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.