All wars by their nature are ragged, and sadly seasoned watchers of the Horn of Africa have had ample proof of this down the years. What often starts off with reasonably clear objectives ends up being nebulous and opaque. The Greek dramatist Aeschylus (525 – 456 BC) was spot on when he wrote; “In war, truth is the first casualty…”. Recent event concerning the war against Al-Shabaab certainly appear to bare these words out.
Make no mistake, Al-Shabaab are a thoroughly bad lot. They think nothing of terrorising civilians and readily press gang children into their nefarious activities. Al-Shabaab prey on the weak, the desperate and the illiterate with the sole intention of spreading their twisted and murderous ideology. Far from submitting to the will of Allah, this terrorist group have set themselves up as the ultimate power, one that that perverts religious teaching. Al-Shabaab has not a jot of compassion for those it enslaves or harms, and this presents particular challenges for those endeavouring to defeat them.
For a start the International Community is expected to follow certain established conventions, rules and guidelines. Every effort should be made to minimise fatalities and protect civilians. Herein lies the challenge, for terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab are past masters at embedding themselves among civilians. Thus every sinew should be strained to protect those who happen to have the misfortune to have Al-Shabaab in their midst.
In war accidents can and do happen. Innocents are killed and injured, and this appears to have been what happened in the Shabelle valley over the last few days. That said, civilian deaths and casualties in places such as Bariire must not be dismissed as mere collateral damage. Somalia is a country and not a video game. The war in Somalia is highly complex and involves various belligerents including the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), the US, certain allies and even various global security firms. When it comes to this conflict it is important to remember that no nation is beyond reproach, and that includes the US. Legitimate questions need to be asked of security firms such as Bancroft Global, especially in respect of their Terms of Reference and modus operandi. Similarly a robust and transparent mechanism is required to document and investigate deaths and casualties.
As ever politics muddies the water. The Government of Somalia is anxious to avoid articulating concerns about civilian casualties and deaths for fear of upsetting major donor nations. Those fighting Al-Shabaab are keen to ensure as free a hand as possible, a fact that is all the more essential in view of the shapeshifting qualities of terrorist groups. Matters are made even more complicated when key allied Arab nations exacerbate matters by actively promulgating Wahhabism and Salafism in Somalia and across the entire Horn of Africa. Add to all this drone strikes and the fractured nature of Somali politics and then one begins to appreciate why some view the situation as akin to the famed Serbonian Bog as described by another Greek from antiquity, namely the historian, Herodotus (c484-c425 BC).
Mark T. Jones