al-Shabab didn’t get much sleep on Wednesday. Early in the morning, local residents witnessed military units gathering around the outskirts of Beled Hawao, a Somali town on the Kenyan-Ethiopian border. Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a, the Ethiopian-backed Sufi militia and a stakeholder in Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) subsequently attacked al-Shabab positions throughout the day. Fighting also erupted in Beledweyn, a key city on the Ethiopian border.
Possible diversions given the African Union’s (AU) synchronized assault in Mogadishu.
According to residents in Hodon and Daynile districts, situated south and northwest of the presidential palace and airport, TFG and AU forces moved into their neighborhoods from three fronts around 2 AM. Fighting ensued over Gashaandhigga, the former Defense Ministry building, with both sides claiming victory. But eye witnesses have given the victory to the TFG and AU. Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed "Farmajo" triumphantly declared, "Our national army crushed the enemy in several areas including the defence ministry building and in the Shirkole neighborhood.”
The TFG's information ministry released an additional statement claiming, "They also captured the former milk factory and the Military Officers Club (Shirkole Officiale) in a major advance in the northwestern part of the city.”
While these conquests sound promising in the moment, high risk, high reward may best describe the AU’s ongoing military operation. The AU is under pressure to deliver with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni cleaning up his latest electoral victory. Both the TFG and AU need to prove their worth before their respective mandates expire after August and September. Having delayed for months a long-anticipated campaign in Mogadishu, they appear to be going big or going home.
The risk does come with its reward. A basic morale boost, the TFG and AU are trying to demonstrate their power to skeptical Somalis. Although a military operation shouldn’t be conducted under unfavorable conditions, repeatedly failures to deliver yield a confidence crisis. Small military gains, if accumulated over time, can both inspire Somalis and lead to genuine political and military success.
At the tactical and strategic level, the TFG and AU’s movements suggest an attempt to encircle the capital. By circumventing Hawl Wadag, home of the Bakaara market, and extending far west, the TFG is trying to form a front between Daynile and Villa Somalia. From here its units will push east and north across the city, first into Hodan and Hawl Wadag, then passing Bondhere into Wardhadley and Yaqshid, all the while expanding the AU’s bubble from Villa Somalia (Hamar Weyne).
The TFG and AU likely envision a security perimeter in their grander scheme. Once in possession of Mogadishu, they’ll deploy north to Dhuusamarreeb, Ahlu Sunna’s stronghold, south to al-Shabab’s garrison of Kismayo, and in tandem with Ethiopian forces to Beledweyne and Beled Hawo.
But nearly every military operation comes with drawbacks and this one is no exception. The TFG and AU have shown their ability to make incursions into al-Shabab’s territory, whether in the south or the capital. What it rarely demonstrates is the ability to hold this territory. Building isn’t even part of the equation, however holding territory necessitates a degree of improvement. Somehow the TFG must deliver a basic administration, not just preside over ghost territory, to eliminate al-Shabab from the city. Mogadishu, more than half abandoned, still presents massive security and logistics demands that the TFG and AU will struggle to meet.
Securing the capital requires more than the 12,000 soldiers currently deployed by the African Union, and a blank check to pay for the heaviest nation-building on Earth. Yet the TFG’s political turmoil has scared off Western donors, an unsolved dilemma.
Indiscriminate shelling, a problem that often accompanies clearing operations, goes hand in hand with the challenge of holding territory. Employed to preserve one’s own fighting strength, the concept of “ignorant killing” runs perpendicular to counterinsurgency, where the government must assume a higher risk to protect its own people. While the AU denies targeting civilians as a matter of policy, commanders admit off record that “things happen.” Multiple incidents reported overwhelming AU retaliation to al-Shabab’s brutal urban warfare.
Publicly concerned over incoming reports, the TFG might privately tolerate these casualties as inevitable in the war against al-Shabab. Except counterinsurgency isn’t any war, and gaining the moral high ground is imperative to the government’s success.
Attempting damage control, the TFG’s Information Ministry did release a statement explaining, "The move into these positions is designed to inhibit the group's ability to hide behind non-combatants and should result in a drastic reduction of civilian casualties in the city.” However, in addition to a lower standard in counterinsurgency, the AU should think twice if it believes holding contested territory will reduce civilian casualties. Terrain that cannot be held by either side, and is thus constantly competed for, poses the highest risk to Somalis.
Conventional warfare aims to eliminate the enemy’s means to wage war, personally and mechanically. Counterinsurgency aims to eliminate the factors that cause insurgents, not the insurgents themselves. The TFG and AU must keep this in mind as they plot strategy over Mogadishu’s sandbox.