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The Secret War: Africa ops may be just starting

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By Sean D. Naylor – Staff writer
Posted : Monday Dec 5, 2011 11:36:03 EST

There was clearly something suspicious about the two western-looking “civilians” and their interpreter who the Ethiopian security forces were questioning.

For a start, they were in Ethiopia’s bandit country — near the town of Fiq in the Ogaden region that borders Somalia. Secondly, they claimed to be working for the Red Cross, but a quick check of their persons turned up sidearms, which the Red Cross forbids its personnel from carrying. By the time the “civilians” admitted they were U.S. military personnel, the damage had been done. They were on their way to an Ethiopian jail, and an international incident was brewing.

The Ogaden incident, which occurred between March 2007 and March 2008 (sources were unable or unwilling to be more specific), infuriated not only the Ethiopian government but also U.S. intelligence, military and diplomatic leaders in the region.

The Secret War

Read all stories in the six-part series

The episode was one of several irritants in U.S.-Ethiopian relations after Ethiopia’s December 2006 invasion of Somalia. Others included revelations in the U.S. press about AC-130 gunship missions being flown out of Ethiopia and a general reluctance on the Ethiopians’ part to cooperate too closely with U.S. forces in Somalia. Nonetheless, U.S. and Ethiopian special operations forces continued to work together in very small numbers until Ethiopia withdrew from Somalia in January 2009.

The U.S. military personnel whom the Ethiopians took prisoner in the Ogaden were human intelligence soldiers working for Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa’s intelligence directorate. They were authorized “to go out beyond the wire,” said retired Marine Maj. Gen. Timothy Ghormley, the U.S. Central Command chief of staff at the time, who had previously commanded CJTF-HOA, based in Djibouti.

They were not supposed to be undercover, according to Ghormley.

“They’re completely overt,” he said. “They’re supposed to identify themselves as U.S. service members.”

But a senior intelligence official, also familiar with the episode, used different terminology.

“It was a clandestine operation,” the official said. The troops weren’t in uniform, “but … if they were detained they would be able to say, ‘We’re members of the U.S. military,’ so somebody could get them the hell out of there.”

The soldiers’ first mistake was venturing into an area they’d been expressly forbidden from entering, Ghormley said. “They went where they’re not supposed to, they went up near Fiq, and going up into the Fiq area was probably not the brightest thing in the world to do,” he said.

“We said, ‘Don’t go into those regions until we can verify the security and safety,’” said a State Department official. “And they ignored it completely. They put themselves at risk.”

The soldiers risked capture by ethnic Somali guerrillas who “don’t like Americans,” the official said. “They would have killed them.”

But the soldiers’ biggest error was to tell Ethiopian troops who confronted them they were members of a Red Cross team, Ghormley said.

“The colossal mistake they made — the final mistake they made — was concocting a cover story,” he said. “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, from what I understand.”

The pretense didn’t last long.

“The Ethiopians found pistols on them,” instantly invalidating the cover story, Ghormley said. “With that, they were determined to be hostile, and when they finally did tell the Ethiopians who they were and what they were, the Ethiopians were just kind of ticked off. So they decided they would bring them in.”

The soldiers were detained for “roughly” 10 days, the senior intelligence official said.

Ghormley disagreed.

“They were probably held 48 hours, maybe, not much longer than that,” he said.

Nevertheless, high-level diplomatic and military pressure was required to get the men released, sources said.

“It took the ambassador, it took the CENTCOM commander [Adm. William Fallon], it took the State Department to get involved,” the intelligence official said.

“An incident occurred in which a couple of guys were detained,” said Fallon, who retired in 2008. “They were using poor judgment to go to a place they shouldn’t have been, [which was] not authorized and not sanctioned and not smart.”

“The Ethiopians were good about it,” but the fiasco had long-term consequences, the intelligence official said.

The soldiers had been carrying a lot of information about U.S. intelligence operations in the region that was instantly compromised.

“All their documentation, papers, notepads, military stuff were collected [by the Ethiopians],” the State Department official said.

“It was like amateur hour, this team that got rolled up,” the intelligence official said. “There was information that they had that they should not have been carrying … It gave away techniques and procedures that we couldn’t afford to do, because we knew at that time that al-Qaida was building up its capability in Somalia and that was why we were trying damn hard to get into Somalia with really sensitive collection.”

