US troops 'back' to Somalia —but did they ever leave?
The Pentagon announced May 16 that a "small, persistent US military presence" of around 500 troops is to return to Somalia, to assist ongoing operations against the Shabaab insurgents. Media commentators widely portrayed this as a policy reversal, with some incorrectly stating that Present Trump "brought the troops home" from Somalia in 2020. However, the Pentagon press release implicitly acknowledges that the so-called "withdrawal" had been largely a fiction: "This decision was based on a request from [Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III] and included advice from senior commanders and, of course, concern for the safety of our troops who have incurred additional risk by deploying in and out of Somalia on an episodic basis for the past 16 months."
Djibouti: Horn of Africa's next domino?
At least three people are dead following an outbreak of inter-communal violence in Djibouti on Aug. 1. Fighting erupted in several areas between members of the Afar ethnic group, which straddles Djibouti's borders with Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the Issa, the country's other main ethnicity, which is a sub-group of the Somali people and straddles the borders with Ethiopia and Somalia. Issa protesters blocked the rail line and road connecting Djibouti's port to Ethiopia, a key artery for the landlocked Horn of Africa giant. The violence came in response to a deadly attack on Somali Issa civilians four days earlier within Ethiopia. Militia fighters from Ethiopia's Afar region raided the town of Gedamaytu (also known as Gabraiisa) in neighboring Somali region, reportedly killing hundreds of residents. The two regions have long been at odds over three contested kebeles (districts) on their shared border, which are predominately inhabited by Issa but located within the regional boundaries of Afar. (Garowe Online, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, ReliefWeb)
Breakaway regions at issue in Somalia-Kenya rift
Somalia severed diplomatic ties with neighboring Kenya Dec. 14, accusing it of violating Somali sovereignty and meddling in its internal affairs ahead of scheduled general elections. Although the statement cited no specific grievances, it came exactly as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was hosting in Nairobi the president of Somaliland, a breakaway region in Somalia's northwest that declared independence in 1991. Kenyatta and Somaliland's President Musa Bihi Abdi signed a pact on increased security and economic cooperation—which is clearly viewed by Mogadishu as a step toward formal recognition.
Russia seeks naval base in Sudan —and Somaliland?
The Russian government has for the first time weighed in diplomatically on the dispute between Somalia and the separatist enclave of Somaliland on the north coast of the Horn of Africa. Moscow's UN ambassador Vassiliy Nebenzia last week issued a statement urging both sides to find a compromise solution. "We are concerned about the breakdown...of talks between delegations of Somalia and the self-proclaimed Somaliland. We urge both sides to consider a compromise way of resolving the differences," Nebenzia said. "It is important to resume talks between the governments of Somalia and Somaliland."
Trump announces Somalia (pseudo-)withdrawal
President Trump has ordered the withdrawal of nearly all US troops from Somalia by mid-January, the Pentagon announced Dec. 4. The US currently has about 700 troops in the country, assisting local forces to fight al-Shabaab and insurgents operating in the name of the Islamic State. The Pentagon statement stressed that the order to "reposition the majority of personnel and assets out of Somalia by early 2021" does not signify a change in policy: "We will continue to degrade Violent Extremist Organizations that could threaten our homeland while ensuring we maintain our strategic advantage in great power competition."
US air-strikes target Shabaab 'encampment'
More than 60 were killed in US air-strikes that targeted "a known al-Shabaab encampment" near southern Somalia's Gandarshe town Dec. 15-6. US Africa Command (AFRICOM) asserted that no civilians were killed and that the strikes were launched to "prevent terrorists from using remote areas as a safe haven to plot, direct, inspire, and recruit for future attacks." These were the deadliest air-strikes in Somalia since November 2017 when the US said it killed 100 militants. The targeting of Shabaab increased after March 2017, when the Trump administration loosened restrictions on the US military to use force against the insurgent army. The US military has now struck Shabaab targets 45 times in 2018, compared with 31 times last year. The US has a huge military base in neighboring Djibouti, from where it launches air-raids on the militants. (Long War Journal, BBC News)
New Caledonia voters reject independence —for now
In an independence referendum that drew record numbers to the polls Nov. 4, voters in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia voted 56 to 44 percent to remain a French territory. The referendum marked a major milestone in an independence movement that has spanned decades. Political leaders initially agreed in 1988 to hold a vote on independence after a 10-year period of economic and social development. Subsequent negotiations extended the deadline to the end of the 2014-2018 session of the New Caledonian Congress. The final details were settled this past spring when legislators adopted eight criteria to determine who would be eligible to participate in the referendum.
China expands Indian Ocean military footprint
In addition to stationing troops on the disputed islands it claims in the South China Sea, Beijing is rapidly expanding its network of commercial ports across the Indian Ocean. This comes as China is sending warships into the Ocean with growing frequency, leading to fears that the commercial ports could presage military bases, The latest addition is the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, acquired in a debt swap deal—the Colombo government was forgiven $1 billion in debt to Beijing in exchange for the Hambantota facility. The agreement explicitly bars China's military use of the port, but critics note that Sri Lanka remains heavily indebted to China, and could be pressured to allow it. The pact also comes as the People's Liberation Army is providing training to Sri Lanka's military. Beijing also donated a frigate to Sri Lanka's navy after the pact was announced. China is simultaenously loaning political support to the Sri Lanka government in its defiance of international pressure for a war crimes investigation over its internal conflict with Tamil rebels.
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