January 5, 2011

Somali Troops Move on Hiiraan

In a bold assault, the chief commander of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces in Hiiraan has declared his intention to cleanse the region of al-Shabab. The group currently holds the key city of Beled-weyn, roughly 20 miles from the Ethiopian border.

“Our forces close to Beled-weyn town are less than 5KM to the city, they will liberate the whole region from Shabab militias,” Ahmed Inji said. “I don’t tell specific day to the press, but we would clear the enemy from Hiiraan region and some of our forces carried out operation around Bule-burte district.”

Given the limited information available, this development could signal a smoothing of tensions between Ethiopia and the TFG. Days ago Ethiopian officials attempted to disarm TFG soldiers along with fighters from Ahlu Sunna. TFG officials subsequently failed to receive a response from Addis Ababa. Around the same time, Ethiopian troops sparked a gunfight in Hiiraan after taking one TFG soldier into custody, leaving another dead.

As Ethiopian forces “routinely cross into southern and central Somalia” and periodically occupy Beled-weyn, only for al-Shabab to later reclaim it, any decisive move into the city requires Ethiopian support. So perhaps this is the case.

Obviously the downside could be steep without that support. Though Inji makes no mention of AU reinforcements they must be assumed, yet Ethiopian cooperation is still required to clear and hold the territory. The AU’s growing numbers may allow for deployments outside Mogadishu, while the TFG also received units from Uganda.

But failing to hold Hiiraan will amount to a waste of resources.

A gradual expansion from the western border and Mogadishu, rather than seizing the major towns under al-Shabab before they can be held, seems to make the most sense, and perhaps this strategy is unfolding now. Except the AU and TFG force levels don’t appear built up to sustainable levels. Nearly 200 miles from Mogadishu, limited air force to Beled-weyn makes for a long supply line. Or forces and supplies must transit through Ethiopia, which makes for its own dangerous supply run and also feeds back into Somali-Ethiopian relations.

The TFG seeks to draw al-Shabab’s focus away from Mogadishu as the AU bulks up its force in the capital. The difference between theory and practice may soon emerge.

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