October 16, 2010

Somalia's Tactical Forecast: The Northern Front

With al-Shabab’s Ramadan offensive effectively over in Mogadishu, Somalia has returned to a twisted sense of normality. Division may well exist in the group’s diverse leadership, but the reasons have less to do with its success in raiding the capital. al-Shabab never sincerely expected to topple the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and charge its African Union (AU) guard into the sea.

Coinciding with al-Shabab's annual Ramadan offensive were 750 Ugandan reinforcements landing in Mogadishu, along with the threat of 20,000 more. In the preceding months al-Shabab had driven northward, capturing the regional hub of Beledweyne and eying the northern Galguduud region, stronghold of Sunni militia Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a. With reinforcements on Mogadishu’s horizon, al-Shabab diverted its forces to block the AU's momentum and pin down its troops.

Now that the latest battle is over, the northern region has resumed its place as Somalia’s decisive ground. al-Shabab could slowly encircle the capital were it to add the central and northern regions to its southern territory. And if the TFG and AU pushes al-Shabab back below Mogadishu, they could begin to squeeze the group in preparation for a final assault.

That no side holds the power to establish absolute control won’t stop them from trying.

Today’s events and those that follow are fluid and therefore any information is liable to change. With that said, the current situation revolves around a number of towns in the Galguduud region, starting at the border district of Adado. Preliminary reports indicated a fierce battle between Ahlu Sunna and Himin Iyo Heb, the self-designated administration in Adado, as well as clashes between Ahlu Sunna and al-Shabab.

Around the same time al-Shabab movements were reported near Dhuusamareeb, the regional capital of Galguduud, after the group supposedly took over Ahlu Sunna bases in Mareer Gur, roughly 20 miles north of Dhussamereeb and 20 miles south of Abado. Shortly afterward, witnesses in Dhuusamereeb said that Ahlu Sunna members drove off in the direction of Abado. al-Shabab quickly appeared and, at least for the time being, now holds control of Ahlu Sunna’s regional garrison.

However these events are unfolding in real time and the ground may have changed by now. Sheikh Abdulahi Sheikh Abdurrahman, spokesman for Ahlu Sunna, said the group took over Abado in response to residents’ demands. But Mohammed Adam Tici, chairman of Himin Iyo Heb administration, claimed the attack came unprovoked, and the latest reports indicate that his administration re-seized the area.

This probably has something to do with Ahlu Sunna sending forces from Abado back to Dhussamereeb, where a battle awaits unless al-Shabab doesn’t plan to hold city. Its symbolic short-term objective has been reached: far from defeated, al-Shabab remains on the offensive throughout the country.

Although the TFG and AU have repeatedly issued threats of a new campaign into al-Shabab’s southern territory, the northern and central regions are more likely to dictate Somalia’s foreseeable future. al-Shabab has attacked Dhussamereeb at least four times this year, starting with a sizable offensive in January, and appears in the process of encircling Ahlu Sunna. Dhussamereeb, Mareer Gur, and the Abado district surround its headquarters in Abudwak.

With Ahlu Sunna officially renouncing its power-sharing agreement with the TFG last month (which unofficially caved months ago), al-Shabab seeks to eliminate Ahlu Sunna from its rear before concentrating on the TFG and AU in Mogadishu. And it has reason to believe help won't come easily. While several TFG members have volunteered to negotiate with Ahlu Sunna, their efforts could be futile since the group appears to want nothing to do with the TFG.

The Sufi-following Ahlu Sunna has vowed to combat Wahhabism, suspecting the TFG as much as al-Shabab. One official, Sheikh Omar Sheikh Abdul-Karidir, recently claimed that officials linked to al-Shabab have received government positions. Ahlu Sunna remains deeply distrustful of Somali President Sharif Ahmed, former commander of al-Shabab’s previous state, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), in addition to hard-line Islamists inside the TFG. It became well known in March (evident in the arms shipments) that the West pushed Ahlu Sunna into an agreement with the TFG to provide immediate military relief, an arrangement that did temporarily disrupt al-Shabab and still partitions its forces.

But the TFG and Ahlu Sunna aren’t a natural fit.

E. J. Hogendoorn, an analyst with the International Crisis Group Horn of Africa, explains, “There are Islamists in the Transitional Federal Government, who are opposed to Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a's vision. There are also actors, who are worried about Ahlu-Sunna becoming too powerful. So, there are a number of individuals, who would like to undermine the organization."

This leaves Ethiopia, which militarily supplies Ahlu Sunna along with America, as its only ally, a potent but unstable choice given its prior history and accumulated hostility.

Meanwhile divisions within al-Shabab, reportedly due to unequal distribution in taxes and fighters, aren’t wide enough to capitalize on, especially with the TFG still facing its own internal struggle. The exit of Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke provides a temporary boost by relieving a giant feud with Ahmed, but Somalia’s political system remains pervaded by complexities and ambiguities involving its parliament and constitution. Most analysts don’t expect a new prime minister to make a notable impact in the TFG’s unity.

Clinging to Ethiopian forces, TFG forces have once again temporarily dislodged al-Shabab from Beledweyne, signaling that the TFG and AU intend to retake territory above Mogadishu before planning a southern campaign. Sudden strikes behind al-Shabab's lines would come at too high a cost of holding territory isolated from the main force and supply lines. Conversely, al-Shabab seems more intent on seizing the north than Mogadishu, a strategic aberration already reverting to normal operations: leaving units to tie up the capital as it works north.

In motion before al-Shabab’s Ramadan offensive, the battle for Galguduud and its neighboring Hiiraan region now appears in full swing.

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