November 13, 2010

Getting the Most Out of Ahlu Sunna

Whether or not Somalia’s new cabinet functions better than the old one remains unknown. Halving the seats from 39 to 18 eliminates excessive positions and competition, although fewer seats could also increase competition. The general consensus believes that the cabinet’s composition improved upon the last, but major challenges lie ahead in reforming the constitution and parliamentary system. The lame duck status of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), whose mandate expires in August and calls for what would be an impossible election, adds to the uncertainty.

Vital as political progress is in counterinsurgency, any short-term success by the new cabinet means one thing: more war.

Aside from the race to secure as much of Somalia as possible before next summer, the potential assimilation of Sunni militia Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a would signal a new cycle of fighting. The group reached a power-sharing agreement in March only to pull out in May, alleging that TFG officials never allocated their cabinet positions. While Ahlu Sunna doesn’t make war against the TFG, the Sufi movement frequently criticizes the government’s infighting and Wahhabi tendencies.

Now, as the TFG and its allies continue to build up an elusive national offensive, Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed has returned Ahlu Sunna to power by offering them the significant Interior Ministry, along with Labor. More importantly, Ahlu Sunna considers Mohamed as one of them. Most biographies indicate that Mohamed was born in Mogadishu and raised in the southern Gedo region, but it bears mentioning that some reports trace him to Abudwak, Ahlu Sunna’s headquarters.

Of course individual clan members can reside in any part of Somalia, but Mohamed also hails from the Darod tribe which inhabits the northern region. In either case Ahlu Sunna is encouraged by Mohamed’s presence, having celebrated his appointment in Abudwak with local residents. And from this spirit flows the counteroffensive against al-Shabab.

Ahlu Sunna’s attitude will play as critical a role as its arms, thus its perception of the TFG assumes the decisive military terrain. More than receiving political posts like last time, Ahlu Sunna must be kept happy.

Having battled al-Shabab and its precursor, Islamic Courts Union (ICU), Ahlu Sunna's March agreement with the TFG saw it airlifted directly into al-Shabab territory. These initial operations offer a glimpse of how Mohamed’s treatment of Ahlu Sunna could augment the TFG’s military strength. When TFG, AU, Ahlu Sunna, and Ethiopian troops coordinate in unison they present the greatest threat to al-Shabab.

When divided their strength inevitably decreases.

Ahlu Sunna never stopped fighting once it shredded its pact with the government. Backed financially and militarily by its patron Ethiopia, Ahlu Sunna has assaulted numerous al-Shabab positions on the western border while defending the central and northern regions to the best of its abilities. Though limited to harassing maneuvers in the central city of Beledweyne and periodically invaded by al-Shabab, Ahlu Sunna serves the crucial function of occupying space for the TFG and providing a diversion.

Without Ahlu Sunna - and barring another Ethiopian intervention - al-Shabab would likely control the entire Somali proper, allowing it to form a siege around Mogadishu.

But Ahlu Sunna also has little respect for the TFG or its troops, who they openly mock, resulting in weak morale on both sides. In many cases Ahlu Sunna and Ethiopia have carried out independent operations, hardly in need of TFG military support. And the TFG’s own operations stalled over summer amid their feud, with the AU tied up Mogadishu and unpaid TFG soldiers defecting to al-Shabab along with their weapons.

Ethiopia and Ahlu Sunna's present operations on Somalia's western border have been coordinated with the broader TFG/AU campaign, which awaits another infusion of AU troops. Yet by keeping Ahlu Sunna and Ethiopia divided from the TFG and AU, the force remains fragmented in spirit, each fighting for its own reasons. If Ahlu Sunna could be properly folded into the political system, Ethiopia could recede into the background once more. Feared and resented by many Somalis after its last failed invasion, Ethiopia would continue to arm Ahlu Sunna while removing the threat of direct intervention, as it now faces.

And because Ahlu Sunna has expressed its reason to fight in religious but also political terms - declaring they fight for Somalia - their permanent allegiance would contribute to a more nationalistic, unified force.

The TFG and AU may only be able to conjure one Western funded, large-scale offensive to break al-Shabab. It is imperative for every condition to be prepared as fit as possible, and a more cohesive unit means a more efficient unit. Reducing friction, as Clausewitz would say.

Somalia needs a lot of that.

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