January 29, 2011

Update: AU Risks Stalemate to Fill al-Shabab's Gaps

It's safe to say that the AU feels it missed its chance to exploit al-Shabab's leadership transition.

"We are ready to attack if we have permission from the United Nations' Security Council," Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission, told a news conference in Ethiopia. "In the coming months, we have to move to that ceiling of 12,000 troops."

Ping was referring to the ceiling that he helped set after the Kampala bombings in Uganda. With Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's consent, the AU ultimately wishes to deploy more than 20,000 total troops to Somalia, 12,000 for Mogadishu and 8,000 for the rest of the country.

The TFG and AU's urgency is easily understandable. al-Shabab appears weakened yet the AU possesses no ability to deal a death blow. Now al-Shabab has resumed operations in Mogadishu, contesting the capital so that AU troops can't gain momentum into the south. The AU was hoping to fill the temporary void left by al-Shabab's divisions, only this gap is starting to close. If there ever were a time for a comprehensive attack on al-Shabab, now would have been it.

However this is no longer a matter of life and death for Somalis. The TFG's mandate expires after August, the AU's after September, and that appears to play a lead role in their urgency. They need to make progress before then and secure new funding, whether to extend their mandates or jockey for position in the new government.

And desperation isn't a bad thing when it achieves positive results.

Unfortunately the opportune time to attack al-Shabab has passed, and the TFG and AU face several daunting obstacles in launching a systematic campaign (which we will analyze shortly). After the UN appealed to international donors to fill the AU's trust fund, which had reached its lowest level, the AU now wants to deploy another 4,000 troops and send them on the attack. An "offensive" mandate is misleading because the AU already mounts assaults on al-Shabab positions, and Ping may simply being appealing for helicopter gunships and air-strikes.

But the AU has something big in mind and that's going to cost more money: for weapons, fuel, food, soldier pay, and the possible reimbursement that will surely be necessary for civilians (although this could be the first area cut).

How the AU actually expects to seize all of Mogadishu and conduct a nation-wide offensive has yet to be explained in any real detail. We've noted before that several AU commanders estimated Mogadishu's need at 15,000+. Our own estimate for Somalia ranges between 30,000 and 40,000 total troops, depending on the level Ethiopia's assistance and Western air-support.

In any event the task won't come cheap. Somalia is why the term "nation-building" exists, and if America can't fund something on that scale, what hope does the AU have when it largely depends on Western financing? The unavoidable problem will be holding and governing in al-Shabab territory. Clearing, as often the case, will be the easiest phase of counterinsurgency, hard as the fighting is. The AU must remember at all times that it's waging COIN; any conventional thinking will likely doom the campaign.

Our constant advice to the AU is to only capture holdable territory, otherwise the operation becomes counterproductive. Maintaining their force pales in comparison to running the actual counterinsurgency. Bogging down in uncontrollable territory is the main risk to the AU's strategy, as it drains lives, time, resources, and confidence - at the national, regional, and international levels.

The UN already acknowledged earlier this week that the TFG missed its deadline to adopt a new constitution and approve a presidential election. Somalia's chaotic parliament and the constitution remain the TFG's greatest weaknesses, as President Sharif Ahmed and parliamentary speaker Hassan Sheik Aden have reached a logjam on a new constitution and Sharif's desire for another term. Aden reportedly demands that an election be held despite insufficient security. This is but one more reason for the TFG's urgency.

And one more source of friction between now and August.

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