The Cable

U.N. Declares War on al-Shabab

A U.N.-backed African military force in Somalia must launch a new military offensive against al-Shabab's insurgents if it is to stem the spread of terrorism in East Africa and ensure the survival of Somalia's struggling government, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned the U.N. Security Council.

Ban appealed for a temporary military surge of thousands of additional African troops into Somalia in order to deal a decisive military defeat to al-Shabab. The offensive would aim to deprive the Islamist militant group of the ability to freely recruit new followers and secure the taxes and investments necessary to underwrite its terrorist operations from Mogadishu to Nairobi, Kenya, where the group recently carried out a brazen attack against civilians at the upscale Westgate mall.

Citing the threat posed by a reinvigorated al-Shabab, Ban appealed to the 15-nation Security Council in a letter to provide financial and military support to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), along with attack helicopters and other advanced logistical and intelligence equipment to help take the fight to al-Shabab strongholds in rural southern Somalia.

"The deterioration in the security situation threatens to undermine the fragile Somali political process," he wrote in the letter, which has not yet been made public. "In order to regain momentum and avoid further reversals, there is an urgent need to resume and strengthen the military campaign against Al Shabab."

The strategy endorsed by Ban was first outlined by a joint U.N.-African Union mission that traveled to Somalia in late August and early September to assess the risk posed by al-Shabab. It draws on the military rationale invoked by the United States in past years to justify temporary surges in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan aimed at breaking the back of the insurgency and laying the groundwork for an eventual exit strategy.

Ban asked the council to authorize an increase in the size of the African Union force, dominated by Ugandan and Burundian troops, by as many as 4,400 additional troops and support staff for a period of up to two years. He also called on the U.N. mission in Somalia to provide a limited package of nonlethal support -- including transportation, food rations, and fuel -- to 10,000 front-line Somali troops. A temporary military buildup of forces "should ultimately pave the way for the exit of all international forces," Ban wrote. "Without additional support recommended in this letter, our joint investment is at risk of being derailed by the indefensible actions of the Al Shabab insurgency."

The African Union force was first deployed in Somalia in 2007 to counter the Islamist insurgency and to protect a U.N.-backed transitional government. It is currently staffed by roughly 18,000 troops.

Over the past two years, African forces have driven al-Shabab out of Somalia's main cities, including Mogadishu and Kismayo. But the movement has regrouped, shifting its military strategy from fighting conventional battles and holding major cities to undertaking targeted terrorist operations in Somalia, where it has struck U.N. and foreign diplomatic outposts, and beyond.

On June 19, al-Shabab mounted a bloody attack against the United Nations' humanitarian aid compound in downtown Mogadishu, killing eight U.N. employees. The attack, as well as the threat of further violence, "has significantly curtailed the mobility of U.N. staff in Mogadishu and hampers delivery of critical U.N. programs in support of the federal government," according to a confidential report by the joint U.N.-African Union mission. The report was circulated to U.N. Security Council members along with Ban's letter this week.

The joint U.N.-AU report paints a grim picture of the security situation in Somalia. The military gains of the past two years, it states, are now "at a serious risk of being reversed." Al-Shabab's army "is estimated in the thousands and is increasing through forced recruitment." If it is not stopped, the report warns," al-Shabab is likely to expand its targets beyond Somalia."

The report, which was partially endorsed by Ban, cites "the need to immediately resume the military campaign against Al Shabab" in order to counter the group's increasingly sophisticated use of asymmetric warfare tactics and to curtail its ability to infiltrate urban centers like Mogadishu and Kismayo at will. It proposes that African forces shift from a largely defensive strategy to "an offensive posture necessary for the clearing and holding of additional key rural areas and strategic economic avenues."

"The idea behind the recommendation of the joint mission is to defeat Al Shabab in their major rural hideouts and making it as costly as possible for them to exist and easier for the SNA [Somali National Army] to dislodge elements that melt into the population, forcing an eventual total defeat," the report states. "AMISOM is structured as a conventional fighting force deployed over four sectors in south central Somalia. The forces are holding ground already cleared from Al Shabab, but are unable to expand their operations as they are overstretched, lack force enablers such as combat engineering, signal, logistics and port security capabilities, as well as the critical force multiplier, particularly military helicopters."

Previous efforts by the African Union to introduce attack helicopters into combat have gone horribly wrong. Last year, the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of attack helicopters, setting the stage for the deployment of four Ugandan military aircraft in Somalia in support of offensive military operations. But three of the helicopters -- Russian-made Mi-24s -- crashed into the foggy base of Mount Kenya while en route to Somalia from Uganda.

In his letter to the council, Ban asked for countries outside the region to supply military helicopters to the effort, saying it was "not realistic" to mount a successful offensive against al-Shabab without them.

Getty Images

The Cable

Democrats, AIPAC Jeopardize Iran Talks

The Obama administration is facing an unexpected hurdle in its new nuclear talks with Iran - a sizeable bloc of Democratic lawmakers who have made clear that they would break with the White House and fight any effort to lift the current sanctions on Tehran.

