The cycle of war moves back towards climax in Somalia. Last month a government counteroffensive, reportedly backed by US Special Forces and air support, never materialized due to insufficient forces and funds.
al-Shabab has since expanded into the few parts of Mogadishu beyond its grip. Days ago the parliament building was fired on amid political turmoil, and yesterday al-Shabab launched a large, coordinated operation on the northern Shibis and Bondhere neighborhoods.
The offensive’s main target: Kilometer Zero, a strategic crossroads leading towards the port and the presidential compound.
al-Shabab ultimately shelled the presidential palace and prompted return African Union (AU) fire, killing up to 14 civilians in total. Somali president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed missed the action as he attended an international conference in Turkey.
Elsewhere (and for what it’s worth), al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Rage claimed, "Our fighters attacked several positions controlled by the apostate government soldiers. We killed dozens of them and took control of their barracks overnight.”
Needless to say, things don’t sound good in Somalia. The constant stream of death can sometimes overshadow al-Shabab’s advances, and the capital sounds like it’s nearly theirs. Major Ba-Hoku Barigye, a spokesman for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), said al-Shabab's progress required immediate action.
"People need to understand what our mandate is, we are here to protect the transitional federal institutions of Somalia and we also have red lines. If our forces are endangered, they have the right to protect themselves.”
His statement applies to more than a red line on a particular front though. He literally means the small square surrounding the presidential palace and other government buildings.
We can’t say Somalia requires immediate action because it doesn’t look like that will make a difference. America can only fund so much without stepping on the ground and it remains terrified of doing so. The international community is trying to organize in America’s void, but it lacks the power to affect Somalia’s plight.
Certainly in the near and mid-term.
Meanwhile the war already seems lost on the ground when AU troops respond indiscriminately to al-Shabab attacks. While al-Shabab doesn’t make the best insurgency, AU troops are far worse counterinsurgents. They’ve truly lost their battle and have no other choice except prolong the suffering.
“Our army withdrew from the front lines, and we have lost neighborhoods,” President Sheik Ahmed said. “But the prime minister is responsible for the defeat.”
The question remains: when will Somalia’s tipping point strike? Though anticlimax resulted from the fizzled government counteroffensive, it also yielded another potential climax as al-Shabab draws nearer to Kilometer Zero. While the zone is heavily fortified and garrisoned, making imminent collapse of Somalia’s government unlikely, it hasn’t appeared this close to the tipping since its last collapse.
Back in Turkey Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, told the conference on Somalia’s future that, "the only way to restore stability is to support this government in its reconciliation effort and its fight against extremism. If the international community acts now, I think it can make the difference.”
But the international community’s only realistic option of making a difference is landing more troops to defend the capital and repel al-Shabab's advance, with the necessary uptick in US air-strikes. Of course Mogadishu would also descend into a sinister playground of urban warfare.
Somalia has long been a distant hell hole to the West, but sooner or later a direct attack will return it to a matter of immediate concern. Al-Shabab controls much of the capital and southern and central Somalia. It has failed to penetrate into the northern territory of Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a - nor does it need to need.
al-Shabab has more territory than it can handle, comparable to a modest US state, and it’s all open country for al-Qaeda. A bomb could hit anywhere in the EU - Sweden or Denmark for instance - and we have every reason al-Qaeda wishes to intentionally draw America into Somalia.
Unfortunately the reaction is likely to be as unorganized for success as efforts to keep Somalia afloat. Healing it remains a dream.