in Defence / Features

Trump shift the emphasis in east Africa

Posted 1 August 2017 · Add Comment

The US is entering a new chapter of its military interventions in east Africa. Jon Lake reports

US President Donald Trump has approved a mission proposal from the Pentagon that will allow the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) to provide additional support for the African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Somali Government forces as they strive to defeat Islamist al-Shabaab – a fundamentalist Salafist jihadist terrorist organisation that has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.
The president signed a directive designating part of southern Somalia as an “area of active hostilities” for the next six months. This will allow AFRICOM greater freedom of action in its operations in this area, including more aggressive air strikes.
President Trump is understood to have reacted to a request by General Thomas Waldhauser, the head of AFRICOM, who reportedly requested additional authority in giving the command greater flexibility, autonomy and timeliness when making decisions to prosecute targets, allowing commanders to conduct operations without having to consult the White House for each mission.
US Forces are also expected to step up the scope, scale and intensity of their operations against Al Shabaab, moving further away from the Obama administration’s policy of only allowing defensive operations, and missions in support of AMISOM. Some see this as an indication that the US has finally overcome its reluctance to intervene in Somalia, following the 1993 battle of Mogadishu (immortalised in the book and movie ‘Black Hawk Down’), which saw the loss of multiple UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and 19 US dead, and a humiliating early withdrawal by the remaining US force in March 1994.
Since then, the US has avoided large-scale direct intervention in Somalia, though since 2007, American forces have been targeting Al Shabaab and its leaders under Operation Octave Shield and the little-known Operation Juniper Garrett.
These operations have seen Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) elements, including the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment’s helicopters, F-15E Strike Eagles and even AC-130H Spectre gunships attacking terrorist targets.
Manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft have also played a major part, including P-3C Orions, Cessna U-28As, and a plethora of contractor-operated types as well as MQ-1 Predators, and MQ-9 Reapers, operating from bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya.
Al Shabaab grew out of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) following defeat by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its Ethiopian military allies in 2006, during the long-running (and on-going) civil war, which saw a gradual shift in the nature of the struggle from being between rival clan warlords and a weak central government to being an Islamist insurgency.
The US Army Special Operation’s Command’s official magazine described Al Shabaab as “Al Qaeda’s foremost African franchise” in its January-March 2017 edition, and assessed that: “Although the group has likely been pressured by key territorial and leadership losses since mid-2015, its operational tempo has been mostly unhindered.”
Al Shabaab continues to present a major threat to Somalia itself, and to the surrounding region – as was demonstrated during 2013, when terrorists attacked Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in neighbouring Kenya.
Perhaps even more worryingly, Al Shabaab is known to have contact with other African Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in north Africa and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Though Somali and AMISOM forces have already achieved what the Pentagon has described as: “significant success in recapturing territory from Al Shabaab”, the magazine judged that: “The nascent Somali National Army (SNA) continues to lack the will and capacity to combat the group unilaterally and the Somali Government continues to have little influence outside the capital.”
The SNA’s weaknesses include an extremely unrepresentative structure with regard to regions and clans, although Somalia’s own security forces will have to assume responsibility for defending the nation by the end of 2020, when the existing 22,000-strong African Union AMISOM force stands down.
But, for the time being, the Kenyan and Ugandan forces that form the backbone of AMISOM are indispensible, together with the force elements from Burundi, Djibouti, and Sierra Leone, and the Ethiopian forces, which are nominally part of the mission, but which operate independently from the rest of the AMISOM force.
 

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