U.S Africa Command ready for Somali military support, general says
Alshabab continued to clash with Somali and African Union forces in a series of deadly battles on Wednesday, one day after the al-Qaida-linked group launched a brazen attack at a Mogadishu hotel that left more than 30 people dead, including several government officials.
AFRICOM provides training to some African Union forces who deploy to Somalia as part of a peacekeeping force that defends Somalia’s weak government from being toppled. However, Gen. William “Kip” Ward said AFRICOM also is prepared to provide that training directly to Somali troops.
“To the degree that the Transitional Federal Government and its military structure requires and asks for that same thing, we are prepared to do that,” Ward said during an interview Monday at his headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. That decision would have to be made by the White House, not AFRICOM, he said.
The U.S. has opted to work with Ugandan and Burundian troops in training Somalia government troops. AFRICOM could lend support to Somali troops with small unit training to foster better relations, improve leadership and teach the proper role of militaries in society, he said.
“We are prepared to do all of that given it’s aligned with our overall policy and strategy,” said Ward, who added that the U.S. policy on Somalia is under review in Washington.
But he said he doesn’t foresee U.S. forces engaged on the ground in Somalia. Rather, the support will come in the form of logistical assistance, training and equipment.
“It doesn’t mean you have to have U.S. forces on the ground to make a difference,” he said.
U.S. military officials are cautioning that an influx of foreign fighters into the country could bring a wave of more unpredictable jihad to the broader region.
“After gaining experience alongside Alshabab, those freelancing jihadists could stray from the main Alshabab mission,” officials said.
When Alshabab rebels claimed responsibility for a pair of deadly bombings last month in Uganda — a country targeted for deploying troops to defend Somalia’s government from a militant takeover — it signaled a new tactic for the al-Qaida inspired group. Many analysts feared more such bombings could be on the horizon as rebels attempt to discourage surrounding nations from deploying troops to Somalia.
As Alshabab takes control over large swaths of territory, the larger long-term security threat could come from foreigners getting trained to take the fight back home — wherever that may be, the military official said.
The threat of Somalia as a home base for al-Qaida also is coming under more intense scrutiny from some Washington lawmakers, who say places such as the Horn of Africa and Yemen could prove to be the most immediate terrorist threat facing the U.S.
For two decades, the international community has been vexed by Somalia and its violent unrest. Over the years, different clans and militias have vied for control. The society is as fractured as ever, but Alshabab appears to be the most potent force now in operation.
“Just last week I was in Djibouti where I participated in an Iftar dinner, where our Muslim partners and friends participate in the nightly breaking of their religious fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Yesterday’s attacks are a contradiction of the principles and ethics I’ve learned from Islam,” Ward said. “Alshabab continues to deprive the Somali people of hope and is destabilizing the region.”
Despite its harsh tactics and imposition of a severe form of Islamic law, or Shariah, Alshabab is tolerated in some areas because they can provide some measure of security, the military official said.
“We see al-Shabab control expanding, so we can surmise from that that if you get the support of the people … that’s how you stay (in power),” the official said.
Meanwhile, elements of al-Qaida under intense pressure in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan could find a home in Somalia if Alshabab succeeds. “I think it is inevitable they will look at other places for operating environments,” the official said. “We’ve been saying that for a decade, but certainly it is trending that way.”