Whether Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and African Union (AU) manage to launch a comprehensive assault on al-Shabab positions remains inconclusive. Past offensives have flopped and the current situation is relatively quiet. Currently the AU has only pushed back al-Shabab’s advance in Mogadishu, not driven it from its front-lines.
Furthermore, consolidating Mogadishu rather than entire country is a wiser strategy for the AU. Going from 6,000 to 10,000 troops may not be enough for the AU to seize the capital let alone the country. Were Mogadishu actually secured to a workable degree, the US-funded AMISOM could gradually expand from the capital as the UN increases its personnel. And given that it’s battled for three years to forge its upper hand in Mogadishu, al-Shabab will likely attempt to resist the AU until forced back.
If al-Shabab can gain territory with the AU’s current force level, it’s possible that it can fight 10,000 to a standstill.
But assume for tactical and strategic purposes that the AU does press out of Mogadishu and into al-Shabab’s southern (Kismayo) and northern (Beledweyne) strongholds, as well as into the rural elements. The possibility remains that the AU’s armored columns, backed by US Special Ops and air-strikes, could temporarily dislodge al-Shabab from its most prominent positions. An extra 4,000 AU troops will allow the current 6,000 to remain at their stations while a forward unit advances into Mogadishu.
Problematically for the AU, al-Shabab still won’t inhabit a poor position since it controls around 60,000 square miles of territory. The AU’s density thins rapidly if spread across the whole country, leaving it extremely vulnerable to rural and urban attack. Entering Somalia’s countryside is likely to trigger a new phase of guerrilla warfare.
Until now the semi-conventional al-Shabab has required mortars and RPG’s for targeting the AU’s static positions in Mogadishu. The AU rarely patrols outside the city and unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, where the insurgencies were massively overwhelmed in numbers and technology, al-Shabab’s relative strength towards the AU allows it to fight at a near-equal level. IED’s aren’t totally absent, having been employed in ambushes and against AU conveys on Kilometer 4 (K4), the highway that connects most of Mogadishu’s vital points including the seaport, airport, and presidential palace.
But the IED’s defensive abilities aren’t suited for al-Shabab’s offensive against government targets.
However, if the insurgency were to drag back into the countryside and force the AU to travel the open roads, it’s logical to assume that al-Qaeda operatives, already tutoring Somalis in IED warfare, will begin a systemic campaign. This would put even more civilians at risk, preserve al-Shabab’s fighting strength, and sap the morale of AU troops who may come to feel that they’re fighting ghosts without a strategy.
Mogadishu is one of the most dangerous cities on Earth, but like most wars the capital is also a safe zone if for no other reason than force concentration. al-Shabab-ruled countryside, at night, is another world.
al-Qaeda has presumably laid out a plan in advance. 500-700 operatives, possibly five times as many in Afghanistan and Pakistan, aren’t wasting time fighting in Somalia. They’re planning internationally, regionally, and locally. al-Qaeda isn’t a fighting force so much as a force multiplier, providing ideology and leadership, funding, and logistics for Islamic insurgencies waging indirect warfare against America.
al-Qaeda is building a message in Somalia with the overriding objective of undermining Afghanistan’s legitimacy as an al-Qaeda stronghold. Basically a taunt, “What are you doing over there? We’re over here.” This message is directed towards the American people more than US officials: the war against al-Qaeda cannot be sustained by chasing it from failed state to failed state, only demilitarization in Islamic countries and nations.
US leaders will chase al-Qaeda as long as voters allow them to.
Here’s where IED’s really come into play. al-Qaeda may simply wish to lure the as many US military personnel into the country as it can, then evict themselves to another state. But al-Qaeda also has a good thing going in Somalia and would be foolish to ruin it so soon. It could attempt to lure and deter US forces in seeking the perfect balance. Whatever the case, al-Qaeda is training local forces in guerrilla tactics from Iraq and Afghanistan in preparation for the immediate battle against the AU and what they believe could be the next battle when US ground forces intervene.
And al-Qaeda aims to create the sights and sounds of Iraq and Afghanistan for psychological impact.
A deadly reality for AU troops and a deadly image for US televisions, report after report of IED attacks on AU soldiers, a weak government, and nation building will harden US opinion against direct military involvement in Somalia. al-Qaeda is creating a buffer against the total war of Afghanistan or Iraq while still dragging America in, allowing it to continue operating while simultaneously weakening Afghanistan’s justification.
The AU’s main task has become preventing US troops from being summoned to the rescue. That means selecting the right course in the coming months and years so that Somalia doesn’t sink progressively deeper. Rationality must prevail over emotion. While Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and US officials talk a big game in Kampala’s aftermath, the military man that Museveni is may secretly realize that an ambitious offensive on al-Shabab - whether involving 10,000 or 20,000 troops - is likely to backfire.
The AU’s only feasible counterinsurgency is to advance slowly and steadily, not race after al-Shabab and play into al-Qaeda’s hands. Concentrating forces in Mogadishu plays to the AU’s advantage, while dispersing throughout the country risks widespread guerrilla and IED attacks. And most fatal in counterinsurgency, AU troops become distracted from non-military tasks vital to Somalia’s stabilization. The AU doesn’t enjoy favorable odds as it is, and getting to know the locals, assisting the weak and wounded, and building up infrastructure is enough of a challenge.
The AU must demonstrably improve Somalis’ lives in the near future or else it will be perceived as little more than another occupier, ultimately losing the strategic war. At the same time, Somalia’s timeline runs on decades and to compact it is to reject the war’s nature. Forced to choose between the two options, the AU and US have more to gain and less to lose by advancing slowly.
Although neither decision is very appealing.