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US misguided in moving to arm Somalia, say analysts

Saturday August 8 2009

By KEVIN KELLY in New York and GITAU WARIGI in Nairobi

Some analysts are warning that the Obama administration is taking the wrong approach in moving to increase US military support for the nascent Somalia’s government.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Nairobi on Thursday following a meeting with TFG leader Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed that she and President Obama “want to expand and extend our support”. Other officials indicate that the US plans to double the 40 tonnes of weaponry it has been supplying to TFG forces via other African states, mainly Uganda.

“US support for the TFG is nothing short of disastrous, so we’ve just doubled disaster,” says Prof Peter Pham, an Africa specialist who has testified in the US Senate on Somalia policy.

Pham charges that some of the small arms intended for the TFG have ended up in markets in Mogadishu – and ultimately in the hands of Al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia – due to corruption along the supply chain. “We’ve saved the Shabaab the trouble of having to run past the UN arms embargo,” Pham says.

The biggest concern that Mrs Clinton raised with the Kenyan team was about Somalia and the threat of extremism posed by Al Shabab. Though she brought no firm proposals, Mrs Clinton wanted assurances that the Kenya government will continue to remain vigilant against the Islamists.

Already, there have been reports of the US facilitating some arms shipments to the weak interim government in Somalia. America is also a key funder of the Africa Union peacekeeping contingent in Mogadishu; in the last two years the Americans have spent $150 million to support the peacekeeping force.

There was no overt suggestion on Mrs Clinton’s part that Kenya takes a military role. The subsequent meeting with Somali interim President Sheikh Shariff Ahmed was deliberately arranged as a demonstration of US support.

A senior State Department official told reporters in Washington in June that the US has so far spent something less than $10 million on arms and training for the TFG. Weapons and ammunition are given to the TFG by the Ugandan forces stationed in Somalia as part of a UN-African Union deployment, with the US then reimbursing Uganda for the cost of the arms, the official explained.

Ugandans and Burundians, who together account for the 4300 UN-AU troops in Somalia, have also been training TFG troops, with Washington again paying the cost of those operations. Some training is apparently taking place at the US military base in Djibouti. “The Kenyans are also prepared to provide training,” the State Department official said in a June 25 briefing.

The Obama administration is acting wisely in relying on third parties to assist the TFG, says Daniel Volman, director of the US-based African Security Research Project. Key State Department officials “understand that any kind of direct linkage with the US will stigmatise the TFG as an agent of US policy.”

But Volman expresses scepticism about the move to increase even indirect US military support for the TFG. Training efforts, for example, will yield no short-term benefits for the embattled Somalia government, he notes “It takes months for troops to get prepared,” Volman says.

President Ahmed’s forces may no longer be on the verge of defeat, however. Volman characterises the TFG’s face-off with Al-Shabaab in Mogadishu as currently a stalemate. And an unnamed US government analyst is quoted in Friday’s Washington Post as suggesting that Al-Shabaab is losing public support in other parts of Somalia.

“What we have seen over the last few months is that many things have weakened them significantly,” the official told the Post. “There are splits in their organization. The level of support they had among Somalis is no longer there. More and more, they are on their own.”

Prof Pham, however, says the TFG “enjoys no legitimacy” among Somalis. And he argues that Al-Shabaab does not need to rout the TFG from its bastion in the capital in order to remain the dominant force inside Somalia. “There’s nothing Shabaab would gain from taking Mogadishu that it doesn’t already have,” Pham says. “It would be a propaganda victory but not a strategic victory.”

Volman, on the other hand, suggests that preserving a TFG presence in Mogadishu would be a positive outcome because “it creates a political space for an alternative to Shabaab for Somalis themselves.”

The other variety of travel warnings which irritates Kenya are the periodic ones issued for the average US traveller whenever Washington feels something is amiss, like with a terrorist threat. The local tourist industry in particular has come to dread these travel warnings.

This particular matter was raised at the bilateral meetings, according to Mr Wetang’ula. Ahead of the symbolic meeting in Nairobi on Thursday between Mrs Clinton and Somali interim President Ahmed, an incongruous angle was being peddled by his Al Shabab enemies regarding whether he would shake hands with the American, a gesture the hardline Islamists prefer to frown upon as “impure”.

The Al Shabab have imposed a strict version of Sharia law in the areas they control but President Ahmed has been subtly working to undercut them by likewise adopting Islamic law in government-run areas, though in practice the government version is far more relaxed.

Prior to the meeting with President Ahmed, Mrs Clinton had publicly threatened sanctions against Eritrea if the latter continued to support Al Shabab.

The Sunday Nation found in interviews with government officials that what struck Kenya’s top officials on meeting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was her total lack of condescension and her genuine interest to know more about Kenya.

This could partly be because of the country’s connection to President Barack Obama but also because of her husband’s involvement with charitable projects in Kenya, especially on anti-HIV projects, through the Clinton Foundation.

Some of the Kenyan officials who were part of the bilateral talks held with the American team could not help contrasting her demeanour to the hectoring, accusatory character of the local ambassador, Mr Michael Ranneberger, who is a Bush administration appointee.

“She is firm but very polite. She has her way of doing business. But it was clear she was very well briefed,” said Government Spokesman Alfred Mutua. The Secretary of State first had a private one-to-one session with President Kibaki at the VIP room at the KICC just before both of them entered the conference hall to give their speeches.

That meeting went largely unreported unlike the follow-up one at the same venue where Mrs Clinton and the President were joined by Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, and several ministers.

Those present included Foreign Minister Moses Wetang’ula, Prof George Saitoti (Security), Mr Mutula Kilonzo (Justice), Mr Uhuru Kenyatta (Finance), and Kenya’s Ambassador in Washington, DC Peter Ogego.

Aside from the formal business of Somalia and American investment locally, there was plenty of light-hearted banter and laughter in the room. President Obama’s name featured a lot in the discussion, with President Kibaki recalling when he worked with Obama’s father at the Treasury.

Mrs Clinton reportedly expressed delight at the architecture and facilities at KICC and inquired who built the structure and when. In her public speeches throughout her stay, one of the issues she showed closest affinity to was women empowerment.

And she made it clear that one of the Kenyans she considered to be heroes was Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai. Judging from the screaming headlines that suggested the American had come laden with harsh warnings for this country, people privy to what transpired at the private meetings say the reality of the discussions she held with Kenyan leaders was quite different.

It was not so much the message of reforms she delivered – which Kenyan officialdom knew would be inevitable – but rather the tone with which she delivered this message. She was nonetheless firm on a number of issues.

One, she made it known her government was not enthusiastic about the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission as an alternative to a special tribunal to prosecute post-election violence suspects. Given the option of The Hague or a special tribunal, she left no doubt she was for the latter.

Could be her toned-down approach was dictated by the frayed reaction to a fierce statement the US embassy released to coincide with her visit. The statement complained of “lack of seriousness” by the Kenyan authorities toward tackling the culture of impunity.

“Failure by Kenya to take ownership of the process of accountability at all levels will call into serious question whether the political will exists to carry out fundamental reforms,” said Mr Ranneberger.