Saturday, September 19, 2009

In Somalia, U.S. Weapons End Up In al-Qaeda Arsenal

In Somalia, U.S. weapons end up in al-Qaeda hands

A new proxy war between the Islamist militants and the United States is not going Washington's way

Nairobi — From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Last updated on Friday, Sep. 18, 2009 07:32PM EDT

As the Somalia conflict spirals into a new proxy war between al-Qaeda and the United States, there is mounting evidence that U.S. weapons and Somali soldiers are ending up under the control of Islamic terrorists, Somali politicians say.

The warning comes after a week of heavy violence in Somalia, including a U.S. commando raid that killed a suspected terrorist leader, followed swiftly by a double suicide bombing that killed 17 African peacekeepers in revenge for the U.S. raid.

The United States has pumped at least 40 tonnes of weapons into Somalia in recent months to help the government fight the Islamic warriors who are linked to al-Qaeda. But the Somali army is so weak and ill-trained that its soldiers have begun defecting to the Islamists and their U.S.-supplied weapons are being traded to the insurgents, known as al-Shabab, the politicians say.

“The weapons have ended up mainly in the hands of al-Shabab,” said Awad Ahmed Ashareh, a member of Somalia's official parliament and a Canadian citizen.

Washington's attempt to prop up the Somali government with a flow of arms is a futile gesture because there is not enough training and support for its soldiers, the politicians said in interviews in Nairobi, where many have sought shelter because Mogadishu is considered too dangerous.

“Providing weapons without training and preparation is completely useless,” said former prime minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, who stepped down in 2007 but remains an MP. “All those weapons will end up in the hands of the terrorists.”

Mr. Gedi said he created 14,000 soldiers and 6,000 police officers during his term as prime minister, but they were undermined by a lack of training and support. “These forces have disintegrated totally,” he said. “Some of them may have even joined the terrorists.”

The government is currently defended by about 5,000 Burundian and Ugandan peacekeeping troops from the African Union, but this force is inadequate and needs a stronger mandate, the MPs said. The force is supposed to have 8,000 troops, but other African nations have failed to send their promised contributions so far.

A flow of foreign fighters, especially from Pakistan and Afghanistan, has dramatically bolstered the strength of al-Shabab in its battle against the government. Suicide bombings, a technique imported from Afghanistan and Iraq, have become common in Somalia in the past two years.

The United States, worried about the growing power of al-Qaeda in Somalia, is reported to be setting up a Central Intelligence Agency base in Mogadishu, in addition to sending weapons into the country.

This week, U.S. commandos in helicopters attacked a vehicle in southern Somalia and killed a top terrorist leader, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. It was an escalation of the U.S. involvement in Somalia, where the Pentagon had previously limited itself to long-range missile strikes.

In retaliation for the helicopter attack, suicide bombers drove into an African Union base in two stolen United Nations vehicles. They detonated massive explosions that killed at least 21 people on the base, including a deputy commander of the peacekeeping force and 16 other peacekeepers.

The extremists vowed to launch more attacks, and a Somali official acknowledged that six more UN vehicles were missing.

The African Union admitted that it needed help in its struggle against the insurgents. “We need to get the international community to really come forward,” AU envoy Nicolas Bwakira told reporters in Nairobi Friday. “We don't have sufficient capacity.”

Mr. Gedi, the former prime minister, said the government is unlikely to survive unless it is defended by a newly trained Somali force of at least 30,000 troops and 15,000 police officers.

The government is currently so enfeebled that it lacks any functioning courts, Mr. Gedi said. “How can security forces operate without a judiciary? How can you detain criminals?”

Salad Ali Jeele, a former Somali deputy defence minister who is now an MP, said the government's willingness to seek dialogue with the Islamic insurgents is a sign of weakness.

“The government needs to stop this false war of reconciliation, of talking to people who are not ready to negotiate,” he said.

“The government needs to put a higher priority on security, on fighting these people. Having talks with terrorist groups will not bring peace. We can't just sit and talk to these people.”

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