August 21, 2009

COIN 101

A propaganda battle has broken out and is now running parallel to military battles in Somalia. Transitional Federal Government (TFG) troops had launched an offensive in Bula Burte, a city "dominated by the opposition group" al-Shabab. After intense fighting, both sides claimed victory. Not surprisingly, media organizations are picking sides and distorting facts.

Somali government says it's taken town from Islamist fighters
, blared
a CNN headline. Abdulkadir Mohamed Osman, communication director for President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, claimed, "Bulo Burde is now under the control of government forces after our forces overran a stiff resistance at the entrance bridge of the town by Al Shabaab fighters."

The rest of the article descends into a profile on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It's easier to sell the Somali government when it appears to be winning, and this appears to be CNN's strategy. The report says Bulo Burde is 155 miles southeast of Mogadishu, which would be in the Indian Ocean. It also admits, "Despite the announcement, residents said heavy fighting continued Thursday and the town is still divided between pro-government forces and Al Shabaab fighters."

This alternate account is in line with an Al Jazeera report, which puts Bulo Burde 100 miles north of Mogadishu, similar to an AP report. Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim, an al-Shabab commander, taunted, "They attacked us this morning with a large army, but they sheepishly retreated and many of their fighters are strewn in the street now."

Bulo Burde is probably divided rather than controlled by the Somali government; considering al-Shabab had original control of the town, it likely remains in control. But even if Bulo Barde had fallen, al-Shabab launched its own offensive on Balad Wayne, a town near the Ethiopian border. Here too we find propaganda. Al-Shabab claims Ethiopian troops entered the city while Ali Mohamed Gedi, a government spokesman, denied the allegation. Regardless, al-Shabab is reportedly in control of the town now.

These towns are far from Mogadishu. Clinton's only sell is how powerful al-Shabab is becoming, not the success of the Somali government. National Geographic doesn't lie.

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