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Not time yet to exit Somalia, US officials caution

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Any withdrawal from war torn Somalia by the African Mission Union in Somalia (AMISOM) must be gradual and tactical, senior security officials at the United States African Command based in Germany have advised.

The officials say the Somalia security situation remains fragile and any withdrawal could hamper negatively the major gains achieved so far in the Horn of Africa country.

“The baby (Somalia) is still young and needs company,” a senior AFRICOM security official who did not want to be identified said.

Various African countries contribute to the more than 20,000-strong force in Somalia, where they continue to engage the Al-Shabaab militia for a decade now under AMISOM.

Kenya, a key partner in the force and a victim of the Al-Shabaab insurgency has contributed soldiers but a section of political leaders have been calling for their withdrawal.

This is after tens of Kenyan soldiers were killed in several attacks inside Somalia by the terrorists who continue to pose a serious security challenge in the East African region.

Uganda may also withdraw its soldiers, a move official at AFRICOM believe may weaken the AMISOM force.

“Resurgence for Al-Shabaab is not good for the region security…” one of the senior advisors at the military camp said.

“Al-Shabaab does not want stability in the region. The pressure must continue to be piled on them.”

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta recently affirmed his commitment to the continued stay of his soldiers there despite resistance from a section of Opposition leaders.

Kenya has paid the ‘price’ through wanton killings by the militia who lately been targeting security officers through ‘small’ attacks using Improvised Explosive Devices (IED).

On April 2, 2015 the militia attacked Garissa University College, an institution in Northern Kenya that boarders Somalia killing 148 students in one of the country’s worst attacks.

This was followed by a series of other attacks targeting non-locals in Northern Kenya and others part of the country, more so the capital Nairobi.

– Local solutions to African challenges –

But through concerted efforts by all players, security officials at the US African Command say “just a little bit more patience and the enemy will be defeated.”

Al-Shabaab has lost a lot of ground due to the continued ‘campaign’ by AMISOM but they say they still have the capacity to launch attacks.

“Al-Shabaab group of today is not the same with the one of 2010,” another officer, of the rank of a major said.

The group has also been weakened after factions emerged in 2015. One group supports ISIS while the other one has its allegiance to the Al-Qaeda terror group.

– US role in restoring stability in Africa –

The US Government through AFRICOM has mapped out hotspot areas in the African continent in a bid to help local authorities eliminate some of the main security challenges.

They are also working with the African Governments to empower security agencies.

In Somalia, they have committed to enhance the capacity of the Somalia National Army and that of neighbouring countries, in a bid to eliminate the threat of terror posed by Al-Shabaab.

Of the support extended to the region, it includes some modern choppers set to be given to the Ugandan army, while Kenya’s army continues to receive intensified training among other areas cooperation.

According to United States Africa Command Deputy Chief of Communication Jon Dahms, the main focus in Africa is “to neutralize Al-Shabaab threat, degrade violent extremism organizations in Sahel, Libya and the entire North Africa region, contain and degrade Boko Haram (in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa).”

He says the command helps in identification of any security challenge while the African forces are involved directly in the operations.

“This has been made possible through multi-bilateral agreements among all players,” he said.

The AFRICOM mission entails coordinating the kind of support that will enable African Governments and existing regional organizations such as the African standby force to have an enhanced capacity to provide security when needed.

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Briefing Room

US wary of Islamic extremism growth in Africa

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PENTAGON — With the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate almost completely retaken in Iraq and Syria, many American leaders are concerned the group might try to create a new hub elsewhere.

Islamic extremism creeps up in impoverished, politically disillusioned populations with masses of young, unemployed Muslims, and these conditions can be seen across the African continent.

“Africa is going to be the spot; it’s going to be the hot spot,” Congressman Michael McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a hearing last month.

In a letter sent to congressional leaders on Monday detailing counter-extremism efforts, President Donald Trump said his administration had placed a “particular focus” on the U.S. Central and Africa Commands’ areas of responsibility.

