Tuesday, July 21, 2009

9 questions from Life Week (Beijing) on Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, UN, AU, etc.

UPDATE 7/28/09: The Life Week article appears here in Chinese. You can view Google's rough translation of the page here (note that "Dashen" is "Shinn"). I was interviewed on July 18 by Life Week (Beijing). Below is the transcript: Question 1: It seems the situation in Somalia is even more serious than last month. Is that right? Could you please give me some information about the current situation in Somalia? We really do not know much in China. Amb. Shinn: I really do not think the situation has worsened over the past month. The situation in Mogadishu has been difficult for many months. While it has not improved, the relative position of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and those groups (al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam) opposing it are about the same. Image caption: "Government soldiers have been battling al-Shabab for control of the capital, Mogadishu [AFP]." Source: Al-Jazeera. Question 2: Seven people accused of renouncing Islam and spying for the TFG were beheaded in Somalia on July 10. It seems the authority of the Islamist insurgents is growing. What did this terrible event mean? Was it an effort to send a message to the TFG? Amb. Shinn: There is a great deal that we do not yet know about this incident. One al-Shabaab spokesperson has denied responsibility. I am not aware that any group has taken responsibility. According to one report (e.g. here), those who were beheaded were Christians. There are probably not more than a couple thousand Christians in Somalia; they are such a small group that they pose a threat to no one. Somalis have traditionally been highly tolerant of this tiny minority. Whatever group carried out this heinous crime only demonstrated irresponsible cowardice. Question 3: Two French security consultants were kidnapped at gunpoint from a hotel in Mogadishu on July 14, 2009. Who did this? Why? What will the French government do? Amb. Shinn: The two French officials were assigned by the French government to help the TFG establish an intelligence and security service. They were apparently kidnapped by a criminal group that may have turned them over to al-Shabaab and/or Hizbul Islam. The original purpose of the kidnapping seems to have been an effort to obtain ransom money. Now that they may be in the hands of al-Shabaab and/or Hizbul Islam, the incident has become politicized, and one or both of these organizations may try to obtain some political favor from France or the international community. Although France will do everything possible to protect the safety of its nationals, I suspect it is leaving no options off the table in responding to this act. Question 4: I know that the African Union has 4,300 Ugandan and Burundi troops in Mogadishu. Their mandate only allows them to protect the TFG state house, port and airport. They were not permitted to seek out and confront the groups that are trying to overthrow the TFG. But on July 12 there was a direct fight between the AU troops and the insurgents. Why? Facing the increasingly serious situation, will the AU take additional action? Amb. Shinn: The AU troops moved into North Mogadishu to help the TFG remove insurgents who oppose them. For the most part, North Mogadishu is not friendly territory for the insurgents. Although some observers argue that the AU troops exceeded their current mandate to shoot only in self-defense, the AU troops argued that this was self-defense. The AU is urging that the force be given a stronger mandate. In any event, I think from this point forward you will see the AU troops becoming more aggressive vis-à-vis the insurgents. Question 5: What about the Ethiopian troops? We know Ethiopia sent troops to Somalia last month, but it seems they have not acted yet. Amb. Shinn: Ethiopia removed its troops from Mogadishu in January 2009, and they have not returned. I don’t believe they have any intention to return to Mogadishu. On the other hand, Ethiopia has for years sent small numbers of its troops across its lengthy border with Somalia to support friendly Somalis or to chase insurgents that it believed crossed into Ethiopia. You can expect this activity to continue. Question 6: It seems the international community is still keeping aloof from the situation in Somalia and does not intend to take further action. What do you think about it? Why? Amb. Shinn: The international community (United Nations, African Union and Arab League) strongly backs the position of the TFG and opposes al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam. Although I do not believe the international community is prepared to send troops to Somalia, it is doing more to improve the TFG security forces. The United Nations Development Program is providing training for the police. Djibouti and Kenya have offered training for TFG security forces. France and Italy are helping to train TFG security forces. The U.S. provided about $5 million worth of ammunition and small arms to the AU forces that, in turn, helped to arm TFG forces. The international community should avoid direct involvement in Somalia as this will only alienate more Somalis just as the growing foreign jihadi presence in al-Shabaab is alienating Somalis. Question 7: The UN Security Council warned Eritrea on July 8 that it would consider taking action against anyone who undermined peace in Somalia. The AU said Eritrea had been aiding Islamist insurgents who are fighting Somali government forces, but Eritrea denied it. What did Eritrea do as you know? What will happen next? Will it influence the current situation? Amb. Shinn: I do not have information on Eritrea’s role beyond that which has been provided by the AU and UN, but I have no reason to dispute the UN and AU accounts. If Eritrea continues to support al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, it will come under increasing criticism from the international community, possible including sanctions. Should that happen in the UN Security Council, the position of China and Russia will be critical as both countries have in the past been reluctant to approve sanctions against another country. Question 8: The TFG is supported by the UN and AU, but it seems the insurgents are always stronger. Why? Amb. Shinn: It is difficult to judge the strength of the insurgents. Certainly, the military capacity of the TFG is weak. The insurgents are well financed from overseas and apparently well organized. They are not, however, unified except on one point — to overthrow the TFG. Should they succeed in that effort, I think there will be considerable disagreement among the insurgents as various insurgent factions seek power. It is not that the insurgents are so strong; it is rather that the TFG is so weak. On-going training of the TFG security forces may make a difference in the months ahead. Image: From NYT article mentioned below. Caption: "More than 20 young Somali-Americans, many of them raised in Minneapolis, left the United States to join a militant Islamist group in Somalia." Credit: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times. Link. Question 9: I heard that some Somali-Americans went back to Somalia and participated with the insurgents. Could you please give me some details? It seems it has evoked a major reaction in U.S. society, right? Why did this happen? Amb. Shinn: The New York Times did an excellent analysis of this issue on July 12, 2009. It identified more than a dozen Somali-Americans from various parts of the United States, but especially from the large group that lives in Minneapolis-St. Paul, who went to Somalia beginning in late 2007 to join al-Shabaab. Some were young Somali-Americans who had engaged in gang activities in the United States while others were upstanding Somalis with a bright future. A few left for Somalia because they were attracted by religious zealotry. Some objected to the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. Some sought adventure and some probably had no idea what they were doing. Several died in Somalia, a few returned to the United States and most are probably still in Somalia. There has been considerable attention to the story in the American press. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has spent considerable effort trying to get to the bottom of the case and to prevent any threat to the United States. The vast majority of the Somali-American community are law-abiding citizens or residents. They are very upset at what has happened to a small minority of their children.

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