September 21, 2010

Peering Through Somalia’s Fog of War

News out of Somalia requires a constant filter. On one side, al-Shabab regularly harasses journalists and shuts down media outlets after hauling off equipment for its own communications network. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its African Union (AU) bodyguard have similarly resorted to propaganda, declaring progress against al-Shabab while pleading for more foreign troops and aid.

And though the TFG has portrayed al-Shabab’s Ramadan offensive as a failure, al-Shabab probably didn’t expect to actually fulfill its propaganda and topple the shaky government. Conversely, TFG and AU officials have promised a comprehensive assault for months that has yet to materialize, delayed by a lack of funds and al-Shabab’s advances.

Thus Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke warrants a healthy degree of skepticism after promising to open “a second front” against the group.

Some officials, be they TFG, AU, or UN, have begun pushing back against critisicm of the AMISOM mission. AU spokesman Major Ba-Hoku Barigye condemned “experts” that, “may have never set foot inside Somalia in the first place. Their theories are based on hearsay and lack of in-depth analysis, and board on the absurdity.” Bariqye is particularly upset at those who would deter the AU from sending additional forces to Somalia.

But with due respect to these authorities, their pattern of optimism has worn thin. Outside analysts may simply be searching for the conditions to effectively deploy foreign soldiers, given that no amount of force will bring stability to Somalia without a viable political framework.

It remains to be seen whether Sharmake can back up his threat when very real discrepancies plague the AU/UN narrative, both on the battlefield and inside the TFG. Somali troops receive no pay for months and have vented their anger by barging into parliament, shutting down Mogadishu streets in protest, and deserting to al-Shabab. Though they would make good fighters with the right training and support, TFG soldiers have been a non-factor in the AU’s operations.

As al-Shabab continued its assault into early September, AU officials began circulating information of seven new AU bases established over the last several months. The Associated Press oddly re-ran the story days ago. This information isn’t completely false, but isn’t completely true either coming from Ugandan officials with a personal stake in demonstrating progress. Ugandans make up 4,700 of the 7,100 AU troops in Mogadishu.

CNN would later report that three of the “new outposts” were set up near the presidential palace, Villa Somalia, which still suffers from attack. “When quizzed on this, commanders say their new positions are there to ‘secure’ the old ones.” Much of the capital remains contested ground.

With the AU building up its position in Mogadishu and the international media, a robust UN delegation landed in the capital and began making rounds with TFG officials. Lynn Pascoe, the U.N. under-secretary-general for political affairs, came away encouraged by the TFG’s progress, saying, “It is clear that Al-Shabaab has been pressing very hard in Mogadishu, but as I looked on the streets there were many more people on the streets and rehabilitation is going on."

Except roughly two-thirds of Mogadishu’s population has fled the capital to camps on its outskirts. The city is said to be emptier than ever, around 500,000 people, with the internally displaced speaking of a “hellish scene” wrought by Mogadishu’s most intense battle in recent memory.

Yet the potential destabilization resonating from the TFG trumps these military anomalies. Again the truth may lie somewhere between extremes. Perhaps the TFG isn’t as weak as advertised, but living up to the West’s praise is likely impossible.

"I do not want to sound overly optimistic and perfectly recognize all the difficulties that are there," Pascoe said. "But I also do not accept the statements, which I have seen repeatedly for the last three years, that everything is terrible and it is all falling apart. Yes, the government is weak. But the government is much more inclusive than it was before.”

Two weeks later and the UN, in conjunction with the AU and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), released a statement warning, “The current divisions between the leadership of Somalia's Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs) are unhelpful and potentially very damaging.”

The TFG’s power-struggle may be the thickest and most dangerous bramble of all, revealed between periods of denial. Prime Minister Sharmake and President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed have openly feuded since Sharif’s unsuccessful attempt to expel Sharmake in May, resulting in numerous votes of confidence and a battle over Somalia’s new constitution. Sharmake recently passed another vote of confidence in parliament while Sharif condemned a constitutional drafting, supported by Sharmake and Parliament Speaker Sharif Hassan, as “illegal.”

Sharif then denied a quarrel with Sharmake, telling Somali parliament members, "Currently we experienced many misunderstandings inside our government, but there is no personal dispute between me and the Prime Minister or the Parliament Speaker. I am requesting everyone to do his work with good intentions."

The TFG is widely perceived as corrupt, an image reinforced by Sharif firing his top general, Mohamed Ghelle Kahiye, for misappropriating US-supplied weapons. Sharmake would later accuse several pro-Sharif officials of “unlawfully” speaking for him, and Sharif continues to demand his resignation. Good intentions or not, Sharif’s claim is unbelievable.