The incident “put a spotlight on everything” U.S. intelligence was doing in the Horn, the official said. “It became a big deal and it actually hurt us, I would say, for a couple of years … around the region.”

Military intelligence operations now had to be coordinated through the CIA.

“That coordination just dried up,” the official said.

Fallon disputed that interpretation.

“It was certainly not helpful, and it caused a lot of anxiety. But at the end of the day, there was no major damage done,” he said.

(Hilary Renner, spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, and Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, each declined to comment on the episode. The Ethiopian Embassy in Wash

ington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.)

Recent strides

Ethiopia’s withdrawal from Somalia ended neither the war in that country nor the U.S.’s role in it.

Although the Ethiopian invasion had quickly ousted the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu, a hard-line Islamist faction called al-Shabaab (the Youth) soon emerged to battle the Ethiopians, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and the African Union peacekeeping force that replaced the Ethiopians.

Since then, and particularly during the past six months, the pace of U.S. operations appears, if anything, to have accelerated as an increasing number of actors are drawn into the war in Somalia.

• On Sept. 14, 2009, a U.S. special operations helicopter raid killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a senior al-Qaida in East Africa figure.

• On April 19, 2011, the U.S. captured Somali national and al-Shabaab member Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, 25, as he crossed the Gulf of Aden on a ship to Yemen from Somalia. The U.S. held Warsame, who allegedly has links to Yemen’s al-Qaida branch, for two months on a Navy ship before flying him to the U.S.

• On June 7, TFG forces killed Harun Fazul, the most-wanted al-Qaida figure in East Africa, when he mistook their roadblock in Mogadishu for an al-Shabaab position.

• On June 23, U.S. drones struck al-Shabaab targets near Kismayo.

• On July 6, there were reports of airstrikes in Lower Juba, the southernmost region of Somalia, according to the website SomaliaReport.com.

• In early August, under increasing military pressure from the TFG forces backed up by 9,000 African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi, al-Shabaab announced its withdrawal from Mogadishu.

• On Sept. 15, there were more airstrikes on an al-Shabaab training camp in Taabta in Lower Juba, according to SomaliaReport.com.

• On Sept. 21, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. is building a “ring of secret drone bases” including facilities in Ethiopia, the Seychelles and “the Arabian Peninsula.”

• On Sept. 23, airstrikes hit al-Shabaab’s main camp at the Kismayo airport.

• On Oct. 4, an al-Shabaab truck bomb killed an estimated 65 people in Mogadishu.

In mid-October, Kenya’s military began a substantial incursion into southern Somalia, which has since bogged down short of the port of Kismayo. By late November, there were reports that Ethiopia had again sent forces into Somalia in support of the Kenyan invasion. The New York Times quoted U.S. officials Oct. 21 saying the Kenyan action had taken them by surprise and there were no U.S. military advisers with the Kenyan force. Even if that is the case, U.S. officials say the secret war in the Horn of Africa is by no means over.

Mixed success

Looking back, U.S. officials are divided over what they achieved in the Horn in the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Successes were rare in the early years of the campaign against al-Qaida in East Africa. The only al-Qaida fighters known to have been killed between 2001 and 2005 were a bodyguard who blew himself up to enable Harun Fazul to escape Kenyan security forces in 2003 and another “minor player” who died of wounds received when Kenyan police seized him, said an intelligence source with long experience in the Horn.

During that period, warlords paid by the CIA helped render “seven or eight” al-Qaida figures out of Somalia, the source said. But although the U.S. focus was on rendering, rather than killing, members of al-Qaida in East Africa, this presented its own challenges.

“The big problem was, what do you do with one of these guys” once he had been captured, a senior military official said. That was “the $100,000 question.”

The U.S. was reluctant to put its captives on trial.

“All the evidence [against the al-Qaida figures] is intelligence,” the official said. “So unless you want to give it up … we have a problem with [that] based on sources and methods.”

Normal procedure was for the warlords to capture the targets, who were then transferred to Djibouti, processed and sent on from there, according to the intelligence source. As for their ultimate destinations, “the only ones I knew were sent to the ‘Salt Pit’ in Afghanistan,” the source said. The “Salt Pit” is the name of a CIA clandestine prison — sometimes referred to as a “black site” — north of Kabul.

