Clashes have erupted across Somalia, from Mogadishu and the Galgadud region to Baraawe, a southern port city and Liboi, a village on the Kenyan border. Everywhere appear the fighters of Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, bankrolled by America and Ethiopia and airlifted in by government planes.
Ahlu Sunna claims to have killed hundreds of al-Shabab fighters after pushing its frontlines back in several towns, including the capital. So is al-Shabab on the run?
Without question Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa is a stronger opponent than al-Shabab is used to engaging. Maybe too strong. Ahlu Sunna’s soldiers fight for their own country, as opposed to AU and Ethiopian forces who Ahlu Sunna mocks. Its soldiers claim to go unpaid and fight out of liberation for their country.
While they’re really flush with US dollars, this fact changes little. Ahlu Sunna knows the land and people, manifesting in far more swagger than AU and Ethiopian troops. Says one fighter, Ahmed Arab Abdi, "They have 10,000 soldiers, and all they control is 10 kilometers. If they are fighting for money and khat, they will gain zero ground.”
If the Somalia government has any hope of eliminating large numbers of al-Shabab and holding its territory, Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa may be it. Activated when al-Shabab threatened to seize the presidential place, Ahlu Sunna actually turned out to be America’s last line of defense before a task force.
Apparently the plan is to delay the government’s fall until a Special Forces operation can set up shop. So the question quickly becomes: what are they supposed to do? Take advantage of the free-for-all to chop off a few al-Qaeda heads? How will this serve long-term US interests?
It might look like Somalia has been pushed back from the brink, but that probably isn’t the case. Instead Somalia passed the tipping point and is experiencing severe warping as a result.
Though Ahlu Sunna’s counterattack blunted al-Shabab’s momentum, it’s only a matter of time before al-Shabab launches its own counteroffensive. Amid a fourth assault on the presidential palace, at least one battalion of Hizbul Islam supposedly defected to al-Shabab. If Hizbul Islam comes under increasing conflict with Ahlu Sunna, the former allies-turned-enemies may have no choice except to recombine.
The odds favor Ahlu Sunna prolonging the downfall of Somalia’s Transitional Federation Government over preventing it. Temporary order will be equalized by instability generated - unless a workable political and economic strategy emerges to stabilize the government.
But mounting evidence indicates that Somalia is the next powder-keg to blow.
This Washington Post report, after citing the New York Times’ leak of General David Petraeus’s Special-Forces directive, singles out Somalia as the target of a major offensive. Two Pentagon officials also described the new SOF operation to CNN, along with the rational behind it. Yet America is being driven to Somalia by fear and helplessness, a futile combination.
The bomb has been built up by all sides to perfection: al-Shabab opening its territory to al-Qaeda, the TFG undergoing political strife, regional actors like Ethiopia and Eritrea taking sides, wild cards like Ahlu Sunna and Hizbul Islam, and America riding al-Qaeda’s wave as justification into a failed state.
Somalia is one attack on the US homeland away from another Afghanistan.
Last year 100 foreign fighters supposedly trained in Somalia; the new US estimate puts them at 200. They include Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Saudis, Yemenis, and nationals from African countries. US officials believe the fighters, part of the same pipeline that flows to Afghanistan and Iraq, have now been diverted to Somalia.
Accordingly, ad hoc training camps spring up like mushrooms across the al-Shabab-controlled south. US officials say they operate for about three months on average before moving to another location; both drones and satellites blanket the region. One called Somalia "the ultimate safe haven,” warning, “they have goals beyond the Somalia border.”
While our assessments reach the same conclusion, our responses assume polarity. While we perceive al-Qaeda’s goal as luring America into Somalia, America’s goal is to eliminate al-Qaeda from Somalia. Once SOF strikes fail to cripple the group, America will have failed and al-Qaeda will have accomplished its first mission. The second is striking America directly.
al-Qaeda isn’t on the run - this is its strategy.
The White House’s National Security Strategy claims to understand this paradox, but Afghanistan is old news and here goes Obama into Somalia - the new “ultimate safe haven.” Last month it was Yemen. Hyping fear, roaming insurgencies without a clear, feasible strategy or exit plan.
