Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Is the United States in Danger of Losing Key Counterterror Partners?

     Turmoil has overwhelmed two nations, which President Obama has revered as key allies in the fight against terrorism; Yemen and Somalia.  Yemen is currently enveloped in an uprising of disaffected Shiites who have banded together and captured the capital, Sana'a.  The Houthi rebels, have gained so much traction, they have forced Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to acquiesce to demands and reshuffle his cabinet and appoint a new prime minister.  President Hadi has even been voted out of his own political party for the turmoil.  In an attempt to normalize his country once again, he has ordered military leaders to work with the Houthis.  What is more, the Houthi militants are gaining strength in numbers, morale, and military strength as their push southward has led to several (successful) clashes with al-Qaeda militants.

     In Somalia, political instability caused by a feud between the nation's president and prime minister have contributed to international skepticism on the future of the fragile government.  A recent press release issued by the US State Department asserted, "Actions to put forward a parliamentary motion for a vote of no confidence in the prime minister do not serve the interests of the Somali people. The United States remains neutral in the dispute between the president and prime minister. We are committed to the principles of the New Deal Compact which aims to build a sovereign, secure, democratic, united, and federal Somalia."  The US is worried about the future of the New Deal Compact, which was agreed to in September of 2013 and set forth a framework for building and maintaining Somali security.  The deal was a significant step in that Somalia was able to recognize its fragility and take the necessary international mediation to address security threats from within its borders - threats that also pose risks to other nations as well.

     The biggest threat in Somalia comes from the al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab.  Though the group was once much stronger, security efforts such as increased intelligence sharing from the United States combined with assistance from Africa Union (AMISOM) troops have put al-Shabaab on their heels.  However, it is important to note that the group is not dormant and still poses a threat.  Even after the United States successfully killed their leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in a September drone strike and AMISOM troops pushed al-Shabaab from its last remaining port city, Barawe, experts such as Ken Menkhaus, professor at Davidson College, say, "this is an organization that I do believe is in decline...but it is still and will remain for the foreseeable future a dangerous security threat to Somalia, to Kenya, and to the wider region of the Horn of Africa - in part because it doesn't take that much to be a  dangerous security threat...It only takes a relatively small number of committed jihadis to launch these kinds of attacks."  Professor Menkhaus added, during a discussion hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, that al-Shabaab will continue to access sea ports, tax goods, and enjoy freedom of movement for the time being - not to, however, shortchange the clear victories by AMISOM and allied forces recently.

     With al-Shabaab in the decline, the political turmoil within the Somali government could be detrimental to the future of their security and the integrity of the New Deal.  The US is mulling withdrawing key aid money to the country unless the political bickering is resolved.  Reports by the Associated Press indicate, "The U.S. gave $58 million to Somalia in development assistance in this fiscal year and an additional $271 million in military assistance for the Somali national army and the African Union force in Somalia."  Withdrawing this aid would be significant for two reasons.  First, the United States has been committed to Somali security for some time.  The US has deployed intelligence officers and Special Operations Forces to the nation for years to assist in strengthening nation's security lapses.  The US has also announced ambitions for greater diplomatic relations with Somalia as the United States has welcomed the first Somali ambassador to the United States in over twenty years.  The fact that US diplomats are demurring on rumors of aid withdrawal indicates, to some degree, the importance the new relationship between the two nations have become, especially in the financial, security, and counterterrorism sectors -  withdrawing this aid will surely upset the relationship.

     Second, and related to the situation in Yemen, President Obama, in announcing a strategy to go on an offensive military campaign against the Islamic State within Iraq and Syria, analogized the new military efforts to counterterrorism rather than an unpopular and renewed war in the Middle East.  "This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground.  This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years," the president orated to the American people in early September using his preferred acronym for the Islamic State.

     The president's statement of holding Somalia and Yemen as a successful model has been widely criticized, though for the wrong reasons.  Clearly, the Yemeni government is losing control and is rapidly becoming a failing state and Somalia is in danger of losing key funding from its American partner.  I think the president did not use his words carefully enough in his speech.  He was likely pointing to a successful (successful being used subjectively) campaign that, through the use of drones, has taken out tens to hundreds of high value terrorists and militants.  I do not think the president meant to infer that the "successful" counterterror campaign has contributed to strengthened security as a whole to these countries.

     It is clear that the United States continues to rely on both Somalia and Yemen for intelligence and most importantly, permission to wage strikes within their borders.  Al-Qaeda's Yemen affiliate is believed to be the most dangerous of the al-Qaeda franchise posing the most credible threat to the American homeland.  The Yemeni government has coordinated with covert US agents on tactical strikes against the group.  In Somalia, the US has also taken key terrorist actors off the battlefield included al-Shabaab's former leader.  It would be a major blow to the US counterterrorism framework if they were no longer allowed to coordinate or even operate in these countries.  

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