While tens of thousands of American troops are deployed to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where U.S. Central Command oversees military operations, the entire African continent has less than half the number of American troops deployed in the single country of Afghanistan.

But increases in terrorist activity are among the reasons why American military presence has grown rapidly on the continent, from 3,200 military personnel in 2009 to some 6,500 military personnel today.

The bulk of U.S. military personnel in Africa, some 4,000 Americans, are based in Djibouti, home to the United States’ only military base on the continent. The second-largest concentration is in the Lake Chad Basin, where some 1,300 U.S. military personnel work in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad to help strengthen local militaries and counter Boko Haram, al-Qaida, Islamic State and other extremist groups. About 500 U.S. military personnel are based in Somalia, where al-Shabaab terrorists are battling the U.N.-backed Somali government and Islamic State operates in mountainous areas of Puntland.

John Campbell, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is critical of the United States’ policy toward Africa.

“There is African concern that the U.S. approach is becoming rather more militarized, or more concerned with military and security issues than had been the case in the past,” he told VOA.

Campbell said he believes that the main thrust of American effort on the continent should be on the “root causes” of extremism — poor governance and lack of economic development. But this effort will likely prove more difficult if the State Department’s budget is slashed, as proposed by the Trump administration.

Ripe for recruitment

Africa’s growing young, male population is ripe for recruitment, Africa Command’s senior enlisted leader, Command Chief Master Sergeant Ramon Colon-Lopez told VOA in an exclusive interview.

“When you have no options and here comes an extremist that is offering you a motorbike and a bride, what do you think you’re going to do? Your family’s starving, you can’t provide for them and somebody’s giving you an option,” he said.

The Trump administration this year changed rules governing U.Smilitary operations in the area, expanding the ability to strike al-Shabab and IS fighters in the war-torn country of Somalia. The change allowed offensive strikes against the terrorists rather than limiting attacks to defending African allies and their American advisers on the ground. This matches a similar expansion of strike authorities this year against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where under President Barack Obama, the Taliban had to be in close proximity to Afghan National Security Forces before they could be targeted.

The new authorities have led to an increase in strikes in Somalia. The latest of the more than 30 U.S. strikes across the west African country this year came on Tuesday, taking out what U.S. military officials said was an al-Shabab car bomb planned for use in an attack in the capital, Mogadishu.

Colon-Lopez said the new authorities have “definitely” helped the counter-terrorism mission in Africa.

The U.S. has also used air strikes this year to target IS militants in Libya. Just last month, the U.S. and Niger reached an agreement permitting armed American military drones for use against jihadist terrorist groups in the African nation, according to a U.S. official. It is still unclear whether the drones in Niger will be used to carry out targeted strikes or solely as a defensive measure.

Special operations forces

In the past decade, Africa has also seen a vast expansion of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), elite military units that are specifically trained and use special weapons, and tactics.

In 2006, Special Operations Forces made up just 1 percent of U.S. military personnel. Today, there are about 1,200 Special Operations Forces deployed to Africa, or about 15 percent of the total deployed force, a U.S. military official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.

Their jobs range from short-term training to long-term partnering with African military units that place American troops in potentially dangerous locations.

That’s what happened in Niger in October, when four American soldiers died in an IS ambush, and in May, when a U.S. Navy SEAL died aiding Somali security forces against al-Shabaab.

“I worry about the outposts that have U.S. military members that are getting after this threat,” Colon-Lopez said. “I worry about them because we can see what happened out there when the enemy decides to overpower the United States of America.”

The number of times that U.S. troops are exposed to danger in Africa are rare, a U.S. military official told VOA, adding that Special Operations Forces limit their involvement with local partners because of the strong desire to find “African solutions to African problems.”

“Our role is more like preventative medicine in Africa than emergency surgery,” the military official said.

However, if the security need grows in the coming months, more Americans troops could find themselves in dangerous situations across the continent.

