indications that one can draw a line between any results that have been achieved via that effort and any fluctuation in the conflict on the battlefield.”

In Somalia, Mr. Robow’s defection quickly proved controversial. In his home South West state, where much of the countryside is under al-Shabaab control, officials embraced the former militant as a potential savior. “Mukhtar Robow is a very good tool. He can reach out to the young people because he knows their language,” said Ali Ali, the state president’s chief of staff.

But many other Somalis—especially those whose friends and relatives had been killed by al-Shabaab when Mr. Robow helped lead the group—were dispirited.

“It’s as if bin Laden was suddenly named a minister or security chief. It’s not a good thing when we give such credit to those who have killed innocent people,” said a Somali lawmaker—who, like several other such critics, feared retribution for speaking out against Mr. Robow in public. Mr. Robow himself couldn’t be reached.

Such anger over al-Shabaab’s atrocities means that, so far at least, there is no effort to negotiate an end to the conflict between the Somali government and the militant group. That is a contrast to Afghanistan, where—despite the Taliban’s murderous record—the central government and the U.S. have been pursuing negotiations with Taliban leaders about a possible political settlement for several years.

Asked about a possible diplomatic engagement with al-Shabaab, Mr. Khayre, the prime minister, suggested that wouldn’t be necessary.

“I see now that my government is winning this war, and it’s just a question of time,” he said.

What is really needed, he added, is greater international assistance to the Somali government, especially by writing off its debt and resuming access to international financial institutions.

Many Western officials disagree with such optimistic assessments of the campaign, and say that—at some point—talking to al-Shabaab may become a necessity, in part because al-Shabaab is mostly a homegrown movement deeply rooted in the country’s clan politics.

“It suits both al Qaeda and al-Shabaab to say they are associated with each other, but actually al-Shabaab is primarily a Somali phenomenon. Very few foreigners have any positions of authority,” said Michael Keating, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia and a former deputy U.N. representative in Afghanistan.

“I do think there is a scope for communication, if not formal engagement, with al-Shabaab,” Mr. Keating added. “The problem is that al-Shabaab right now seems to be in the hands of those who have a very aggressive approach to advancing their political agenda, and I have seen no indication from their side that they see a political track.”

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Diplomatic leaks: UAE dissatisfied with Saudi policies

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AL JAZEERA — Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) is working on breaking up Saudi Arabia, leaked documents obtained by Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar revealed.

Al Akhbar said that the leaked documents contained secret diplomatic briefings sent by UAE and Jordanian ambassadors in Beirut to their respective governments.

One of the documents, issued on September 20, 2017, disclosed the outcome of a meeting between Jordan’s ambassador to Lebanon Nabil Masarwa and his Kuwaiti counterpart Abdel-Al al-Qenaie.

“The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is working on breaking up the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Jordanian envoy quoted the Kuwait ambassador as saying.

A second document, issued on September 28, 2017, reveals meeting minutes between the Jordanian ambassador and his UAE counterpart Hamad bin Saeed al-Shamsi.

The document said the Jordanian ambassador informed his government that UAE believes that “Saudi policies are failing both domestically and abroad, especially in Lebanon”.

“The UAE is dissatisfied with Saudi policies,” the Jordanian envoy said.

The Qatar vote
According to the leaks, UAE ambassador claims that Lebanon voted for Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari in his bid to become head of UNESCO in October 2017.

“[Lebanese Prime Minister Saad] Hariri knew Lebanon was voting for Qatar,” the UAE ambassador said in a cable sent to his government on October 18, 2017.

In November last year, Hariri announced his shock resignation from the Saudi capital Riyadh.

He later deferred his decision, blaming Iran and its Lebanese ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, for his initial resignation. He also said he feared an assassination attempt.

Officials in Lebanon alleged that Hariri was held hostage by Saudi authorities, an allegation Hariri denied in his first public statement following his resignation speech.

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Somalia’s Puntland region asks UAE to stay as Gulf split deepens

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BOSASO, Somalia (Reuters) – Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region urged the United Arab Emirates not to close its security operations in the country after a dispute with the central government, saying the Gulf power was a key ally in the fight against Islamist militants.

The dispute goes to the heart of an increasingly troubled relationship between Gulf states – divided by their own disputes – and fractured Somalia, whose coastline sits close to key shipping routes and across the water from Yemen.

Analysts have said the complex standoff risks exacerbating an already explosive security situation on both sides of the Gulf of Aden, where militant groups launch regular attacks.

The central Somali government said on Wednesday it was taking over a military training program run by the UAE.

Days later the UAE announced it was pulling out, accusing Mogadishu of seizing millions of dollars from a plane, money it said was meant to pay soldiers.

“We ask our UAE friends, not only to stay, but to redouble their efforts in helping Somalia stand on its feet,” said the office of the president of Puntland, a territory that sits on the tip of the Horn of Africa looking out over the Gulf of Aden.

Ending UAE support, “will only help our enemy, particularly Al Shabaab and ISIS (Islamic State),” it added late on Monday.

SUSPICION, RESENTMENT

The UAE is one of a number of Gulf powers that have opened bases along the coast of the Horn of Africa and promised investment and donations as they compete for influence in the insecure but strategically important region.

That competition has been exacerbated by a diplomatic rift between Qatar and a bloc including the UAE. In turn, those splits have worsened divisions in Somalia.

Puntland, which has said it wants independence, has sought to woo the UAE which runs an anti-piracy training center there and is developing the main port. The central government in Mogadishu last year criticized Puntland for taking sides in the Gulf dispute. Qatar’s ally Turkey is one of Somalia’s biggest investors.

One Somali government official said last week Mogadishu had decided to take over the UAE operation because the Gulf state’s contract to run it had expired. Another official said the government was investigating the money taken from the plane.

The competition among Gulf states in Somalia has fueled accusations of foreign interference and resentment in many corners of Somali society.

The loss of the UAE program could have a destabilizing effect, said one security analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The value of the UAE trained forces was two-fold – they were relatively well trained but, most importantly, they were paid on time,” unlike other parts of the security forces, the analyst told Reuters.

Somalia has been mired in conflict since 1991.

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Puntland President calls UAE continue its mission in Somalia

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