Most sources Army Times interviewed said Operation Black Hawk — the CIA-led campaign against al-Qaida in East Africa — had a direct impact on the terrorist network’s efforts in the Horn. Black Hawk was a success, said the intelligence source with long experience in the Horn, because the al-Qaida cell “was certainly degraded, perhaps eviscerated.” In addition, the source said, “we believed we were able to foil several [al-Qaida] operations” along the lines of another embassy bombing or a plane attack.

However, even as he focused tightly on the manhunt and the renditions, John Bennett, the CIA’s station chief in Nairobi in the 2002-03 time frame and now the head of the Agency’s National Clandestine Service, had his doubts about that approach, the intelligence source said.

“Bennett always felt that [by focusing on rendition] you weren’t getting at the larger problem,” the source said.

Always interested in getting at how al-Qaida was targeting U.S. interests in the region, Bennett wanted to go after al-Qaida’s network and finances, the source added. (Bennett declined an interview request.)

“We rarely stepped back to ask, ‘What does this thing really look like, and so what?’” the source said. “Not because we didn’t think about it but because we went after what we knew.”

Combat complications

U.S. efforts were complicated by the fact that there were “two proponent agencies” for the war on al-Qaida in the Horn — U.S. Special Operations Command (higher headquarters for Joint Special Operations Command, whose elite operators were heavily involved in the Horn) and the CIA — according to the intelligence source. This created friction between the CIA and JSOC during the early years of the campaign, the source said. The Horn was what the source described as “a Title 50 environment,” meaning it was not considered a combat theater. (Title 50 is the section of the U.S. Code dealing with covert intelligence issues, while Title 10 deals with the armed services, including clandestine military operations.)

Operating out of a sovereign nation — Kenya — in a Title 50 environment meant “we had to let the Kenyans in on anything short of a covert operation,” leaving some JSOC “shooters” eager for more aggressive action “very frustrated,” the source said.

“Nairobi is a good example of JSOC wanting to come in and conduct operations — let’s say a Little Bird [helicopter] strike against a target in the tri-border area of Somalia-Ethiopia-Kenya,” the source said. “More than one [JSOC] O-6 came through Nairobi and said, ‘We can do whatever we damn please.’” The source noted that “at the time SOCOM and JSOC were accustomed to working in Title 10 environments” such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where the rules governing combat action were much looser.

Assessing the threat

No U.S. military personnel have died in combat in the Horn since 9/11, which the senior intelligence official described as “amazing.” But despite the low cost in American blood, some special operators question whether the U.S. effort there has been worth the risk.

“I never thought any of the African targets were important,” said a special operations officer. “They don’t show a direct threat to the homeland. They don’t have the ability to project.”

He dismissed the argument that Somali immigrants to the U.S. who have returned to fight for al-Shabaab represent a threat to the homeland.

“Can you show me intelligence that shows that that network is posing a direct threat to the United States or its allies?” he asked, emphasizing that he was referring to a current threat, not past attacks such as al-Qaida’s 1998 bomb attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa.

The senior intelligence official’s take was very different.

“The scale of the problem in Somalia was huge,” the official said. “We’re talking a large number of al-Qaida, a couple of training camps over the years that have trained, in the case of two examples, a couple of hundred people who are now out there. Some probably left the continent and returned to Europe, some may have returned to Afghanistan and some may have returned to Iraq, and some may just still be in Somalia fighting.”

Although there are terrorist training camps in Somalia, the special ops officer acknowledged, “there are training camps all over the place. But what was the threat tied to our homeland or our allies?”

“Somalia definitely has a cell [of al-Qaida] but the connectivity to the rest of al-Qaida is really specious, it’s very frail,” said a special mission unit veteran.

The diaries of senior Arab al-Qaida members such as Ramzy Binalshib and Abu Zubaydah express clear racism toward black people that would complicate any attempt at close cooperation between the Arab-dominated group and its African franchise, he said.

“What they [i.e. the targets in Africa] did enable us to do was see the network, because they had to communicate, so that’s always good,” the special ops officer said. “It made us understand the network, that’s the biggest success story. And it’s another example of how we can work quietly with others.”

“We managed to strengthen bilateral relations in the region with numerous countries,” agreed the intel source with long experience in the Horn.

But the recent flurry of airstrikes in Somalia, combined with senior leader comments, suggests that there is much work yet to do.

In a March 1 hearing, Marine Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “…we see [al-Qaida] links going down into Somalia with al-Shabaab.”