Actually Obama is out-Bushing Bush. One senior military official said the White House is allowing "things that the previous administration did not."
“We have a lot more access," a second military official said of Secretary Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs. "They are talking publicly much less but they are acting more. They are willing to get aggressive much more quickly."
Such change and transparency in American foreign policy!
The Pentagon tries to alleviate concerns by assuring, “The Special Operations capabilities requested by the White House go beyond unilateral strikes and include the training of local counter-terrorism forces and joint operations with them.” Officials confidently claim “we are doing all three” in Yemen, treatment headed for Somalia.
And therein lies the nexus of chaos - full-spectrum counter-terrorism once again being thrown at insurgents, not terrorists. Presented with a failed state that’s all but lost, America continues planning operations despite Special Forces offering a quick fix at best, conflagration at worst.
In September 2009, U.S. commandos killed top al-Qaeda operative Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who “was seen as perhaps a key leader of al Qaeda operations in East Africa,” according to U.S. officials. “A key leader.” Soon after Nabhan’s death another “top” al Qaeda operative entered Somalia. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, wanted since the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, is being hunted by SOF at this moment.
Presumably US officials believe taking out Mohammed, like Nabhan, will make an impact.
What kind though? al-Shabab and al-Qaeda responded to Nabhan’s death by merging and pushing all the way to the presidential palace. We speculated this chain reaction intentionally allowed Washington to keep playing the al-Qaeda card in Somalia, which it has. And it will keep losing too if it doesn’t learn.
Valuable as he is, eliminating Mohammed’s death is fated for a similar non-impact without an effective political strategy. And here is where the situation gets most disconcerting.
The White House gambled on the TFG standing up by now and granting Special-Ops free reign of the country, while also preparing the ground for potential US troops. But the TFG is coming apart just as America’s military spectrum is gearing up. In the nine months since Petraeus authorized his directive the TFG escaped several near collapses and now verges on disintegration, leaving a counter-terrorism shell where the Pentagon hoped a counterinsurgency would be.
The TFG did offered the best chance in recent memory. Perhaps it will survive the infighting between Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke and President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. But the TFG’s odds were never high - it would probably take a coin-flip.
Two weeks ago, as Ahmed and Sharmarke clashed, Mogadishu nearly fell into complete control of al-Shabab. This could have been the case if not for Ahlu Sunna, however their influence extends beyond the military realm. In exchange for their allegiance in March, Ahlu Sunna received political positions that likely came into play last week. America’s counterinsurgency hopes largely rest on what the group decides to do.
Right now it looks like it wants power, a natural demand considering they think they just saved the government.
"To get the support of the international community, we need to play inside the political sphere," said Abuker, the senior Sufi leader. "We have earned the right to run the government one day."
Sounds like they want more than a day.
The battle is on between TFG and Ahlu Sunna officials, as the Washington Post reports: “The suspicions are mutual. Inside a government compound protected by African peacekeepers, Justice Minister Abdirahman Mahmoud Farah said the Sufi ranks are filled with fighters from rival clans who simply ‘want to use the Ahlu Sunna's war as a ladder to power.’”
Officials even play down Ahlu Sunna’s military contribution, fearing success could breed excessive political ambitions. Interior Minister Abdugader Ali Omar dismissed one Sufis' battle as "a minor operation."
A power struggle between Ahlu Sunna and the TFG could certainly occur, providing al-Shabab the necessary diversion to hold its territory. Yet Ahlu Sunna still won’t be able to defeat al-Shabab if it ultimately assumes acting power of the government. Too strong for the government too weak for al-Shabab, Ahlu Sunna will also face various warlords unaligned with Islamist militants.
Initiating more military operations into such an environment - working in the shadows of a fluid government - will be almost impossibly complex. US forces can only provide minor tactical strikes in Somalia, not turn the tide of war. So long as counter-terrorism supplants counterinsurgency, they can’t shut down al-Qaeda camps or prevent a terrorist attack on the West.
Only delay the inevitable.
Washington may think it pushed al-Shabab back from the brink, but time stands still from outside a black hole. Somalia has already passed the event horizon, into a state of reality they cannot comprehend.