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Briefing Room

Somalia to Probe Evictions of Thousands of Displaced Families

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NAIROBI — The Somali government responded to widespread criticism by aid agencies on Wednesday, promising to investigate reports that thousands of families fleeing drought and conflict were forcefully evicted from more than 20 informal camps.

The United Nations and groups such as the Somalia NGO Consortium say more than 4,000 families, or about 20,000 people, had their homes bulldozed last month inside settlements on the outskirts of the capital of Mogadishu.

The demolitions on private land were unannounced, they said, and pleas by the community — largely women and children — for time to collect their belongings and go safely were not granted.

Some aid workers who witnessed the evictions said uniformed government soldiers were involved in the demolitions.

“Regarding the forced evictions, we are really deeply concerned. We are investigating the number of evictions,” Gamal Hassan, Somalia’s minister for planning, investment and economic development, told participants at a U.N. event.

“We have to make sure we investigate and have to make sure we know exactly what happened. And then we will issue a report and you can take a look at it and see what happened and how it happened,” he said by video conference from Mogadishu.

The impoverished east African nation of more than 12 million people has been witnessing an unprecedented drought, with poor rains for four consecutive seasons.

It has also been mired in conflict since 1991 and its Western-backed government is struggling to assert control over poor, rural areas under the Islamist militant group al Shabab.

The U.N. says drought and violence have forced more than 2 million people to seek refuge elsewhere in the country, often in informal settlements located around small towns and cities.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on Wednesday condemned the demolitions, and said the fate of those evicted did not fit with the progress Somalia has made.

“Not only did these people lose their homes, but the basic infrastructure that was provided by humanitarian partners and donors, such as latrines, schools, community centers — has been destroyed,” said Peter De Clercq, head of OCHA in Somalia, at the same event.

“I reiterate my condemnation of this very serious protection violation and call on the national and regional authorities to take necessary steps to protect and assist these people who have suffered so much.”

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Briefing Room

UGANDA: Inside Somalia’s wars

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Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | When I flew to Mogadishu, Somalia’s sandy capital, on December 16, 2017; I was filled with a heady mix of anxiety and excitement because of the image we all have of Somalia; bomb wreckages, lone wolf assassins, and Al Shabaab Muslim militants lurking in the shadows everywhere.

Mogadishu is still reeling from the shock and awe of a truck bomb that killed over 500 people last October. Even though the attack, for which Al Shabaab claimed responsibility, was the deadliest Somalia has seen in decades, the country has long witnessed such acts of terror since Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted from power in 1991. He had been president since he captured power in a coup in 1969.

His ouster led to the birth of Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a ragtag Islamist group which alongside other armed factions in the country battled for the control of the Horn of Africa nation- perpetrating mayhem and anarchy until relative stability was established in the late 2000s, first by the Ugandan army forces -Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) and later by joint forces of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) that include UPDF.

On my trip, and after interviews with the President of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, some AMISOM commanders, and officials of the African Union (AU) based in Mogadishu, I witnessed not only a sense of accomplishment but a puzzle over the next move. The question of whether UPDF stays is no longer debated. Instead, the question is what happens when it leaves. Part of the reason is that nothing inside Somalia is what it appears to be to those outside the country.

The UPDF, under AMISOM, has accomplished a lot; from pushing Al Shabaab out of Mogadishu, securing the country’s airport and State House, and providing some social services to ordinary Somalis in a country that has barely had a working government for years. Yet commanders on the ground, including Brig. Kayanja Muhanga, who until recently has been the UPDF contingent commander in Somalia, remain apprehensive about the future.

When we sat down with Muhanga in his office at Base Camp, the expansive AMISOM base controlled by UPDF, he was preparing to hand over in three days to Brig. Paul Lokech. So he was in reflective mode and spoke expansively about what has made UPDF so successful in Somalia. He also revealed a few things that most external players do not know about, downplay, or totally miss about Somalia; including that the Muslim fighting group; al Shabaab, might not, in fact, be the enemy of the people one imagines.

