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EU-Somalia mission could undermine regional stability

Somalia has drifted through 20 years of anarchy and war. The international community has recommitted itself to establishing order there. But an EU mission to train Somali soldiers in Uganda has come under scrutiny.

A Somali soldier

EU-trained Somali soldiers could defect to Islamic militias

In 1993, the United States organized a peacekeeping mission under the auspices of the United Nations to end a famine that gripped the Horn of Africa. Germany, in its first major military mission outside of Europe since World War II, sent 1,700 soldiers in support. But as the humanitarian mission degenerated into a bloody counterinsurgency operation, the West retreated from a country that appeared to be permanently broken.

Today, the West has begun to hesitantly pick up where it left off in 1993 in a renewed bid to put Somalia back together again. After September 11, the United States dispatched naval forces to the Gulf of Aden in order to prevent Islamic terrorists from taking refuge in Somalia.

German frigate Rheinland-Pfalz handing over Somali pirates to Kenya

The EU already operates its own naval mission in the Gulf of Aden, Operation Atalanta

The EU contributes to this effort through its own naval mission, Operation Atalanta. In May, the EU began training 2,000 Somali soldiers in neighboring Uganda.

"This mission is a clear sign of the solidarity of Europe with Somalia and the entire continent," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle during a trip to the region last month. "In the fight against terrorism and extremism, we have to stand together. We will do what we can in order to stabilize Somalia."

Militant group gaining ground

A fundamentalist Islamic movement in Somalia has the West worried. In 2003, a grassroots movement began to establish Islamic-based courts in Mogadishu in order to bring the city under control and stem rampant violence and criminality. The effort began to yield results, and the courts banded together, creating a movement called the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).

An internationally recognized interim government in the Somali city of Baidoa was helpless as the movement began to pick up steam, spreading its control throughout the country. Ethiopia, which has a long and complicated history with Somalia, began to mobilize its military in an operation many believe was supported by the US. The Ethiopian army ultimately intervened during the winter of 2006, sweeping the UIC out of Mogadishu and giving the interim government a tenuous seat of power in the war-scarred capital.

With the broader Islamic movement in disarray, an al Qaeda-affiliated group called al-Shabab emerged and began to put down roots in the southern region of Somalia. The US launched a series of airstrikes in order to disrupt the group as rumors circulated that foreign jihadists were entering the country.

Somali Islamist fighters conduct Islamic prayers

Somalia is seeing a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement

The African Union subsequently deployed 5,000 peacekeepers to Somalia in order to bring stability to the country and contain al-Shabab. But the peacekeeping force is understaffed and underequipped.

The violence is spreading outside of Somalia, as well. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a suicide attack last month in Uganda that killed at least 74 people as they watched the World Cup final. Ugandan soldiers make up the bulk of the AU peacekeeping troops.

Somalia also lies in a strategic region vital to international trade. Oil from the Persian Gulf is shipped through the Gulf of Aden on its way to the Suez Canal and ultimately western markets. Piracy has become a growing problem, with 116 successful or attempted hijackings of commercial ships in 2009.

EU mission could backfire

In this context, the European Union has an interest in establishing order in Somalia. Some observers believe, however, that the mission to train Somali soldiers will only fan the flames of instability and drive the Horn of Africa into a deeper circle of violence.

"It's a dirty civil war that's being conducted there, with child soldiers and many civilian victims, with no consideration for the law of war," said Christoph Marischka, who works for the Militarization Information Center in the southern Germany city of Tuebingen. "It's a fatal undertaking to mobilize further soldiers there, whose concrete use we know nothing about."

The Somali army is not known for its sparkling human rights record, either. The NGO Human Rights Watch has recorded many cases of transgression, such as an incident in which Somali soldiers fired mortars at apartment buildings, breaking the law of war which requires militaries to distinguish between civilians and combatants. The army also recruits child soldiers, according to a recent report submitted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Some policymakers are concerned that the EU training mission could undermine its own goals by unknowingly supporting the Islamic militants it is designed to contain.

"There is no functioning government in Somalia," said Ana Gomez, a Portuguese representative in the EU Parliament. "That runs the risk that these people [Somali soldiers] are trained and then support one of the Islamic militias, al-Shabab for example."

In the past, Germany financed the training of Somali police. However, more than 1,000 of them recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Experts believe they are now rebels.

Author: Daniel Pelz / sk
Editor: Rob Mudge

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