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African Forces Succeed Against Islamists In Somalia


Let's get a glimpse of the troops now fighting Islamist insurgents in Somalia. Forces from multiple African nations have been battling a group called al-Shabaab for years. They're being closely watched now because the international community is considering how to intervene in future months and years against an insurgency in Mali. NPR's Gregory Warner is traveling with a force in Somalia. Gregory, welcome back to the program.


INSKEEP: So where are you, and what have you been doing?

WARNER: So right now, right today, I'm in Mogadishu. But I have been traveling around Somalia with these African troops, and we've been in armored convoys. And just to give you a picture, I mean, I might be in a convoy with a Ugandan soldier, sitting next to a Burundian soldier. Last night, I was out with the Nigerian police, who were doing patrols. So it is a number of African nations contributing to this fight against as Shabaab militants.

INSKEEP: OK. So you've got multiple nations contributing troops. Western nations contribute some funds. How has the fight been going for them?

WARNER: It's been going really well. In 2011, they took Mogadishu. Last year, they really took all the other major cities, and they've pushed al-Shabaab back on the defensive. Al-Shabaab is no longer a ruling force. They've now retreated to being a terrorist force that's exploding bombs and doing ambushes.

INSKEEP: Ambushes. So they still control some rural areas, and if troops head into those areas, there's trouble?

WARNER: Right. Exactly. The African Union mission in Somalia, AMISOM, controls the cities. Al-Shabaab is still present in rural areas and infiltrating through, you know, suicide bombers. Even in Mogadishu last night, there was a suicide bomb.

INSKEEP: So let's talk about the forces that are facing that pressure. How well do these African troops who are from different nations work together?

WARNER: Militarily, AMISOM has been a pretty universally recognized success. They've pushed Shabaab - this militant Islamic group - outside of Mogadishu and out of the major cities. If you ask commanders why they've been successful, they say it starts with the fact that they are all African. Here's the contingent commander, Michael Ondoga. He says African soldiers are just more welcome here.

MICHAEL ONDOGA: Africans don't look at fellow Africans with as much suspicion as they would look at you, the whites.

WARNER: So, I mean, he's right in the sense that AMISOM, this group, has gained more ground with less firepower than any other U.N. mission here Somalia, maybe because they're less likely to be seen as colonizers. We should mention, though, with this model, that none of this would matter without the tanks, the weapons and the training provided and paid for by the West. So that's, of course, the model that AMISOM is touting: African boots on the group, Western money and training.

INSKEEP: Well, here's one way that that example might be relevant, Gregory Warner. As you know very well, there is also an Islamist insurgency in Mali which French troops are fighting. They would like to turn that mission back to African troops as soon as they can. Does Somalia give them hope that that model could work?

WARNER: There's a lot of hope. Economically speaking, it's a far more palatable alternative. It's much cheaper. And politically, it's also more preferable, because people don't want to put Western soldiers in harm's way. I think the main concerns that I hear about replicating the model is this: One is, look, AMISOM has actually been here since 2007, but they only started winning when the West got serious about funding them.

So one question is: How serious is the West about really doing this in Mali, really doing the model? The second concern is most African countries aren't like Uganda or Kenya, which have very strong, experienced militias. And even those militias say they need more troops to keep fighting the al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. Mali doesn't have those kind of neighbors. And how are they going to do if they enter Mali?

INSKEEP: NPR's Gregory Warner is traveling with African peacekeepers in Somalia. Thanks very much.

WARNER: Thanks very much.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.