Thousands of additional troops urged for force in Somalia

October 16, 2013

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is calling for a surge of thousands of African troops in Somalia to stem the threat of terrorism posed by Islamist insurgents and ensure the survival of a U.N.-backed government, whose success Washington believes is crucial to defeating extremist groups in the region, according to a previously undisclosed appeal.

In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, Ban urged member nations to provide the African Union Mission in Somalia with financial and military support, including attack helicopters and advanced logistical and intelligence equipment. He warned that there was an urgent need to strengthen the military campaign against al-Shabab, a Somali militant group linked to al-Qaeda, and to “avoid further reversals.”

“The deterioration in the security situation threatens to undermine the fragile Somali political process,” Ban wrote in the letter.

The African Union force is made up of about 18,000 troops and is dominated by Ugandans and Burundians. Ban is calling for as many as 4,400 additional troops and support staff for a period of up to two years, and for a limited package of nonlethal support — including transportation, food rations and fuel — for 10,000 front-line Somali troops.

If approved, the appeal would mark a sizable buildup for the U.N. mission and would be aimed at dealing a decisive military defeat to al-Shabab.

Al-Shabab recently carried out a brazen terrorist attack at an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya. In a measure of increasing international anxiety over the threat posed by these militants, a team of Navy SEALs mounted a beach raid on one of the group’s strongholds in a failed attempt to capture a Kenyan-born commander.

The strategy endorsed by Ban was first outlined by a joint U.N.-
African Union mission that traveled to Somalia in late August and early September to assess the danger posed by al-Shabab. It draws on the military rationale invoked by the United States in past years to justify temporary surges in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to break the back of insurgencies and lay the groundwork for an eventual exit strategy.

A temporary military buildup of forces “should ultimately pave the way for the exit of all international forces,” Ban wrote. “Without additional support recommended in this letter, our joint investment is at risk of being derailed by the indefensible actions of the Al Shabab insurgency.”

The African Union force was first deployed in Somalia in 2007 to prevent Islamists from gaining power and to protect a U.N.-backed transitional government.

Over the past two years, African forces have driven al-Shabab out of Somalia’s main cities, Mogadishu and Kismayo. But the Islamist movement has regrouped, shifting its military strategy from fighting conventional battles and holding major cities to undertaking targeted operations in the country, where it has struck U.N. and foreign diplomatic outposts.

On June 19, al-Shabab attacked the United Nations’ humanitarian aid compound in the capital, killing eight U.N. employees. The attack, and the threat of more, “has significantly curtailed the mobility of U.N. staff in Mogadishu and hampers delivery of critical U.N. programs in support of the federal government,” according to a confidential report of the U.N. and African Union joint mission. The report was circulated to Security Council members along with Ban’s letter this week.

The military gains of the past two years are “at a serious risk of being reversed,” according to the report. Al-Shabab’s force “is estimated in the thousands and is increasing through forced recruitment.” If it is not stopped, the document warns, “Al Shabab is likely to expand its targets beyond Somalia.”

The report, which Ban endorsed, cites “the need to immediately resume the military campaign against Al Shabab” to counter the group’s increasingly sophisticated use of asymmetric warfare tactics, and to curtail its ability to infiltrate at will urban centers such as Mogadishu and Kismayo. It proposes that African forces shift from a largely defensive strategy to “an offensive posture necessary for the clearing and holding of additional key rural areas and strategic economic avenues.”

Previous efforts by the African Union to introduce attack helicopters into combat in the region have not gone well.

Last year, the Security Council authorized the use of attack helicopters, setting the stage for the deployment of four Ugandan military aircraft in Somalia in support of offensive military operations. But three of the helicopters — Russian-made Mi-24s — crashed into the foggy banks of Mount Kenya while en route to Somalia from Uganda.

In his letter to the Security Council, Ban asks for countries outside the region to supply military helicopters to the effort, saying it was “not realistic” to mount a successful offensive against al-Shabab without them.

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