|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives|
Bleak outlook for AU force in Somalia
By Shaun Waterman
Washington, DC, 22/01/07 - Putting together an African peacekeeping force to replace Ethiopian troops in Somalia is likely to be a tough task.
Regional experts say that the Ethiopians, who booted Islamic extremist militias from the capital Mogadishu at the end of last year and installed an internationally recognized - but weak - Transitional Federal Government, need to be replaced by a UN-authorized force as soon as possible, but say it is still unclear that is possible.
US officials continue to insist that that the first peacekeepers - troops supplied by Uganda and other, as yet unspecified, African Union (AU) member-states - will arrive in Somalia by mid-February, but acknowledged that the initial deployment might be little more than a token.
"[Ugandan] President [Yoweri] Museveni said that it would happen within two weeks," Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs said last week.
"[Ethiopian Prime Minister] Meles [Zenawi] has said he wants his forces out within two weeks," she added. "It's probably an optimistic timeline, but we have to get them - the Ugandan forces - in as soon as possible."
'"By the end of the month to maybe two weeks out, by mid-February, within that window is when I see the first forces arriving into Somalia," she told an audience at Washington think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"I'm so keen on this that I feel like we should just hire some planes and pick them up and take them to Mogadishu airport as a symbol," she joked.
But in a serious vein she acknowledged that time was running out to seize what she and many others saw as the opportunity created by the Ethiopian move.
"The window of opportunity - it can close very quickly, there's no doubt about it," she said.
Nonetheless, her view is "somewhat rose-colored," David Shinn, a former senior US diplomat who held several posts in the region and now studies it at George Washington University, told ISN Security Watch.
"The Ethiopians are champing at the bit to get out of there," he said, adding that the casualties they were taking from hit and run attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere were "too small in number to be a major concern for them, but they know the longer they stay the more hostility there will be towards them from Somalis."
Ethiopia and Somalia have fought two wars, the most recent beginning in 1977, over irredentist border and ethnic disputes.
But when Ethiopia intervened to remove the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu, terrorist leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri cast the move in religious terms, calling for Islamic extremists worldwide to help defend the courts against "crusader" Ethiopia.
Shinn, in common with many regional analysts, is skeptical about the possibility of an Iraq-style international insurgency in Somalia.
"Any foreign jihadis left in Mogadishu" after the rout of the courts union - a loose coalition of Islamic militias - "are on borrowed time," he said. "Their protectors have left."
Another danger posed by some analysts is that long running tensions between Ethiopia and its regional rival Eritrea might worsen and provoke a proxy conflict in Somalia.
One of the major justifications given by Ethiopia - and accepted by the US - for their intervention in Somalia was that the courts union was aiding the ethnic Somali Ogaden Liberation Front in their insurgency against Addis Ababa and got military support from Asmara.
" Eritrea did have fighters in" Somalia, Frazer said, "Very senior people […] They were providing arms" to the courts union.
She said Eritrea was isolated in its view of the Ethiopian role in Somalia. "Other than Eritrea, I think everyone is lined up," she said, warning of Asmara "support[ing] any insurgency or terror attacks. I know that that's one of the risks of the moment."
And Shinn said he was fearful that even without foreign fighters, the situation could quickly deteriorate into the kind of disaster that ended the last UN peace-keeping effort in strife-scarred Somalia, which has lacked an effective central government for more than 15 years.
"That could easily happen to an [AU] force," he said, adding "It would be extremely inadvisable for any country to go it alone" in Somalia.
Frazer has spent much of the last two weeks visiting regional capitals to drum up support for the force, but the effort has so far failed to produce even a definite sign-up from Uganda.
Although the parliamentary caucus of Uganda's ruling National Resistance Movement agreed in principle last Thursday to the deployment, the parliament still has to formally vote, and may impose conditions, says Shinn.
Museveni pledged between 1,000-2,000 troops for the 8,000-strong force, said Shinn, but there were no other immediately obvious candidates.
Other observers said that with South Africa already over-stretched on other African peace missions, Nigeria was one of the only nations on the continent with the capacity to deploy large numbers of troops for such a force.
Shinn said that even an agreement to deploy could not guarantee an immediate presence in Mogadishu. "There is a limit to the speed with which you can stand up the [air] transport and logistical support you would need," he said.
"Two weeks is just inconceivable. Two months is more like it," if contributors for the force could be found, he said.
Frazer said the US was already working with the Ugandans about getting their troops in. "Right now we're working very closely with them on the planning side of this mission, looking at how we can help them with airlift," she said.
In the meantime, recent developments seem to bode ill for efforts to broaden the base of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu, which currently holds power only because of the presence of the Ethiopian military.
Frazer was sharply critical of the TFG parliament's decision to no confidence its speaker, Sharif Hasan Sheikh Aden, who led negotiations between the then-exile government and the Islamic courts union.
" Aden could be a bridge to the Islamists," Shinn said.
"We see a role in the future of Somalia for those who renounce violence and extremism," said Frazer, urging the TFG "reach out to moderate Islamists.
"We do not believe that the courts [union] should be reconstituted as a political entity," she said, but its "members were of course also a heterogeneous group from the outset," containing "moderate individuals who should be drawn into a larger official political process."
For now, though, the TFG, which consists largely of war lords, rejects the idea of including these moderate Islamists, and there are fears that the US' active involvement in the civil war could quickly reduce the ranks of moderates and further swell the ranks of the extremists.
Clashes in the capital on Monday that saw Ethiopian troops and Somali police open fire on protesters, killing at least three, according to Reuters, could further boost the extremist cause.
Shaun Waterman is a senior writer and analyst for ISN Security Watch. He is a UK journalist based in Washington, DC, covering homeland and national security for United Press International.