AU Escalation becoming al-Shabab Glue

Published on The Trench, by blog owner James Gundun, July 30, 2010.

It’s hard to pinpoint what just happened at the African Union summit in Kampala, Uganda. More troops are on their way to Somalia – 4,000 in total from Uganda, Guinea, and Djibouti with potentially 1,300 from Burundi – which would bring the total AU force to roughly 11,000. As to what they can do, here the waters begin to muddy.

The official line is that Washington, working through the United Nations’ command of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), rejected an AU call to expand its mandate from peace-keeping to “peace-making.” Johnnie Carson, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, informed reporters that Augustine Mahiga, the UN special representative for Somalia, rejected the doctrine of allowing UN peacekeeping troops to attack al-Shabab … // 

… From afar the AU’s summit, in concert with the UN and America, may appear organized. This is normal because it’s the image Washington seeks to create. Carson has exhausted himself in distancing US policy from the AU’s actions, repeating the legitimacy of an international response to nearly every African media outlet. But while he’s chosen the right words, US actions bear the opposite pattern. No sooner had a failed US-supported Ethiopian invasion ended did the West begin funneling more weapons directly into the TFG.

Sound strategy in a way, as the West cannot afford for Somalia to become al-Qaeda’s lawless hideout.

Yet as the TFG grew weaker and weaker (and US arms flowed to al-Shabab through the black market), America found itself needing a way to insert ground troops without US flags on their shoulders. The AU is the only realistic option and Kampala has been predictably exploited by a fierce US push for more troops. Washington then used the AU to portray internationalism, a crucial element of counterinsurgency, but internationalism alone doesn’t produce viable COIN. Military is still a main ingredient and the battle itself has become overshadowed by US-AU cooperation.

An international flavor is concealing what remains essentially conventional warfare, offering an smooth road towards disaster.

Holes in Somalia’s counterinsurgency are found at the most basic levels. Proper “clear, hold, and build” COIN is troop and time intensive, yet the AU has still failed to deploy a decisive force. Expanding from 6,000 to 11,000 increases the force ratio by almost 100%, but 6,000 troops were so meager that they skew this advantage. Not including Somaliland and Puntland, Somalia houses roughly three million people within 125,000 square miles. Two times the AU troops increases the ratio of troops to civilians from 1/500 to 1/275, far below the preferred ratios of 1/10 or 1/20. The space one troop occupies improves from 20 to 10 square miles, still not close to one per square mile.

Meanwhile the ratio between AU and al-Shabab troops boosts from 1/1 to 2/1, a relatively insignificant margin in counterinsurgency. NATO and Afghan soldiers hold an 8/1 ratio against the Taliban, spurning great wonder as to how they’re gaining in strength, let alone surviving. Such is the unconventional nature of guerrilla warfare.

11,000 or 20,000 AU troops will almost certainly prove indecisive, resulting in further military stalemate and suffering for average Somalis. Time is another factor seemingly disregarded; Somalia needs multiple decades of constant lifting. And al-Shabab’s own force may increase if Somalia becomes a premier jihad. Were one to even begin reaching a realistic force level for Somalia, 40,000 brings the troop-to-civilian ratio down to 1/75 and produces an 8/1 ratio against al-Shabab. This force would be divided among Mogadishu and al-Shabab’s strongholds in Kismayo and Beledweyne, with the rest dispersed throughout the countryside to harass al-Shabab’s counteroffensive. And they would need to stay beyond five or 10 years.

Though this many troops may create the very backlash against their deployment, it’s still possible for the AU to expand beyond 20,000. But the only way this will happen – other than a large-scale terrorist attack – is if Somalia begins to demonstrate indisputable signs of progress, and the chances appear low.

As of this moment only trace elements of counterinsurgency can be found in the AU/US strategy. Already surging more troops to prop up a weak and unpopular government, the very idea of reacting on the offensive indicates a conventional response shrouded in an international COIN wrapper. Carson was recently asked pointblank, “The option being pursued in Somalia now is a military one. Why don’t you encourage Muslim religious leaders in the region to pursue another course of action?”

His response: “With respect to Somalia, I would characterize the efforts there in very different ways; it is not a military solution under way but AMISOM’s efforts to stabilize the situation in favor of a political process that was agreed to in Djibouti, an agreement which is under assault by the al-Shabaab, the Hizbul Islam and other violent extremist groups.”

This is exactly the problem – using internationalism to vouch for a weak government and create the false impression of counterinsurgency … (full text).

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