Mozambique: fears of escalating conflict as foreign troops clash with Islamists
Foreign troops sent to reinforce local security forces in Mozambique have clashed with Islamist militants for the first time, as the conflict in the east African country moves into a new and potentially dangerous phase.
Rwandan soldiers who recently arrived in Mozambique fought a series of engagements against the extremists last week. Few reliable details of the fighting, which took place near Mozambique’s border with Tanzania, have emerged, but officials claim the insurgents suffered dozens of casualties.
The Rwandan troops are the first significant foreign deployment in a direct combat role in the conflict. Russian and South African military contractors have previously fought insurgents alongside local security forces, and there have been unconfirmed reports of one possible clash involving western special forces earlier this year.
The recent successes of the insurgents, who have links to Islamic State, in northern Cabo Delgado province have prompted international fears of a new extremist enclave in southern Africa and led to a new regional resolve to defeat them.
Factions affiliated to Isis and to al-Qaida have grown in strength in west, central and south-eastern Africa in recent years, one of the few regions of the world where both groups have expanded.
In a report published last week, the UN committee charged with monitoring threats from al-Qaida and Isis across the world described parts of west and east Africa as especially worrying.
“Affiliates of both groups can boast gains in supporters and territory, as well as growing capabilities in fundraising and weapons, for example, in the use of drones ,” the committee, which bases its assessments on intelligence supplied by member states, said.
There are plans for thousands of foreign troops to be deployed in Mozambique over coming months from at least seven different countries.
Experts have said the influx of foreign soldiers may lead to reprisal attacks across southern Africa and possibly beyond, which weak local security services will struggle to prevent. There are also concerns that the deployment of significant forces with limited knowledge of the local environment, languages and culture could be counterproductive unless balanced by a broad range of social, political and economic initiatives.
Jasmine Opperman, a respected expert on the conflict based in neighbouring South Africa, said it was clear that something needed to be done to stem the advance of the insurgents.
“Mozambique needs help and that is a definite,” she said. “But will the presence [of the international troops] translate into an overall defeat for the insurgency … I don’t think I can be optimistic. If there is an over-reliance on an unaccountable military, the causes will remain.”
Advanced elements from the South African army have also arrived in Cabo Delgado, where the insurgents have taken over or contested control of vast swaths of land, displacing 800,000 people and threatening lucrative international natural gas projects.
The South Africans are part of a multinational force put together by the regional Southern Africa Development Committee. It is unclear exactly how many of its 3,000 planned troops will actually deploy because recent unrest in South Africa means Pretoria will be unable to fulfil its commitments to the force. Angola, Tanzania and Botswana are also contributing soldiers, and elite units of Zimbabwe’s army have reportedly been told to prepare for deployment.
The new effort to reinforce local security forces comes after an offensive by extremists earlier this year exposed the weaknesses of local forces and forced the conflict on to the agenda of leaders overseas.
In March, they launched an attack on Palma, a port adjacent to a $20bn gas project led by oil company Total. The plight of dozens of western and other consultants besieged in a hotel in the town received widespread coverage, but the ordeal of many tens of thousands of local people caught up in the fighting received less attention. Rwandan forces launched a series of aggressive patrols around the town earlier this month in an attempt to re-establish government control of its immediate hinterland.
Most of the civilians in the area have left their villages to flee the insurgents or been told to leave by authorities.
The insurgents call themselves Ansar-al-Sunna but are known as al-Shabaab to locals. The US state department have designated them as part of Islamic State’s Central African Province, but analysts hotly contest the extent of their links to the group’s leadership in the Middle East.
Dino Mahtani, an expert on Mozambique at the International Crisis Group, said military assistance could be useful if “done in a measured way”.
“Authorities need to reckon with what needs to be done to incentivise the militants to reconsider violence as the best means to resolve grievances. If they simply think they can defeat and dismantle the group then they may get themselves involved in an unwinnable war,” he said.
Small detachments from several European nations, especially Portugal, the former colonial power, have been also sent to help train Mozambique’s weak armed forces and police. Around a dozen US special forces spent two months with local counterparts earlier this year.
Private military contractors are understood to be training several new local units of special forces which will be sent to the combat zones in the north.
Major groups such as Isis have a long history of seeking to punish allies of local governments by launching spectacular attacks against their citizens and interests. Though there is limited evidence of extremist activity in southern Africa, local intelligence services are weak and targets plentiful.
“We are already caught up in a war on terrorism in Cabo Delgado and that will have a ripple effect across the region. I can’t say there will be an attack, but it will make us more vulnerable to acts of terrorism that we won’t see coming,” said Opperman.
Foreign troops have a limited record of success against Islamist militants on the continent. The expensive and dangerous deployment of French and other international forces in Mali has had only limited success, and military gains have been undermined by continual political instability and poor governance in the region. A regional east African force in Somalia has been unable to win back much of the country from al-Qaida affiliates over more than a decade of operations.
The multitude of different nation’s troops deploying in Mozambique also brings significant command and control issues, experts say.
Col Omar Saranga, a spokesperson for Mozambique’s defence ministry, said detachments would be “led by their respective commands but the chief coordinator is the Republic of Mozambique”.
Analysts also point to the shortcomings of interventions in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and elsewhere in recent years.
“Military pressure can degrade and erode [the insurgency in Mozambique] but ultimately this is a conflict that needs resolution dialogue,” said Mahtani.