“There’s been a lot of very challenging things done there and, sadly, we’re going to have to do,” said the senior intelligence official. But although the CIA and JSOC continue to be active in Somalia — a recent article in The Nation outlined close links between CIA and the TFG’s intelligence agency — the military has no permanent presence in the country, the intelligence official said.

After expanding for most of the past seven years, JSOC’s presence in the Horn “is steady — it’s definitely plateaued,” the senior intelligence official said. In fact, the official said, it’s probably dropped a bit” because a couple of “the key targets” have been killed.

There are no JSOC personnel in Somaliland, Sudan or Eritrea and only a very small intelligence team in Ethiopia, the official said. “On a given day in Kenya, you probably have a couple of dozen guys — that’s about it,” the official said. “Enough to do, if required … a high-value capture-or-kill mission. And then we certainly have the ability to move guys pretty damn quickly to there.”

But despite JSOC’s acute interest in Somalia, there is a limit to what the command can achieve there, said a Defense Department official. “JSOC is not going to be the deciding force in whatever happens in Somalia,” the official said. “They can’t kill them all. They can’t capture them all.”

When it comes to Somalia and Yemen, “we’d like to be doing much more in both those places,” the senior military official said. “The State Department came down hard and said we don’t want a third front in an Islamic [country] … Our State Department doesn’t want us to have campaign plans in these two countries.

“It’s a tale of frustration, tears and woe — of what we wanted to do and what we thought we’d be allowed to versus what we’ve been able to do.”

In the meantime, said the senior intelligence official, “Somalia remains a huge problem.”

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Al Shaabab Acquire Radar Equipments To Spy AU Troops

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International News — 17 November 2011

The rebel militants of Al Shabaab in Somalia said they have obtained radar equipments and other military hardware to fight against African Union and  Kenyan and Somali troops battling the group in the south of the war-torn country, a pro-Al Shabaab website reported on Thursday.

The claim by the radical group comes as row over alleged shipment of arms for Al Shabaab have been growing between Kenya and Eritrea.

Eritrea is accused of sending weapons to the group, but the country has strongly denies the accusation.

“Radar equipments have been brought to some of the Somalia Wilaayaats (provinces) to detect enemy aircraft breaching Somalia’ s airspace, “said Somalimemo, a website used by Al Shabaab.

The site quoting an unnamed official added ” other ‘modern equipments ‘were found to counter the aging Kenyan aircraft fleet”.

The Al Shabaab official did not give further details about where the group got the new military equipment or where they were installed.

Kenyan have lately been carrying out air raids against Al Shabaab targets in southern Somalia where the group controls.

Allied Kenyan and Somali government troops have since early October been carrying out a military action aimed at ousting the militant fighters from the south of the war-ravaged Horn of Africa nation.

The group also asserted they have enlisted the retired senior military officials of former Somali government of Mohamed Siyad Barre to advise on and take part in the fight against Kenyan and Somali government troops.

The radical rebel group of Al Shabaab this week displayed several speedboats and dozens of newly trained fighters carrying AK-47s as well as local traditional fighters armed with spears, bows and arrows in the southern port town of Marka.

Al Shabaab reiterated threats of attacks against Kenyan for sending its troops across the border to Somalia as well as against Burundi and Uganda, two countries who are currently contributing troops to the 9,000-strong African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM) based in Mogadishu.

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U.S. Goes Public with Support for Hired Guns Against Piracy

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By gCaptain Staff

November 12, 2011

Former Anti-”Mercenary” Sec. State Clinton is Now the Industry’s Biggest Booster

Somalia Report leaked the internal memo from Hillary Clinton directing all regional embassies to pitch the use of armed contractors on board ships. This is in line with and expands upon the UK’s approval of private security companies on just their ships. This is akin to legalizing band aids without actually curing the wounds that require them.

What also makes the U.S. stance unusual is that Clinton has reversed her aggressive election-era stance against the use of private security and become a behind-the-scenes supporter.

A November news conference in DC confirms that the United States is now officially supporting the use of private security companies aboard commercial vessels. Andrew J. Shapiro, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs was assigned the task of communicating this reversal while addressing the Defense Trade Advisory Group (DTAG).

The simple approval of the use of deadly force and non-state actors has a number of implications. Foremost would be how do deal with the general agreement and public statements by large shipping companies that they view the responsibility of maritime security to be rooted in the flag carrier, navies and legitimate purveyors of deadly force, not the maritime industry. The industry and mariners do not see themselves as the law of the sea and only view the use of armed guards as a last resort.

