When a king or general takes to the front lines they act under one of two emotions: bravery or recklessness. This golden mean between extremes has been chanced since ancient times and, though uncommon today, the tradition will carry on into the future. President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed of Somalia is surely courageous for leading his troops at the point of attack, armed with an AK-47 and riding a African Union (AU) tank.
But he’s likelier to get himself killed than save his country.
Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) may be counting on outside observers to lose their attention, otherwise the propaganda doesn’t even paper over its deficit with al-Shabab. Ahmed’s position doesn’t look promising. Locked in a power struggle with Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, entering a battle has a definite populist feel, especially on Somalia’s 50th anniversary.
Ahmed also warned before arming himself that Somalia was in danger of “perishing.” Now as he charges into battle, we begin to wonder whether he’s simply courageous and a skilled fighter or looking for something more - like martyrdom.
Given the limited number of Somali troops and the AU’s inability to leave its position surrounding the presidential palace, Villa Somalia, Ahmed possibly expected to ride Sunni militia Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a’s wave and turn the tide of battle. But he should know before everyone else that he’s charging in alone.
The equilibrium between the TFG and Ahlu Sunna has finally dissolved after months of infighting.
"We are declaring that the power-sharing agreement has collapsed because the Somali government awarded some individuals, who are not part of us, with the cabinet slots meant for Ahlu Sunnah," declared Sheikh Muhammad Sheikh Hassan, the group’s spiritual leader. "These people, who are awarded with the positions, are politicians, who don't have anything to do with the agreement. But they main agenda is to derail the implementation of the agreement.”
It may seem illogical for the TFG to refuse its salvation, but factional fighting has destroyed many political agreements throughout time and along with states themselves. Last week Hassan warned of the impending collapse, adding that the government would become a legitimate target. We speculate on Ahmed’s thoughts because he appears to know the ship is going down.
Somalia’s latest vortex was picked up by US propaganda channel Voice of America (VOA), which has been monitoring the situation likely in fear. U.S.-based Somalia observer Michael Weinstein mirrors our analysis, describing how al-Shabab is securing the central region in order to challenge Ahlu Sunna’s territory in the north.
"If the central region goes to al-Shabab, then there is a real crisis. Puntland is pressured," said Weinstein. "The TFG [Transitional Federal Government] is left without any effective allies.”
Since VOA is a propaganda arm its reporting isn't always as it seems though. Our prediction is also similar to Weinstein’s: “Is this going to force the hand of the donor powers? Is there going to be another Ethiopian invasion? Everything is on the table. There is no diplomatic political response that can stop al-Shabab anymore. I think it is only a military response that can stop them."
But is that a red light or green light for US intervention?
Futile as the effects would be, the military option may truly the last resort to stop al-Shabab’s march if it knocks out a suddenly isolated Ahlu Sunna. But, paradoxically, a military and political response are both the only options and false hopes. Supporting the TFG hasn’t worked either; like Afghanistan the government is too divided and self-interested to apply COIN.
And the list of experts criticizing America’s strategy in Somalia is growing, Kenneth Menkhaus of Davidson College being the latest.
“This has become a vicious circle,” he warns, “in which both Ethiopian and U.S. efforts to reduce, or marginalize, or defeat Islamic radicals in Somalia has had the unintended consequence of strengthening them or empowering them in ways that (we) could never have imagined five years ago."
While the international community shies away from regional diplomacy, US arms have flowed from the TFG into the underground markets and eventually to al-Shabab.
Unfortunately not even “the military option” may be able to stop al-Shabab now, thus Somalia’s fate reaches new heights in tragedy. The country has descended into a total free for all between the TFG, Ahlu Sunna, and al-Shabab on its 50th Independence Day. The TFG, being a mutual enemy of the two militancies, will likely fall first, barring a US military quarantine of Villa Somalia.
If al-Shabab is able to complete its digestion of Hizbul-Islam, capture Mogadishu, and secure the central regions, Ahlu Sunna’s chances of survival are low.
And even if it does broker a deal with major clans or calls in Ethiopian support, either option is likely to inflame the conflict, not provide Ahlu Sunna with the strength to defeat al-Shabab outright. Chaos perpetuates. General David Petraeus’s Special Forces are lost in Somalia’s storm, and a large-scale operation will merely detonate the conflict once more. At some point America and NATO will be forced to react, pull all regional entities to the political table, then gather local entities for a possible COIN mission.
The question is whether they do before the bomb goes off in a Western city, before a strict military operation is the only resort to feed their publics.