The US media likes to give the impression that President Barack Obama inherited “quiet” or “limited” wars in al-Qaeda sanctuaries such as Yemen and Somalia, simply because top US officials rarely discuss them. Using Special Ops teams on the ground and Navy off the coast, drones have launched a half dozen strikes on al-Qaeda commanders in Somalia since 2008, with a SEAL raid conducted in 2009. Though these events briefly assume a high profile, America’s unregulated arms support to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and funding of the African Union’s mission (AMISOM) fail to garner the same level of attention.
But Washington’s war in Somalia is by no means limited.
The White House instantly pounced on the Kampala bombings, using tragedy to exploit Uganda’s war hungry and politicking president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. With al-Shabab threatening the presidential palace, Villa Somalia, Museveni had already committed an emergency force of 2,000 at the TFG and America's request. The new opportunity to escalate troop levels boosted the AU force from 6,000 to roughly 10,000. Museveni publicly stated his goal as 20,000 and US officials such as point-man Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, have yet to correct him.
However a group of African states and many analysts have questioned whether 20,000 troops will prove a decisive force against al-Shabab's 5,000, and answered in the negative. Stalemate perpetuates Somalia’s status quo without offering Somalis a better life or an exit for AU troops, as withdrawing from a political vacuum repeats the cycle of intervention. This analyst began a realistic force level at 40,000 in prior studies and the AU agrees.
While briefing Commander of Land Forces General Katumba Wamala and members of diplomatic missions last week, Force Commander of AMISOM Maj. General Nathan Mugisha requested 40,000 troops to complete his mission. Mugisha described Mogadishu’s breakdown as eight sections in government control, four contested sections, and four under al-Shabab control. Independent sources aren’t so kind to the AU, claiming its forces hold no more than a bubble around major institutions like Villa Somalia, the airport, and AU bases.
AMISOM spokesman Maj. Barigye Bahuko later estimated that 8,000 troops are needed to secure Mogadishu, likely an underestimate; the rest would be divided among the southern and central regions. While such a force does provide a better chance of securing Mogadishu and beyond, they would represent a government in strife. The AU's advance would sink into a matrix of rural insurgency designed by an estimated 500 al-Qaeda operatives; until now AU forces have been primarily engaged in Mogadishu’s urban warfare, where mortars and RPGs form the common arsenal of al-Shabab. AU troops have no business entering a countryside lined with IEDs without a solid political platform to fight on.
Right now they don’t, at least according to South Africa.
After several British papers quoted South African officials claiming otherwise, Africa’s premier state has temporarily retreated from the idea of deploying troops to Somalia. AU commissions chairman Jean Ping sent one of his first military requests to President Jacob Zuma, cognizant that the AU stands a low chance of sustaining its desired troop levels and political cover without his support. South Africa’s cabinet scheduled to debate the matter last week only to postpone due to labor issues. But Henri Boshoff, head of the Pretoria-based Peace Missions Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, claims that South Africa sees no developed political strategy in the AU's counterinsurgency.
"The first reaction by the South African Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, to the AU's request for South Africa to send troops was that Somalia is a political problem, and that deploying military forces in isolation will not be the solution,” said Boshoff.
Given South Africa’s judgment, the AU and its Western backers should deeply reconsider sending additional troops to Somalia. It may not be necessary to cancel the 4,000 ordered at July’s AU summit in Kampala, but 10,000 should remain the limit until a political framework can be constructed at the local, national, and regional levels. These 10,000 should be enough to hold Mogadishu so long as they don’t venture outside. The point isn’t to engage al-Shabab across its territory, but, using the ocean to its advantage, gain political control over a third of Somalia's population and gradually expand the security zone.
A lack of troops dispersed over a wide area forces the AU into overwhelming firepower, alienating the local people, and no system is established to heal the wounded, address grievances, or restore services. AMISOM may be possible with the right counterinsurgency and level of troops, but is impossible without both.
Unfortunately, with AU troops on alert for al-Shabab's next offensive, signs of escalation can be found across the country. Somalia’s events may pressure the AU to feel that more US-funded and equipped troops are necessary, summoning a massive puppet army to dodge Somalia’s anti-Americanism and al-Shabab’s attempt to exploit it. General Mugisha has already reacted in this manner.
And al-Shabab is likely to shift its entire offensive back towards Mogadishu if the AU does land more forces. As the TFG’s hold on the capital began to slip in 2010, al-Shabab appeared to be forming into a pincer movement with its horns at Beledweyne and Mogadishu. With Villa Somalia taking direct shots from al-Shabab mortars, the group began launching incursions into the northern territory of Ahlu Sunna Walijama’a, Somalia’s main Sunni militia and former TFG ally, with its eyes on Dhuusamareeb.
New AU forces would refocus the war’s front on Mogadishu, causing al-Shabab to entrench itself in its own territory rather than gradually move north. This would translate into ferocious fighting in Mogadishu and stiff resistance in al-Shabab’s strongholds.
The AU won’t see many IEDs so long as the battle remains centered on Mogadishu. Instead, considering a recent self-induced explosion on al-Qaeda’s part, al-Shabab may increase its use of explosive-laden vehicles better suited for attacking static AU targets. The AU and al-Shabab are both waiting to see whether reinforcements and Western funds show up in the coming months, giving al-Shabab time to prepare a variety of projectile explosives for larger AU units.
al-Shabab also continues to reintegrate Hizbul Islam on its own terms. The two groups spent last year divided and numerous reports cite obstacles in their current negotiations, such as military skirmishes, but both groups have denied fighting. al-Shabab’s position can operate either way; the group doesn’t need to combine. If left independent, Hizbul Islam is still more likely to attack TFG and AU forces while maintaining a tentative peace with al-Shabab, who in turn uses Hizbul Islam as a placeholder for less important towns.
The basic fact remains that foreign intervention attracts these two groups, whereas they might split and cannibalize if left alone. As for Ahlu Sunna, the TFG has yet to formally announce a resolution to their two month power-sharing dispute.
And looking farther out on the horizon, the conflict could enter a death spiral were Ethiopia to intervene again. A growing possibility if South Africa won’t contribute troops, perpetual destabilization repeatedly taunts Addis Ababa into the country. Border clashes are common and days ago unspecified militants killed three Ethiopian soldiers, prompting a raid on a border village that left over 10 people dead. With “counterinsurgency” like this, no wonder al-Shabab wants to lure the unpopular country back into the warzone.
Perhaps al-Shabab’s next bombs will even detonate in Addis Ababa - at the US embassy like al-Qaeda ordered - and accomplish two objectives at once.
Destruction may not be the AU’s only obstacle either. School enrollment reportedly doubled in Beledweyne after al-Shabab took control from Hizbul Islam two month ago (along with subsuming its troops). A university will open soon, perhaps the beginning of a campaign to soften al-Shabab’s image among Somalis. Life is unquestionably hard under al-Shabab’s rule, but the AU must improve on whatever stability the militants do bring.
Fighting for territory that cannot be held offers no improvement.
The AU and Washington need South Africa if they truly expect to achieve progress and sustain their war against al-Shabab and al-Qaeda. Counterinsurgencies last well over ten years on average and Somalia is steaming towards 2020. The West and AU need a political strategy that addresses the weak TFG government, Somalia’s clans and business leaders, al-Shabab, Hizbul Islam, and Ahlu Sunna, and regional entities Somaliland and Puntland. Minus this, 20,000 to 40,000 troops will only create a bigger ball of chaos.
South Africa appears to know this. America should too.