What Trump’s policies mean for Somalia and security in East Africa

If Al Shabbab seems less fleet-footed and lethal today than it did a year and a half ago, part of the credit must go to the US. It now looks like President Trump — who is breathtakingly naïve about the threat that Al Shabaab-like groups pose — wants the review in order to cut back US involvement in Somalia. This would be a strategic and costly long-run mistake for US policy in the Horn of Africa.

News last week that President Donald Trump had asked for a review of the US role in Somalia should worry frontline states like Kenya and Ethiopia.

Over the past three years, President Obama’s support for the 22,000-strong Africa Union Mission to Somalia, Amisom, has been crucial in the fight against Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-affiliates trying to oust the Federal Government of Somalia.

By providing intelligence, deploying Special Forces, airstrikes and drones, the US has degraded Al Shabaab’s fighting capabilities and decapitated its leadership.

In May last year, a US airstrike killed Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, a key military commander. He was one of many Al Shabaab leaders taken out by US drones and Special Forces in early 2016 among them Mohamed Dulyadin, architect of the 2015 Garissa University shootings; Yusuf Ali Ugas, an Al Shabaab recruiter; Mohamed Mire, the Al Shabaab governor for the Hiran region and Hassan Ali Dhoore, architect of both the 2014 Christmas Day attack on Mogadishu airport and the 2015 attack on Maka al-Mukarramah hotel, also in Mogadishu.

If Al Shabbab seems less fleet-footed and lethal today than it did a year and a half ago, part of the credit must go to the US. It now looks like President Trump — who is breathtakingly naïve about the threat that Al Shabaab-like groups pose — wants the review in order to cut back US involvement in Somalia. This would be a strategic and costly long-run mistake for US policy in the Horn of Africa.

The Red Sea

It also means that Kenya and Ethiopia, both allies of the US against Al Shabaab, could also soon bail out of Somalia. Should they do so, Al Shabaab will flourish, at least in the short-run.

The silver lining, though, is that in the medium-term, the retreat by the US, Ethiopia and Kenya would give the Africa Union an excellent chance to redesign Amisom, its otherwise doomed mission in Somalia. Here is why:

To begin with, it is baffling that President Trump cannot see the strategic argument. The Red Sea — and so the Suez Canal — is vital to global commerce, a route not only for oil from the Gulf states to Europe but also for goods from Europe and North America to India, the Arabian Peninsula and China.

The Red Sea shortcut — which carries about 8 per cent of global trade — eliminates 10 days and 8,900 kilometres (or 43 per cent) from the alternative route round the Cape of Good Hope. True, some oil tankers are now taking the long route but that is temporary, explained by low oil prices that offset the higher transport costs.

On all accounts, then, the Suez Canal route will remain critical. But it is vulnerable. The entry to the Red Sea, past the point where the Horn of Africa juts into the Gulf of Aden, is a 32km wide maritime chokepoint, the Bab-el-Mandeb, Arabic for the “Gate of Tears.”

Looking north towards Suez, the strait lies athwart the Red Sea with Djibouti to the east, on the African coast and Yemen to the west, on the Arabian coast. Behind, the Red Sea funnels out to the Indian Ocean and on to the coast of Somalia. The strategic threat of a failed Somalia is obvious and has been for years.

In imperial times, Britain and France split sentinel responsibilities over the strait, Britain taking Yemen and France Djibouti. Today, two states at or near both ends of the strait, Somalia and Yemen, have slipped into chaos.

In Yemen, there is a proxy war raging between Saudi Arabia and Iran pitting pro-Saudi government forces against pro-Iran Houthi militias. The chaos has energised terror groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The problem for global trade is that nearly 16,500 ships — a quarter of which are oil tankers — transit through the strait and the Suez Canal every year.

These are tempting for terrorists.

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By Wachira Maina