The recent piracy trend in Somalia actually began in 2000 when UK trained armed Somali guards decided to hijack ships they were hired to protect. The most memorable incident was when Canadian company SomCan’s first contract in Puntland ended in 2005, when three of its own employees were arrested for hijacking a Thai fishing trawler and demanding $800,000 ransom. The current State Department may be a little short on historical briefings when it comes to Somalia.

Nations with naval power like the US and the UK only flag a tiny almost insignificant percentage of the world’s commercial fleets, making their stance more posturing than productive. The international nature of the maritime business where the largest number of mariners typically come from the poorest countries and flags of convenience being chosen more for their regulation loopholes than their military might are the de facto standard.

Pirates have been using western coast guard skills and criminal zeal to mine the insurance gap for almost a decade now. It might be the only $100M plus a year maritime business here millions of dollars are regularly paid tax free to men wearing flip flops and rusty AKs. If a hijack scenario was played out inside any western nation, a much different approach would be used. It is the insurance companies that demand the use of armed security guards on ships, not the maritime industry. And the new support of this industry based on “no armed ship grabbed by pirates” mantra does not excuse nations from defending their citizens and business interests overseas.

This direct endorsement of for-profit companies to do what navies were created to do is a seismic shift. All that is needed now is a letter of marque and a decent bounty on pirates to complete the scene. Something that mariners in the region might not be greatly opposed to but Somali fisherman might be opposed to.

There is also much work to do internationally to allow the unimpeded flow of vessels with weapons on board. Certain regions like the Suez controlled by Egypt specifically banned the presence of weapons and armed guards. Now they request a detailed list of weapons and personnel on board. Armed guards are confined to deploying from countries like Yemen or Oman who have a working relationship with security companies. But landing a ship in Mogadishu and offloading an armed crew would be violating the UN Arms Embargo. The world of user permits, arms control, general distrust of private security companies and concerns about the use of deadly force have led to like escort ships that keep the weapons off the ship but allow an armed presence.

Most legislation or industry rules are designed for land based security within a single country, making the transit of international waters and port hopping problematic for armed guards. This led to the white lie of security companies telling the customs brokers that they threw their weapons overboard when they docked with a client ship. The reality is they were kept in international waters.

The use of hired guns to fight pirates actually has historical roots in history but the political correctness of the times is sure to inflate the simple logical concept of trained ex-military quietly doing their job to the more cinematic treatment given security companies in Iraq. It should be the responsibility of the flag nation to defend the lives, hull and cargo of their ships complete with national assets providing the security but in a world of pragmatic choices it appears that hired guns will be riding shotgun on the world’s commercial fleets.

Andrew J. Shapiro remarks to the Defense Trade Advisory Group November 9, 2011

“Finally, I want to provide a brief update on our efforts to counter piracy off the Horn of Africa. This is another area where we are working very closely with industry.

Commercial shipping vessels transiting off the coast of Somalia are frequent targets for pirates. The lives of innocent seafarers have been lost and crews are often held hostage for many months in appalling conditions. The monetary total of ransoms demanded runs into hundreds of millions of dollars a year, with the total cost of piracy to the global economy estimated to be in the billions. With so much water to patrol it is difficult for international naval forces in the region to protect every commercial vessel. Working with industry, we recently established a national policy encouraging countries to allow commercial ships transiting high-risk waters to have armed security teams on board.

The reason for this is simple: to date no ship with an armed security team aboard has been successfully pirated. We believe that the expanded use of armed security teams by commercial vessels is a major reason why we have seen a decline in the number of successful pirate attacks this year. Therefore, we have recently demarched countries to permit the use of privately contracted armed security personnel on commercial vessels. And we are also working with industry and transit countries to make it less onerous for privately contracted security personnel to transit foreign ports with weapons intended for the self-defense of ships.

We have also shifted our efforts to focus on the pirate leaders and organizers ashore. The focus ashore is essential, as piracy has evolved into an organized transnational criminal enterprise conducted for profit. It is increasingly clear that the arrest and prosecution of pirates captured at sea – often the low-level operatives involved in piracy – is insufficient, on its own, to meet our longer term counter-piracy goals. To maintain the momentum and space for action gained by naval operations, we have begun an effort to identify ways to disrupt these criminal networks and to determine the means to dismantle their financial networks.” Via U.S. Dept. of State

There are some serious flaws in the thought process behind the State Department’s thinking. There is not a single mention of the impact of the thousands of mariners who have been held hostage, abused, beaten and killed. The State Dept seems to have made this decision based on financial rationale.

