From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Fri Sep 11 2009 - 08:06:36 EDT
The United States sent RPGs, machine guns, mortars, and -- in the words of
one U.S. official -- "cash in a brown paper bag" to Somalia last spring.
Foreign Policy reports on how the shipments took place, and who's not happy
BY ELIZABETH DICKINSON | SEPTEMBER 11, 2009
Late in May, as violence consumed the streets of the infamously violent
capital city of Mogadishu, Somalia, packages of ammunition, weapons, and
cash began arriving from the United States as part of an attempt to help the
country's flailing Transitional Federal Government (TFG) stave off collapse.
At the time, the Somali government was literally about to fail, reportedly
controlling no more than a neighborhood in Mogadishu thanks to a fresh
assault by two Islamist insurgent groups: al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam.
The contents of those shipments, not previously reported, included 19 tons
of ammunition, 48 rifle-propelled grenades, 36 PKM machine guns (a model of
the Russian-made Kalashnikov), 12 DShK machine guns (Russian-made heavy
artillery weapons), and 10 mortars (the firing apparatus for shells). The
shipment was detailed in a letter from a U.S. official to the U.N. Security
Council committee set up to oversee the 17-year-old arms embargo on Somalia.
The U.S. official, Alejandro D. Wolff, deputy permanent U.S. representative
to the United Nations, requested an exemption to the embargo, which was put
in place in 1992 at the onset of civil conflict. In a second letter to the
Security Council, Wolff explained that $2 million was also being sent to the
Somali government "for the immediate procurement of equipment (weapons and
ammunition) and logistics support (food, fuel, water, engineering
All told, a State Department official admitted at a
<http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2009/06a/125448.htm> June 26 news briefing
that it shipped "in the neighborhood of 40 tons worth of arms and munitions"
to Somalia. "We have also asked the two units that are there, particularly
the Ugandans, to provide weapons to the TFG, and we have backfilled the
Ugandans for what they have provided to the TFG government," the official
told journalists. The cost was "under $10 million." A different State
Department official working on Somalia counterterrorism policy told Foreign
Policy that of the total amount, the bulk was spent on ammunition, while the
air freight bill was $900,000 and $1.25 million was "cash in a brown paper
The letters from Wolff explain that the cash was to be transferred to
Nairobi, Kenya, and then moved by air to Mogadishu. The money was intended
to be spent locally to buy arms, ammunition, and other supplies. (In recent
years, AK-47s have sold on the streets of Mogadishu for anywhere from $100
to $600, depending on how heavy the fighting is at the time.) Meanwhile,
ammunition was to be shipped to Somalia's capital by air from Entebbe,
Uganda. The transfer of the weapons is not described in the letters.
However, a regional analyst, who was not authorized to speak on behalf of
his affiliation, told FP that the shipments have been arriving in
installments, doled out by the African Union peacekeepers who are guarding
the Mogadishu airport.
The arms transfer was among the new U.S. administration's first moves toward
Somalia, a country that many see as a test case for President Barack Obama's
counterterrorism policy. The country has been in a state of war for nearly
two decades, displacing a quarter of the country's population, with half a
million refugees scattered across the region and another 1.5 million
displaced internally within Somalia. But in recent months, the East African
country has become a growing concern for U.S. officials as local groups,
most notably an Islamist faction named al-Shabab -- some of whose leaders
are thought to have been trained by al Qaeda -- have expanded their control
of the country.
At the time the arms were sent, the Transitional Federal Government was
under a withering assault. "Somalia is in crisis," Johnnie Carson, assistant
secretary of state for African affairs,
<http://www.state.gov/p/af/rls/rm/2009/123729.htm> told the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee on May 20, just days before the United States alerted
the Security Council of its plan to send arms. "In the past two weeks,
violent extremists, including al-Shabab and a loose coalition of forces
under the banner of Hizbul al-Islam, have been attacking TFG forces and
other moderates in Mogadishu in an attempt to forcefully overthrow the
According to experts on the region, the policy's intent was both symbolic
and tactical. "The symbolic [aspect] is a way of sending a message to
Somalis that the United States is going to stand behind the TFG -- that the
United States will not allow it to fail and sees it as the only viable
solution," said Ken Menkhaus, a leading Somalia analyst, in an interview.