The story reaches its bottom, according to Somaliland Press, at Mogadishu’s airport. Though the veracity of the report is unknown, Sharmake is believed to have signed a business agreement with a United Arab Emirates corporation to renovate Mogadishu’s air and sea ports. The deal called for Sharmake to received several million dollars in advance, with the Somali government receiving 30% of revenue and the unspecified company keeping the remainder. Sharif, who wouldn’t receive any money upfront, supposedly discovered the plan and vowed to oust Sharmake once and for all. He started by blocking Sharmake’s constitutional drafting.

"What is happening in chaos, and we will not leave the government while the political chaos continues,” responded Sharmake, “but I will always accept parliament's decision if it comes through in a legal way.”

Although posing no immediate impact to AU operations, political division within the TFG is draining the life out of Somalia’s counterinsurgency. No ground can be effectively held by the AU without proper support from the central government. The possibility of Sharif removing Sharmake, or the other way around, could spark new divisions as each side attempts to dispose the other. Somehow their feud must be resolved, otherwise a wide-scale military campaign is pointless.

But assume for hypothetical purposes that the TFG launches an assault as planned. Many dangers lie in wait. First, a “second front” doesn’t appear to be a “spirit of the offensive,” but rather a reaction to al-Shabab. Having reached an impasse in Mogadishu, al-Shabab allegedly held a war council in early September to debate its future course of strategy. Not long after, Sunni militia Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama’a issued a high alert in Dhusamareb, the main town in the northern Galgadud region.

The city is also Ahlu Sunna’s main garrison before its headquarters in Abudwak.

The move has been interpreted as al-Shabab’s plan B. Having failed to capture all of Mogadishu, the group is seeking to divert the government’s attention while still mounting resistance in the capital. However, this may be part of al-Shabab’s original plan. Assuming that al-Shabab, rather than topple Villa Somalia, intended to deter the international community from deploying a sufficient reinforcement, the group may be continuing on with its normal operations.

al-Shabab’s Ramadan offensive could be tactical more than symbolic. al-Shabab had already been moving north and seized Beledweyne, a key northern city bordering Ethiopia, before the Kampala bombings in July. Dhusamareb and its satellites towns were raided several times. The possibility exists that al-Shabab redirected its offensive to Mogadishu after Kampala spawned new AU troops, hoping to deter a sizable landing party.

In this case al-Shabab’s plan would still be relatively intact. A large deployment has likely been prevented, and al-Shabab can now equalizes its forces between Mogadishu and the rest of its territory again.

Sharmake may be copying al-Shabab’s second front when he says, "Unless you open different fronts you're not going to end this war." But the TFG will likely find the move hard to duplicate. For starters, TFG officials are expecting Ahlu Sunna to participate even though its officials told the Associated Press that relations with the government are still broken. The two sides fell out months ago over a disputed power-sharing agreement and have yet to restore full ties.

Sharmake claims the offensive, to come later this year, will target al-Shabab’s cities like Beledweyne and the southern port of Kismayo. This would correspond to the 2,000 Kenyan-trained Somalis in the south and 1,000 German-trained troops trained stationed in Ethiopia. But dropping several thousand soldiers into an isolated city would cut them off unless the AU and TFG can maintain their supply routes.

Perhaps Ethiopia would open a corridor from west and Kismayo’s port could supply the south by sea, but these channels would demand sizable resources to operate. And without the necessary troops to hold Mogadishu, holding other cities makes little sense except to draw al-Shabab away from the capital. This may be what the TFG is planning, just like al-Shabab’s northern shift.

Yet the possibility also exists that more AU troops will be landing sometime this year or early next year. Uganda will likely deploy additional forces after calling for between 20,000 and 40,000 soldiers, and a winter offensive predicates itself on reinforcements. Another thousand or two seems realistic.

Unfortunately for the TFG, AU, and Somalis, the decisiveness of such a force remains doubtful. Any serious push into al-Shabab will merely drive the group into smaller towns and the countryside, where it would switch from urban to rural warfare. al-Qaeda’s foreign attachment should prove invaluable here. And without a stable government behind them, the AU has no business patrolling al-Shabab’s deserts when it can’t provide lasting security or services.

One thing is clear: Sharif and Sharmake must settle their feud by compromise before launching any grand offensive. If not one must go. The rift with Ahlu Sunna must also be patched. Anti-corruption measures must be taken to protect revenue to TFG soldiers and civilian workers - a keystone to counterinsurgency - on the front lines. Though the TFG is putting up a fight and the West has no alternative, Somalia won’t be able to handle the influx in foreign troops and international aid without a sound political system.

Holding territory becomes a futile exercise when the government is unable to restore public services or pay national soldiers and employees to garrison the cities. Without a dependable government, AU and TFG incursions into al-Shabab territory could even magnify the conflict. And the AU would continue draining Western resources in stalemate, as leaving Somalia to al-Qaeda is out of the question.

[Note: Prime Minister Sharmake resigned from his position several hours after we posted this analysis. The move certainly benefits Somalia's condition, though many political challenges still lie ahead.]

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