The U.S. also uses financial fiction to mask its decision. Piracy does not cost the shipping industry billions, the shipping industry makes millions from piracy by passing on the increased surcharges passed on to consumers. The insurance and security industry also makes money from mitigating the threat of piracy. There is nothing amoral about providing these necessary services but the ability of pirates to make millions from piracy is a direct result of the international nations doing little to nothing about ending piracy. Piracy is rooted in a handful of remote windblown ports and seaborne “action groups” monitored daily by the navies in the area. The regional governments of Puntland and Somalialand (along the other nations) have fat dossiers on the names, locations, cel phone numbers and associates of the pirates.

U.S. and UK support of the private security industry is simply a long delayed appointment with reality but still an abrogation of moral duty to protect mariners by ending piracy, not just frustrating it for profit.

© Somalia Report 2011. All rights reserved

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Kenya’s Somali raid threatens to explode into regional conflict

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Someone’s sending planeloads of weapons to Al Shabaab, and Kenya – which invaded Somalia to sort the Islamic militants out once and for all – is not happy. It’s blaming Eritrea, a potentially explosive accusation which could make an ostensibly domestic issue mushroom into something much more serious. By SIMON ALLISON.

The rumours started when first two planes, then a third, landed deep in Al Shabaab territory in Somalia, apparently bringing weapons to the Islamic militant group which Kenya (and the Somali government, although not necessarily in coordination) are trying to wipe out. The Kenyan government came right out and said what most people were already thinking, summoning the Eritrean ambassador to a distinctly unfriendly meeting. “I raised concerns about intelligence that we have and information available that there is a possibility that arms supplies are flowing from his country to Al Shabaab,” said Kenya’s foreign minister Moses Wetangula about the meeting.

Kenya, in other words, thinks Eritrea is arming Al Shabaab, which would position Eritrea firmly on the other side of Kenya’s increasingly protracted war against Al Shabaab. Eritrea strongly denies the allegations.

Although Eritrea doesn’t even share a border with Somalia, and should be more than occupied with its own problems, there is some history between Al Shabaab and the small Horn of Africa country. A United Nations report in July said that “new information … not only confirms many previous allegations of Eritrean military involvement, but also offers firm grounds to believe that Eritrea still retains active linkages to Somali armed groups,” Al Shabaab being foremost among these. The report claimed Eritrea was funnelling $80,000 a month to individuals in Nairobi with Al Shabaab links – not a huge sum at first glance, but sizeable in the context of the region. This begs the question: what does Eritrea have to gain by funding a Somali Islamic fundamentalist militia?

The answer lies neither in Somalia nor Eritrea, but in the country that looms large between them: Ethiopia. Ethiopia is Eritrea’s nemesis, having occupied Eritrea for decades until Eritrea achieved its modern independence with a hard-fought and vicious civil war. But Eritrea can’t relax, ever, because it has the one thing that land-locked Ethiopia wants more than anything else in this world: a port. And rapprochement is not the style of Eritrea’s slightly mad President Isaias Afwerki, whose militaristic foreign policy has left Eritrea in the international wilderness.

Instead, Afwerki has fomented instability in Somalia, hoping the chaos next door will keep Ethiopia and its military occupied. Ethiopia is deeply involved in the Somali conflict itself, and its troops make frequent cross-border raids to chase rebels who are agitating against the Ethiopian government in the ethnically Somali province of the Ogaden. As International Crisis Group’s Somalia expert Rashid Abdi explains: “Eritrea definitely has been supportive of Al Shabaab for a long time and this support is not ideological. It’s essentially meant to counter Ethiopia’s influence in Somalia.”

So while we don’t know if it really was Eritrea sending planeloads of weapons to Al Shabaab during the current conflict with Kenya, this nonetheless represents the first step in turning what is a domestic conflict into a larger, regional issue. In a way, it doesn’t really matter if Eritrea was involved or not, as long as Kenya thinks they were, they will be implicated.

Kenya has said it will pursue its claims against Eritrea, saying that it has a “series of options” to deal with them. It’s unclear what these options are, but it’s unlikely that any of them will ease tensions in the Horn of Africa. And whenever Eritrea gets involved in something, it’s not long before Ethiopia follows suit – on the opposite side, of course. So what started out as a Somali issue might just turn into something much, much bigger, not forgetting that Uganda and Burundi are already involved as they are the only countries to have contributed troops to the African Union mission in Somalia.