The tall, broad shouldered, and thick mustached Muhanga had just completed a year as UPDF contingent commander in December and it was his second tour of duty in Somalia. Having served as commander of Battle Group Eight and deputy contingent commander in 2011/2012, he has garnered a rare understanding of Somalia and Somali clan members now call him ‘Ugasi’ which is Somali for elder. He is sometimes called upon to mediate in conflicts among the clans, even when he is back in Uganda. “Counter insurgency in Somalia is about winning the hearts and minds of the people.

“Any force that comes here needs to first understand the clan dynamics in Somalia,” he says, “You have to be a friend to all clans because there is heavy rivalry between them.”

Clan system

“Once you are in Somalia, you realise Al Shabaab is not exactly the problem,” Muhanga told our group of journalists, “There are times when a clan can unite with Al Shabaab say when a force is simply intent on capturing local territories without anything it is offering to the local population, they will say ‘we have a common enemy.”

The clan system is Somalia’s model of democracy and, depending on whom you speak to, it either works well for the country or harms it. Members of Parliament are elected to represent their clans. The clans are involved in lobbying for positions in government, hold negotiations for economic power, and are routinely defending their territory from intruders- with guns.

Some of the major clans in Somalia include the Hawiye, Dir, Isaaq and the Darood. But even among these clan groupings, they are further divided into sub-clans. Intervening forces in Somalia have to deal with these intra-clan rivalries, among other complexities. For instance, the Hawiye are sub-divided into the Habar Gedir and Abgal.

“Sometimes when you hear an attack in Mogadishu or anywhere in Somalia, it is an attack to send a message to the government for a grievance they are holding; it could be an appointment that was not honoured or even a dispute the clan wants resolved,” Muhanga says.

The difference between Al Shabaab and the clans is that it has an international image, but is it not exactly an enemy of the people, according to various sources in Somalia. UPDF soldiers in Somalia say sometimes it is hard to tell who is a member of Al Shabaab and who is not.

Al Shabaab has its own tax administration system and levies a tax on some roads. It is those who refuse to pay the tax that run into trouble with Al Shabaab, Muhanga says.

But knowing about the clan system is not the same as knowing how to manage it. There are forces; including the United Nations and African Union, that rather than flow with the system, are determined to change it. In fact the UN does not want UPDF to engage in some activities; such as treating of the sick, saying that is strictly the work of humanitarian organisations. But soldiers in Somalia say, with such moves, the UN is complicating the work of rebuilding the country.

“The AU and the UN have set targets for the government of Som

“The AU and the UN have set targets for the government of Somalia to start holding elections through universal suffrage for all offices by 2020,” she added, “Voting based on clans cannot go on forever,” says Lydia Wanyoto, the Deputy Special Representative of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission. She told The Independent during a meeting at Aden Abdulle Airport that both the AU and UN want Somalia to move away from a clan-based system of electing leaders. But other voices say Somalis are comfortable with the clan model of democracy and that the Western style democracy of voting may instead cause more instability in the country.

Muhanga agrees that the clan rivalry can be a source of instability and that is why UPDF is involved in mediation of clan conflicts.

He gives the example of how clan rivalry plays out using one of the hotly contested territories in Somalia; the Lower Shabelle region, a large swathe of fertile land with flourishing farms and plantations.

Muhanga says it is the most fertile land in the country and exports fruits to the Middle East. Due to its fertile soils, various Somali clans take part in farming in this area and gun fights occasionally break out because of the economic gain lying therein.

“Because you are thin on the ground, you do not know whom to ally with,” Muhanga explains. AMISOM forces are routinely changed including Uganda which sends battle groups in intervals of about two years. The AMISOM force comprises 22,000 troops where Uganda has 6,000.

