A new US-backed military offensive against Islamist militants in Somalia could undermine the massive international effort to help millions of people threatened by the worst drought there in more than 40 years, aid officials in the unstable east African state fear.
Individual donors in the UK have raised more than £50m (Sh6.6 billion) and the British government has contributed another £110m (Sh14.6 billion) to help avert hundreds of thousands of deaths in Somalia. More than six million people there are in need of immediate assistance, with half of them facing famine.
British officials in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, say the effort is “unprecedented”. The UN target of raising $835m (Sh83.5 billion) has largely been met, raising hopes that a repeat of the tragedy of the 2011 famine, which killed 250,000 people in the country, will be averted. However, aid workers in Somalia warn that any significant offensive, especially if accompanied by the use of air power, could have a devastating effect on relief operations.
“Increased belligerence from some international and national actors is not going to help us… if things deteriorate as a result of military effort, that will be man-made,” said Peter de Clercq, the United Nations’ deputy special representative of the secretary-general in Somalia. “We have argued very strongly that this is not the time for military action.”
Other senior aid officials spoke of a “nightmare scenario” of widespread fighting in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. “It would be a catastrophe … and could totally undermine everything that is being done to save lives,” said one official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of his organisation’s operations in the country.
But Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, the newly elected president of Somalia, and President Donald Trump have both signalled an imminent offensive against al-Shabaab, an Islamist extremist group allied to al-Qaida that controls much of the region worst hit by the drought.
Mohamed, a dual US-Somali national, pledged earlier this month to deliver on his campaign promise to rid his country of the group. At a press conference last month, he offered an amnesty to al-Shabaab militants who surrendered within 60 days, but warned the rest would “face the consequences … a new war”. Trump recently designated the country a “zone of active hostilities”, allowing commanders greater authority when launching airstrikes, broadening the range of possible targets and relaxing restrictions on the use of air power designed to prevent civilian casualties.
Ministers said that Mohamed’s decision to launch renewed action against al-Shabaab had been taken after talks with Washington.
Trump has also authorised the deployment of regular US forces to Somalia for the first time since 1994. The US in effect pulled out of Somalia after 1993, when two helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu and the bodies of American soldiers were dragged through the streets.
Al-Shabaab has not been implicated in any plots to strike the US or Europe, but has carried out several high-profile terror attacks in the region and has attracted recruits from the US as well as Europe. Even before he took power, Trump’s advisers asked State Department officials dealing with East Africa why, after years of effort, the war against al-Shabaab had not been “won”.
Millions of those needing emergency assistance to avoid starvation live in areas controlled by al-Shabaab. These zones are likely to bear the brunt of any new fighting. The timing of military action is likely to concern some US allies, too.
Senior officials in Britain’s Department for International Development and the Foreign Office favour low-level negotiations with al-Shabaab to allow access to drought-hit areas, minutes of recent meetings seen by the Observer show. This would almost certainly be jeopardised by any serious fighting.
Violence is already a major obstacle to humanitarian relief in Somalia, with more than 100 killed in terrorist attacks in Mogadishu this year, and daily ambushes of government or international forces by al-Shabaab. More than 50 al-Shabaab fighters were reported killed last month by Kenyan troops deployed in Somalia as part of Amisom, a regional stabilisation force of about 22,000 men.
Al-Shabaab, which does not allow most western organisations to enter territory it controls, dismissed the amnesty as a “fraud designed to please the west” and has promised to meet any offensive “with redoubled force”. The group currently allows people to leave its area of control to seek medical assistance, food and shelter – but there are fears that this could change.
An offensive would be likely to rely heavily on US air power and possibly Special Forces. Military and counterterrorism advisers have been present in Somalia for several years, working with local forces. A small unit of Special Forces has participated in raids on al-Shabaab.
Such troops would play a vital role in any renewed fighting. The Amisom stabilisation force has shown little appetite for major operations against al-Shabaab in recent years and has suffered significant casualties in attacks by the group. (Guardian)