Kenya hoped its Somali incursion would be quick and easy. But its troops are getting bogged down in the mud and are struggling to even find the enemy. And on the diplomatic front, as the incursion starts looking more and more like an invasion, other countries are inevitably getting involved, making it even less likely that Kenya can extricate itself from Somalia quickly or easily. DM

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Africa: Expanding US interests on the continent

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Washington’s decision to send 100 military advisers to Uganda to assist in the government’s fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has  defence and intelligence analysts keenly interested to see if this may be part of a broader trend to further increase the US military’s presence in the continent…possibly in support of its quest to access African mineral and energy resources.

It is widely perceived that India and China have beaten the US and the West in the race for access to Africa’s treasure trove of natural resources by forging massive bilateral trade agreements. Bilateral US trade with Africa in 2010 stood at about US$82bn, compared to India’s US$44.6bn and China’s US$117.3bn. Combined Sino-Indian trade with Africa outstrips that of the US by some US$80bn.

Although President Barack Obama promised increased trade, investment and development aid for Africa during his presidential election campaign in 2008, the US still lacks a definitive Africa policy. The US has over the past decade focused far more on its strategic military interests when it comes to Africa. However, of late its appetite for oil also seems to be shaping its engagement in Africa, especially in North, East and West Africa.

There have been suggestions that the US’ decision to send military advisers – not combatants, it says – to Uganda was triggered by the substantial oil finds recently in Uganda. The US has denied this.

A recent Norwegian study by Paul Midford and Indra de Soysa found that the US’ arms sales to Africa far outstripped that of China. In addition, it was found that while China prefers doing business with African democracies, the US has been doing business with many African tyrants and dictators.

Washington’s growing interest in Africa from a strategic geopolitical point of view became quite evident when the US established the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. In terms of its strategic threat analyses the US military has divided the world into several military “commands”.

When AFRICOM was established most African nations militated against the idea of a large US military presence in the continent. As a result the US was forced to headquarter AFRICOM in Stuttgart, Germany, where it remains.

But it appears the US military in the interim has been following a strategy of increasing its presence and/or influence in Africa by stealth, most notably so in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti. It has also recently strengthened its military collaborative relationships with countries like Botswana, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mauritania, Mali and Senegal, some of them having considerable oil deposits.

While the US has focused much of its military attention on Kenya because of its increased exposure to Islamic terrorism, and on the Horn of Africa and adjacent areas because of the various conflicts and security threats in that region, it has also steadily increased its presence and/or influence elsewhere on the continent. The US also has an interest in energy resources in the Horn of Africa, most notably in Djibouti while it is closely mitoring oil exploration in Ethiopia. The Horn of Africa is also very close to the rich oilfields of the Arabian Peninisula.

The bulk of the US African military presence – estimated at around 3,600 troops – is concentrated in the capital city of Djibouti as AFRICOM’s Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa. These US troops are stationed in the US Naval Expeditionary Base at Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion base. From this base the US military says it provides mostly humanitarian and developmental support in the region, but security and counter-terrorism objectives are also high on the agenda with the US task force regularly engaging in training and military exercises.

With Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh himself having been the target of terrorism in the past, he takes a proactive stance against terrorism which accommodates the US’ global strategy of “war on terrorism” nicely. It is from here that the US monitors and acts against terrorist organisations and operatives in the Horn of Africa, East Africa and especially Yemen, the latter located on the Arabian Peninsula just across a narrow strip of sea in the Gulf of Aden.

Trained by the Somali National Security Service and the French Secret Service, Guelleh became the head of his country’s security agency under his uncle’s regime and now rules with an iron fist, making use of a mixture of divide and rule tactics, intimidation and repression. Although a multi-party democracy in theory, Djibouti is pretty much a de facto one-party state where little opposition to the ruling regime is tolerated.

Djibouti’s geopolitical and security significance for the US is its close proximity to trouble spots in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, its good relations with Yemen, its close proximity to Arab oil resources, its strategic maritime location between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, and the availability of replenishment and operational facilities for US warships and airplanes, among other things.

