Ramp up troop levels to deliver famine aid in Somalia

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A malnourished child awaits medical attention at the Banadir hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Aug. 16, 2011.

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  • #AlShabaab denies Somalia is experiencing #drought and refuse access to donors #norelief

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  • African Union urges donors to increase famine relief, but they also need more military support to insure safe arrival #AlShabaab

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  • Troop levels in #Somalia should be increased to mandated 12,000 to get food into camps and prevent #theft

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This week, United Nations (UN) humanitarian coordinator for Somalia Mark Bowden announced that the drought in the Horn of Africa is spreading to two more regions in Somalia and may soon engulf the entire southern region. This news arrives on the heels of an Associated Press report suggesting that up to half of the food aid currently arriving in Somalia may be diverted. The World Food Program (WFP), one of the major aid distributors on the ground in Somalia, rejects such high figures, but their own investigations into aid diversion have been ongoing for over two months. As the famine spreads in Somalia, it is more important than ever to ensure that food aid reaches the starving.

Tens of thousands of Somalis have already died as a result of the famine, an estimated 29,000 of whom were children under the age of five. With more than 3.2 million Somalis affected by the crisis and at least 450,000 living in famine zones controlled by terrorist group al Shabaab, getting aid to the neediest is an immense challenge.

Al Shabaab denies that Somalia is experiencing drought despite these staggering estimates and refuses major donors access to regions under their control. A few NGOs, like Islamic Relief Services, may distribute aid in restricted areas by cooperating with local al Shabaab members. But international donors, particularly the United States, are leery of channeling aid through distributors with known al Qaeda connections.

"Without the ability to protect civilians from al Shabaab attacks and victimization by local warlords, it is unlikely that the peacekeepers will be able to effectively monitor aid distribution." -- Julissa Milligan

Insecurity and violence in Somalia expelled all but the most tenacious NGOs from al Shabaab-controlled territory before the crisis, and rebel fighters only withdrew from the capital, allowing for increased aid disbursements, in mid-August. Major donors, including the WFP, USAID, and Britain's DFID, are saving countless lives, but diversion continues to plague their supply lines. Vendors sell donated food openly under the eyes of unconcerned government soldiers in one out of eight large distribution sites found by the AP and numerous other local stores in Mogadishu.

It is no surprise that some of the aid has been stolen. The UN and media sources document violent theft by local leaders and governing officials alike, and the WFP rarely allows its staff outside its heavily fortified compound due to attacks on aid workers. Since distribution networks were virtually nonexistent before the crisis, major aid organizations rely heavily on local contractors (including numerous warlords implicated in aid diversion in a 2010 UN report).

The African Union (AU) is urging donors to ramp up funding for famine relief during the Pledging Conference in Addis Ababa, which begins today, since only 57 percent of the funds needed to address the crisis have been pledged so far. While this money is vital to relief efforts across the Horn, rising aid levels must be accompanied by increased military support to secure supply lines and in-camp distribution in Somalia.

The deeply ingrained memory of Black Hawk Down makes it highly unlikely that the US military will step in to secure aid distribution lines. However, staying out of Somalia may be precisely the wrong lesson learned, according to former UN adviser to Somalia John Hirsch. Hirsch argues that the US military effort in 1992 saved “tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives” during the famine. The right conclusion, he argues, is to involve local leaders in negotiating aid distribution and to secure aid supply lines with military personnel to halt diversion. Crafting temporary ceasefires with local warlords, as the US military did during the 1992 intervention, could provide the needed stability for aid organizations to distribute food during the crisis.

The African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), the local AU force authorized by the UN Security Council, provides what little security exists to aid workers and government agencies, but the force is both understaffed and underfunded.

As negotiations for a re-extension of the AU's mission--which expires September 30--begin in the UN, ramping up troop levels, broadening AMISOM's mandate, and directing more famine relief funding toward securing distribution systems will increase the amount of food reaching the hungriest.

Increasing troop levels to the full UN mandate of 12,000 men is a necessary first step. The current forces number 9,600, following a 1,000-man increase by Burundian troops in March of this year. The current force is overwhelmingly staffed by Ugandan and Burundian soldiers. Expanding the force may require convincing other nations, such as Mozambique--which initially pledged its full support only to rescind shortly afterwards--to contribute to the effort. Concentrating AMISOM's stabilizing power in Somalia's capital of Mogadishu may provide the additional manpower needed to better protect supply chains and monitor Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp distribution points around the capital. Simply getting the food into the camps, though, will not be enough.

The AP report documented numerous in-camp thefts by local leaders and militias. Improving AMISOM soldiers' ability to police IDP camps could help cut down on these abuses. AMISOM's strict accountability rules have been used to prosecute rogue soldiers internally, and extending their jurisdiction to include policing IDP camps could increase civilian security.

AMISOM is operating under the UN's most expansive authorization of force, a Chapter VII mandate, but even with the broad mandate its abilities are limited. Military force can contribute to "the creation of necessary security conditions" for the provision of humanitarian assistance and protect their own personnel and local governing bodies, but their rules of engagement do not include civilian protection.

Without the ability to protect civilians from al Shabaab attacks and victimization by local warlords, it is unlikely that the peacekeepers will be able to effectively monitor aid distribution. Including an explicit stipulation on civilian protection in AMISOM's new mandate, like the one contained in UNSC Resolution 1706 (2006) on Sudan, would expand troops' ability to protect aid recipients.

Finally, some of the aid pledged at the upcoming conference in Addis Ababa should be directed toward stabilization efforts rather than purchasing and distributing food. The Pentagon's $45 million contribution in weaponry and training for AMISOM forces earlier this year has helped, but troops will need additional assistance. Channeling some of the funds raised by the UN into humanitarian training for AMISOM forces would be a positive step.

As long as supply chains are easily looted, hundreds of thousands of Somalis will continue to starve while al Qaeda-linked militants and armed criminals perpetuate conflict and instability in the country and the greater Horn. If international aid agencies are unable to secure distribution channels for food aid, the diversion into the pockets of al Qaeda-linked militants will threaten the stability of not only Somalia, but also the surrounding region, which has already experienced at least two al Shabaab-linked terrorist attacks over the past few years.

Julissa Milligan is a research assistant at AEI.

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