The future of those sanctions is a key issue in this week's negotiations in Geneva between senior officials from Iran and the U.S., the most serious talks between the two longtime adversaries in decades. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif kicked off Monday's session with a PowerPoint presentation, delivered in English, which offered to put new limits on his country's nuclear program in exchange for easing the Western sanctions that have devastated the Iranian economy and decimated the value of its currency. 

The White House has already signaled a potential openness to that kind of deal, but a wide array of powerful Democrats -- including the top members of both the Senate and House foreign affairs committees -- strongly oppose lifting any of the existing sanctions on Iran unless Tehran offers concessions that go far beyond anything Zarif has talked about in Geneva. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, has also promised to do everything in its power to keep the punitive measures in place.

"If the president were to ask for a lifting of existing sanctions it would be extremely difficult in the House and Senate to support that," Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Cable. "I'm willing to listen but I think that asking Congress to weaken and diminish current sanctions is not hospitable on Capitol Hill."

"I'd say no," said Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) when asked if he'd accept a presidential plea to lift sanctions. "They've got a long way to go to demonstrate the kind of credibility that would lead us to believe we can move in a conciliatory direction. And sanctions are what has strengthened the administration's hand."

Opposition from Democratic lawmakers represents more than just a political headache for the administration. Congress has the power to impose, modify or remove sanctions regardless of what the White House wants, and it has shown a willingness to overrule the administration in the past. In late 2011, for instance, New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, worked with Illinois Republican Mark Kirk to impose crushing sanctions on the Iranian central bank despite strong opposition from the administration.

It is far from clear that Iran will offer enough concessions in the current talks for the administration to seriously consider softening or lifting the current sanctions.  The Rouhani government has insisted on the right to continue enriching uranium on its own soil, something the White House opposes.  Tehran has also yet to signal a clear willingness to shutter its underground, heavily-fortified nuclear plant at Qom, a source of particular concern for both the U.S. and Israel because it is largely impervious to airstrikes, or to dismantle any of its centrifuges. Even if Rouhani signed off, meanwhile, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could veto the deal.

Still, the Obama administration's chief nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, told a Senate panel earlier this month that the White House was willing to potentially soften some of its sanctions if Tehran took "verifiable, concrete actions" to delay its nuclear program. Sherman also urged lawmakers to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran until Tehran detailed its potential nuclear concessions at this week's talks.

Sherman's testimony sparked predictable outrage from Republicans like Kirk, who said her comments showed that the White House was pursuing a policy of "appeasement," but many Democrats were just as upset.  Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey said the U.S. "should  not relax the sanctions one inch while Iran's intentions are still unknown."

Markey is far from the only Democrat who believes that the White House needs to not just keep the current measures in place but also prepare to add newer, tougher ones. 

"The intent of sanctions is to force Iran to halt and dismantle its nuclear weapons program," lawmakers from both parties wrote in a letter this week signed by prominent Democrats like Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.  "Once this goal has been accomplished in a real, transparent, and verifiable way we will be prepared to remove existing sanctions in a measured, sequenced manner. However, at this time, we reaffirm that a credible military threat remains on the table and we underscore the imperative that the current sanctions be maintained aggressively."

Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, a group that advocates on behalf of the Iranian American community, said Tehran would almost certainly reject any call to entirely dismantle its nuclear program before the current measures are softened or removed.

"The bar being set by the senators is wholly unrealistic," Parsi said. "To say that existing sanctions won't be lifted is a non-starter."

Meanwhile, as the voices of Iran hawks dominate the halls of Congress, Democratic lawmakers who support a less rigid opening position have been largely silent, such as Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) or Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass).

Some have chalked up the relative silence to the shutdown. "We're in such a weird situation on the Hill with the shutdown and all the oxygen is pretty much going to that fight," said Rep David Price (D-NC) who gathered 131 signatures in favor of engagement with Rouhani in July.

Others chalked up the lack of administration support to a desire to wait-and-see how the talks unfold. "Rouhani is still a little bit of a mystery to everyone," said a top Senate aide whose boss leans dovish. "On one hand, we've seen this movie before -- crazy nuke states pretend to negotiate while buying time to enrich (a la North Korea) ... [B]ut his perceived openness seems to have the implicit backing of the mullahs -- which adds a new element to these negotiations, and one that could result in some actual concessions."

Still, lawmakers like Menendez, Murray and Kirk show no signs of softening their positions.  Their demands to maintain the current measures reflect, in part, the success of a concerted lobbying campaign by AIPAC. The pro-Israel group has sat out some recent potential fights over large-scale U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in order to focus all of its energy on Iran. During its annual conference in March, AIPAC sent hundreds of volunteers to Capitol Hill to personally lobby lawmakers from their home states to support tough measures on Iran. It has also drafted templates of letters lawmakers could send the White House under their own names calling for continued sanctions on Iran.

Iran is one of the few issues that bind Democrats and Republicans, so AIPAC is in some ways preaching to the choir. Israel said he hadn't been lobbied by the group, but he said it had no reason to.

"Maybe they're not talking to me because they know my profile is strong and deep on this issue," Israel said.