Tactically, the intent was straightforward: to help the TFG fight back
against its heavily armed opponents.
But there have been concerns about just how effective the arms shipments
have been. On Aug. 11,
<http://allafrica.com/stories/printable/200908110875.html> Garowe, a Somali
radio station and online news outlet, reported that arms transferred to the
Somali government were being sold on the street. "When the U.S. made the
decision in May, the Transitional Federal Government seemed to be hanging on
by a thread. Initially, the declaration of support probably did have
something to do with the TFG hanging on and pulling together," the regional
analyst told FP. "We didn't see many leakages of weapons [at first] because
they were too busy fighting. But what's happened is that the consequences of
that decision are still being felt. It now seems that the TFG forces have
reached their capacity and can't absorb much more in terms of arms and
ammunition, so we're starting to see and hear reports of leakages."
To many observers, this seemed all too predictable. The small-arms trade has
flourished for the 18 years that Somalia has been in conflict, with weapons
proliferating dramatically despite the arms embargo. One of the most
frequent channels has been through desertions; 14,000 of the TFG's 17,000
forces deserted last year, many with their guns and uniforms. Today,
desertions are less common thanks to a new, more popular president,
according to the regional analyst. But he estimates that government forces,
including police, only number about 5,000 -- and that's just on paper. In
practice, the TFG forces are less a uniform force than a series of militias
that operate independently, loyal to one government official or another.
"When weapons are allocated to militias who are paid irregularly or not at
all, a certain percentage will sell on the open market," Menkhaus explained.
"This is a common practice throughout the entire Horn of Africa."
Regardless of whose hands the weapons are ultimately in, other analysts
question the wisdom of sending more small arms to a country that is already
all too rife with gunfire. The
ent> most recent report of the U.N. monitoring group for Somalia, published
last December, includes an entire section naming the "unintended
consequences of support to the security sector." Among the concerns are the
use of "heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers" by TFG
police in an urban setting (where casualties are likely to be high). The
report also details how captured TFG weapons, equipment, uniforms, and
vehicles were "an important source of supply for armed opposition groups."
The policy also raises questions about the broader U.S. stance toward
Somalia. The State Department official working on Somalia counterterrorism
policy told FP that "every element of the U.S. government seems to have its
own piece of the Somalia plan." There was no formal policy, he said, because
of a disagreement about whether and how to support the Transitional Federal
Government. "The Department of Defense thought they were just out of their
minds [to send the arms shipment]," he said. "But since it was State's
money, the plan went through." (Queried about this claim, Defense Department
spokeswoman Almarah Belk responded via e-mail, "Policy toward Somalia is
coordinated via the NSC [National Security Council]. DoD [Department of
Defense] agrees and supports the DOS [Department of State] security
assistance to the TFG.")
There is also some question as to how popular the shipment was within the
State Department itself. The State Department official told FP that there
was no support and even active opposition to the plan among his colleagues.
When a reporter at the June 26 briefing insinuated that the decision "was
made at the highest level," the briefing official replied that the policy
was a "national decision" agreed upon by "the secretary and the NSC,"
meaning Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the National Security
to Africa last month, Clinton
<http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2009a/08/126956.htm> vowed to "continue
to provide equipment and training to the TFG as well as humanitarian
assistance to the Somali people," and wire service
ry.html> Agence France-Presse reported that the United States had plans to
double its arms support from 40 tons to 80. (The doubling of arms support
could not be confirmed as the State Department did not respond to queries a
week after FP's first request.)
Nonetheless, some analysts who spoke to FP see a positive opening emerging
in the war-wracked country. Somalia's new president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh
Ahmed, who was inaugurated this spring, has garnered greater popular support
for the Transitional Federal Government than at any time in the last two
decades. And unlike the more than a dozen previously attempted government
coalitions during that period, Sharif's is the first not to be actively
opposed by any of Somalia's many clans. Al-Shabab, too, is losing
popularity, some say. "Somalia now has at least the start of a government
that is broadly representative of the Somali clan and societal landscape,"
Carson said in his Senate testimony in May. "These are all significant steps
forward for Somalia."
Elizabeth Dickinson is an assistant editor at FP.
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