An African Union campaign to storm a bastion of Islamist fighters in Soomaaliya has stalled amid logistical and political disputes, delaying a final push against an insurgency that has for years unnerved neighbors and commandeered tracts of this failed state.
AU troops have for months formed a half-circle cordon some 40 miles inland from the port city of Kismayo, waiting to attack the city, where they believe members of the al Qaeda-allied insurgency al Shabaab are holing up. The plan was to launch the offensive early last week, according to Col. Ali Houmed, spokesman for the AU’s Soomaaliya mission.
Instead, he said, strategists are still determining how to allow a civilian exodus from the town of 180,000 without giving al Shabaab an opening to escape. Also, he said, the medley of African nations that sent troops to staff the effort brought in radios that don’t tune into one another, and spare parts that don’t match the military vehicles that need them. “Normally these things are worked out ahead of mission,” Col. Houmed said.
Other holdups have come as Ugandan and Kenyan officials have wrangled over command posts and profitable peacekeeping assignments in the new Soomaaliya, according to Ugandan military leaders, an assertion that Kenyan officials deny.
Soomaaliya’s parliament, meanwhile, was busy this week electing the country’s first president in decades. Little-known university administrator Hassan Mohamud was picked for the job on Monday, subject to deep scrutiny by reporters on Tuesday and nearly killed in an al Shabaab suicide blast come Wednesday.
The peace activist-turned-president-of-Soomaaliya presents his own wild card: He boasts a history of convincing al Shabaab gunmen to let him teach business-administration classes in the neighborhoods they ruled, so many analysts and friends of his expect he may attempt to negotiate with the sect, though few predict he’d call off the Kismayo attack itself.
Some worry the offensive’s delay is allowing space for the rebels to regroup. “Al Shabaab, they know very much this is going to happen,” said Chatham House Horn of Africa Researcher Ahmed Soliman. “It isn’t going to be a surprise maneuver.”
Al Shabaab this week branded the new president a traitorous representative of Western interests and vowed to continue fighting to ensure that Soomaaliya becomes a pure Islamic state.
“An election is not possible except in the manner dictated by the occupier,” al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mahmud Rage said in a statement Tuesday. “The condition of the parliament ascertains this, more than two thirds of the MPs hold foreign passports. They do not represent the aspirations of the Somali people.”
The Kismayo operation, even before it begins, raises questions over how effective African peacekeepers will prove fighting together and later—assuming they prevail in Kismayo—serving as an interim government in one of the region’s most chaotic yet strategic cities.
Peacekeepers mainly from Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and Sierra Leone have swept across much of Soomaaliya in the past year, introducing a fragile peace to the long-chaotic capital, Mogadishu.
The U.S. and other governments have funded that push on fears that Soomaaliya remains a sanctuary for al Shabaab to plan international attacks, similar to the group’s 2010 multiple-bomb assault on Kampala, Uganda, that killed 89 people, including one American.
A U.S. official rejected the characterization that the effort against al Shabaab was stalling and said it was still making a difference in weakening the group.
“Al-Shabaab has definitely seen better days. It’s losing a lot of territory in southern Soomaaliya it once controlled, is increasingly unpopular, and is clearly struggling,” the U.S. official said. “However, it would be irresponsible to write off the group as a terrorist threat.”
For East African militaries, foreign backing brings troop stipends and regional clout.
The African Union Mission in Soomaaliya, or Amisom, pays the Ugandan government $2,000 a month per soldier it sends, the Ugandan military says. Each of Uganda’s soldiers receive a monthly salary of $800. The Ugandan military says the difference pays for travel, medical and uniform costs.
Last month, 600 Ugandan troops were ordered to leave Mogadishu to pave way for Kenyans, after the Ugandans exceeded an AU troop-strength quota, said Gen. Katumba Wamala, Uganda’s commander of land forces in Soomaaliya.
Ugandan military officials complain that Kenya has used the influence of its diplomats in the AU to take over key commanding positions in Soomaaliya.
Kenya’s defense spokesman denied any rifts with its East African neighbor: “If there are any issues, that’s under the docket” of the African Union, he said.
Still, some Ugandan brass feel sidelined.
“We shall not help Kenyans in Kismayo because they did not help us in Mogadishu,” said a recently ousted Ugandan commander, referring to Kenya’s influence over the AU’s Soomaaliya headquarters in Mogadishu. Under the A.U. plan, Kenya leads the land and naval assault on Kismayo while Uganda is assigned to reinforce the offensive with its air force.
That air support has hit a complication. On Aug. 12, three Ugandan combat helicopters crashed into the mountains of Kenya, deepening strains between the two countries.
Kenyan aviation officials say the pilots of Uganda’s ill-fated helicopters were communicating in their local languages, making it difficult for Kenyans to assist them when they hit turbulence.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni says the helicopters fell victim to sabotage, not rough weather. The Ugandan president hasn’t said who he suspects of the sabotage, or what the motive would have been, but has appointed his brother, Gen. Salim Saleh, to probe the crash.
“I cannot listen to stories of bad weather of the Kenya mountains,” President Museveni said. “Mountains are clearly shown on maps. If the weather is bad, you do not fly.”
Mr. Ongeri, the Kenyan defense spokesman, said that the flight routes for the helicopters were agreed upon between Uganda and Kenya. He also denied any suggestions of possible sabotage. “From our part, we did our best and even the Ugandan military can attest to that,” Mr. Ongeri said