Somalia: US Explores Negotiations with Al-Shabaab as Trump Mulls Troop Pullout

MOGADISHU (Somaliguardian) – US government is exploring negotiations with Al-Qaeda-linked militant group Al-Shabaab in Somalia as Trump mulls pulling out all American troops in the country, which is still beset by insurgents.

Top Somali intelligence officials said on Wednesday that the federal government was approached with a US proposal to explore possible ways to negotiate with Al-Shabaab, before US troops leave the country during the final weeks of the Trump administration.

“Somali government officials including President Farmajo and the national intelligence chief had been approached with a US proposal to explore options for starting talks with the terrorist group Al-Shabaab,” said a senior national intelligence official who would only speak to Somaliguardian on the condition of anonymity.

“The proposal seeks to provide recommendations on best avenues to pursue negotiations with the group before US troops leave Somalia.”

In addition, the official stated that senior Qatari diplomats held consecutive talks with Somali president and his intelligence chief aimed at advancing further to the assignment, whose result is hastily needed by the current US administration.

The war against Al-Qaeda branch in the East Africa, the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab group has bedeviled several Somali presidents and its degradation has eluded US and Somali administrations as well as other allied foreign countries.

Despite US drone strikes on the group’s strongholds, it still maintains control over large swathes of territory in south and central Somalia. More recently, it has been reported that the group transformed into an economic power by raising more than $180 million in one year. Its influence also spreads into government-held major cities including Mogadishu, with politicians, soldiers and businesspeople seeking justice at its courts, according to a speech former president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud delivered at a think-tank based in the capital earlier this week.

Both Somali intelligence and foreign ministry officials have confirmed to somaliguardian that the current US administration pursues talks with Al-Shabaab, a prospect it had shunned four years ago when Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo was keen to end the decade-long insurgency by drawing the Al-Qaeda franchise to the negotiating table and which he had publicly pledged during his campaign speeches.

Last week, US media reported that Defense Secretary Christopher C.Miller flew to the Middle East last month to pursue a diplomatic idea, urging Qatar’s government to help devise plans to buy off or marginalize some senior leaders of Al-Shabaab, a group that the US says shows growing commitment to attacking the west.

Mr Miller won the backing of other senior officials of the Trump administration who had agreed to bypass the nation’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – and when he found out, he deemed the idea half-baked and shut it down, the New York Times reported last week.

The US defense secretary had met Qatar’s emir and urged him to explore ways to open negotiations with Al-Shabaab, before the effort was awkwardly shuttered, according to reports by US media. But it is yet unclear, if the Qatari diplomats who have recently urged Somali officials to devise plans on starting talks with the jihadi group are working on their own or in line with the US push to minimize terrorism threats on its interests in the East Africa region.

More than 700 US special forces are present in Somalia, who are actively participating in allied Somali and African Union military operations; they also train and equip Somali troops who are still unable to operate on their own in holding islamists at bay from Mogadishu, the seat of power for the Somali federal government.

President Donald Trump is considering withdrawing all American troops in Somalia, having already pulled out special forces stationed in Bosaso and Galka’yo towns in the north-eastern semi-autonomous region of Puntland, a move that Somali officials fear could pave the way for militants to make their way once again to the capital 9 years after they had left.

American officials have long struggled with how to think about Al-Shabaab, a group analysts believe has global jihadi sights rather than pursuing parochial goals, which has yet to open its doors to negotiations.

The group’s spokesman repeated many times that it would not open its doors to talks unless all foreign troops leave the country. Somali and Horn of Africa regional political analysts say there is no hope in sight of fruitful negotiations with the group as it maintains assertion that it will continue military operations until the last foreign soldier withdraws.

Trump administration wonders whether it would be possible to separate key Al-Shabaab officials from Al-Qaeda to reduce its threat to American interests beyond Somalia’s borders, but the plan is believed could not have far-reaching impact on the group, given the defection of Mokhtar Robow and other officers in its ranks, which added no strength to efforts aimed at quelling its threat.

As both US and Somali officials recognize that Al-Shabaab cannot be defeated militarily, and perhaps negotiations are the only options available for ending its decade-long insurgency, how could the group’s leaders be drawn to talks will remain a daunting question ahead to be answered for the year’s to come.

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