In AMISOM’s strategic command structure, Somalia is divided into five sectors among the Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) and Uganda occupies Sector 1- the most volatile area which contains Mogadishu and surrounding areas including the highly productive Lower Shabelle region. Sector 2 is occupied by Kenya, Ethiopia is in Sector 3, Djibouti is in 4 and Burundi in 5.

UPDF has scored some strategic advantages being the only country that can occupy sector 1. Ethiopia cannot because of its bitter history with Somalia basing on past invasions, Kenya is considered inexperienced militarily and Djibouti being neighbours to Somalia complicates the puzzle because of the shared ethnicity since they are all in the Ogaden region.

Weaknesses and complications

Then there are the Americans. According to Muhanga, the attitudes of Americans and their poor understanding of the country’s internal dynamics have complicated the peacekeeping mission. Due to their enormous resources, he says, American forces are able to conduct missions such as training of local Somali forces which may not work well with AMISOM’s set up.

He describes incidents like when the American forces trained a local Somali squad and, possibly to show off their achievement, asked President, Mohamed Abdullahi to allow them, with back-up from the Somali National Army, to take on what they thought was al Shabaab. Muhanga advised against the venture but he was over-ruled. He was, however, vindicated when the government forces were repulsed and hit terribly by one of the clans whose fighters felt the combination of forces was invading their territory.

“The Somali National Army cannot hold defensive ground,” Muhanga says.

Conversations with other UPDF soldiers in Mogadishu shed light on an army that if left to its own devices would be overrun by the Al Shabaab within no time. The Somali National Army weakness is, arguably, the biggest impediment to the withdrawal of the AMISOM force.

Yet UPDF will not stay in Somalia forever. That is the point Brig. Richard Karemire, the UPDF Spokesperson, made to The Independent after the truck bomb blast in Mogadishu in October last year. He said, however, the UPDF pull-out from Somalia would be gradual.

“This is a calculated handover of different proportions to the Somali military forces,” he said, “It is not a reckless handover.”

Around the same time, a highly placed military source told The Independent in an interview that they had in various meetings advised the AU and UN against the looming exit of UPDF in view of the strategic weaknesses of the Somali Army. “`Whom are you handing over to?’ we asked them,” the source said, “We instead requested for more troops not an exit.”

He said the local force is not up to the task and AMISOM is doing everything.

“If the exit happens, they will just be handing over to Al Shabaab,” he said adding that the Somali forces need more years of training before they can take over.

The various forces engaged in Somalia have all put up efforts to train the Somali army but since the Americans started their own training, the process has been tricky.

International community

The role of the international community in Somalia is a big issue. As a state under reconstruction both politically and economically, it has become like a piece of pie with various international players trying to either support or control. Away from the Americans, the Middle-East powers are vying for supremacy.

The oil rich House of Saudi is said to be ready to pour investment in Somalia. But there is a problem. Turkey and Qatar; who are on the same side in the Qatar-blockade in the Gulf region, already have massive investments in the country. Turkey has put up an airport terminal, hotels and some educational institutions. The Saudis are now demanding that Somalia kicks out Qatar and Turkey and joins the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar imposed last year. The Saudis are backed by Egypt.

When The Independent asked President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed during an interview at State House Somalia on how he manages to keep at bay the various forces trying to dictate the future of his country, he sought to reassert the sovereignty of Somalia.

“As a country that is trying to get back on track, we know various forces may want to intervene but we are always firm and remind them that Somalia is a sovereign country which can manage its own affairs,” he said.

Meanwhile, the UPDF mission in Somalia remains critical to President Yoweri Museveni and the high level deployment there signals his intent. Former AMISOM Force commander, Maj. Gen. Nathan Mugisha, is Deputy Ambassador of Uganda to Somalia; a position he has served in for five years now. Muhanga’s next deployment is at the Second Division of the UPDF which is headquartered in Mbarara, western Uganda. And his successor in Somalia, Brig. Lokech is also serving his second tour of duty. He was the commander, way back when Muhanga was deputy. Clearly, experience is critical in this delicate mission.

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