The US maintains good relations with Yemen and has refrained from intervening in President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s bloody repression of a popular uprising against his rule since February this year. Yemen has an oil-based economy but is is anticipated that its oil reserves will be depleted by 2017, after which the US expects economic collapse and accompanying social upheavals.

Despite security threats to the US emanating from Yemen, President Obama and the US military have said they have no plans to send US forces to Yemen. Instead they are keeping them in Djibouti. But Yemen’s geopolitical significance regarding its oilfields and strategic maritime location, are keeping it within the US sphere of strategic interests and the Obama administration has increased military aid to the country, the same as it has done in Djibouti.

The decision to do so may have something to do with US oil interests and its strategic influence in the Arab world being threatened by popular uprisings in a number of Arab states, but probably also with the fact that China is trying hard to increase its influence and presence in this region on both sides of the Gulf of Aden.

The increased US military presence in and military aid to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya has also allowed the US military to effectively establish a ring of fire around Somalia where its main target is al-Shabab with its alleged al-Qaeda links.

Al-Shabab is fighting to overthrow the transitional government in Somalia and is listed as a terrorist organisation by the US, Britain, Australia and several other Western countries. It has training links with elements in Afghanistan, and has been responsible for a bloody terrorist attack in Kampala, Uganda, and also the frequent abduction of foreigners from Kenya, among other things.

The organisation has recently grown bolder in its activities, something that may have prompted greater US involvement in the region. The US has in the past targeted its leaders, with at least one prominent leader killed in a US missile attack on the Arabian Peninsula.

However, the US has not been successful in finding support from African nations for it to headquarter AFRICOM on African soil. Initially only Liberia showed some interest, while the US was hopeful at one stage that Ethiopia, together with Djibouti, would play host to AFRICOM. But those plans also fell through. Countries like Nigeria and South Africa voiced considerable opposition to a large US military on African soil.

The issue again made headlines recently when Julius Malema, the president of the youth wing of South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, said his organisation would work for regime change in neighbouring Botswana because Botswana was a “puppet of US imperialism”. Malema claimed the US was about to establish a military base there. Botswana strongly denied this and Malema was repudiated by the ANC and the South African government.

Although Botswana had been a contender to host AFRICOM some years ago, it decided against such a move. Malema may have based his claim on disinformation fed to him by Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF. Robert Mugabe’s party strongly dislikes the Botswana government of Ian Khama because the latter called for new elections in Zimbabwe after the disputed and violent elections of 2008. Khama has also been one of the most vocal African critics of Mugabe.

According to a secret US embassy cable recently published by Wikileaks, Botswana asked the US for military equipment in 2008 to arm itself against what it believed was an imminent military attack by Zimbabwe. However, the US decided against doing so because it would not serve its strategic and diplomatic interests in Southern Africa.

But General William E. Ward, until March the commander of AFRICOM, had also paid several visits to Botswana between then and 2011, ostensibly to beef up military cooperation in an effort to off-set any damage caused by turning down the weapons request.

While AFRICOM remains in Germany for now, the concentration of US forces, advisers and military training and aid in Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya has considerably strengthened its presence in the Horn/East Africa region – a region originally targeted by the US for its AFRICOM headquarters. Many defence and security analysts believe it is just a matter of time before the US realises its dream of basing AFRICOM on African soil, and most probably in this region.

A Congressional Research Service paper for members and committees of the US Congress dated July 22, 2011 says a decision will be reached next year regarding AFRICOM’s headquarters. In the meantime the US military has a presence in all five African regions.

US forces have access to Co-operative Security Locations, referred to as “lily pads” in military jargon, in Algeria, Botswana, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, Sao Tome, Sierra Leona, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia.  According to the paper the US also has military ties with countries designated “areas of interest” and which apart from Kenya and Uganda include Burundi, Chad, Comoros, the DRC, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and, strangely enough, Yemen which is not part of Africa, although only about 50km across the Gulf of Aden.

Few people realize this, but AFRICOM itself has already engaged in warfare in the African continent, its jets having fired the first shots in Libya earlier this year before it handed over all military operations to NATO. The US is, of course, also eyeing Libya’s vast oil resources.

So, in the final analysis it would seem that the US is definitely engaged in expanding its military presence and influence across Africa – something China and India have not yet attempted. And the US is doing this in tandem with its covetous evaluation of access to Africa’s mineral resources and huge energy reserves. Seeking the same access, India and China however, by contrast, are going the trade and development route.

Stef Terblanche

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