There’s a fine medium between the extremes of bravery and recklessness, and Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed is walking it.
Somalia’s new Prime Minister has breathed fresh air into the ailing Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Upbeat, energetic, and holding U.S. degrees in history and political science, Mohamed assumed office and immediately sliced a useless cabinet from 39 to 18. Though his lack of clan knowledge rubbed some political players the wrong way, many lauded his inclusion of new “technocrats” that could potentially avoid those same clan perils.
And Mohamed is utilizing the leadership skills he taught at Erie Community College. By adhering to COIN and highlighting the TFG’s political face, no one has cheered louder for the government and its African Union (AU) bodyguard as they attempt to rally Somalis against al-Shabab. Mohamed recently toured a TFG camp in Mogadishu, where he ordered 500 newly-trained recruits to prepare for a large-scale offensive: "We have spoken with them (rebels) on several occasions and told the foreign elements who are waging attacks on us that we will fight them and will get rid of them.”
Right behind him, Defense Minister Abdihakim Hajji Mohamoud Fiqi vowed that the TFG is “accumulating power” to “tear down al-Shabab fighters.”
Mohamed’s vigor almost washes away the memory of Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, Somalia’s former prime minister. But it’s critical to remember how quickly things can change in Somalia. Educated in Canada and trained by the UN, Sharmarke assumed office in 2009 to praise from both the international community and Islamic Courts Union (ICU), al-Shabab’s precursor. One year later and President Sharif Ahmed tried to dismiss Sharmarke for opposing him through parliament, resulting in a six-month power struggle that allowed al-Shabab to shower the presidential palace with mortars.
Stepping in at the right time, Sharmarke’s fallout allowed Mohamed to form a cabinet of similarly-minded individuals with minimal complaint. So too did he take advantage of al-Shabab’s infighting; the group had promised and failed to topple Villa Somalia during their August assault. However the feud between Moktar Ali “Godane” Zubeyr, al-Shabab’s former chief, and his deputy Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, stemmed from a deeper fault line.
Beyond disagreements over Hizbul Islam, foreign commanders, and humanitarian aid, Robow accused Zubeyr of killing off his Rahanweyn clan during al-Shabab's Ramadan campaign.
While tension between the commanders was nothing new, and al-Shabab had survived previous clashes between them, their latest struggle for supremacy took its toll on the group. Already refilling its ranks, a series of border attacks by Ethiopian troops and their Ahlu Sunna proxies forced al-Shabab on the defensive behind its lines. Meanwhile AU and TFG troops began to encroach upon al-Shabab-held districts in Mogadishu, particularly Hodan and Hawl Wadag, home of the Bakaara market.
With the AU smelling blood, the UN approved a raise in AMISOM’s force level from 8,000 to 12,000. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has offered anywhere between 20,000 and three million troops, so long as Western donors pay for them.
Soon after the AU seized control of Bondhere, a district just outside Villa Somalia, Mohamed and his team launched the next phase in their counterinsurgency: a savvy “60% control” of Mogadishu headline. Circulated through the international media in order to assure Western populaces, Mohamed ultimately hoped to drum up financial support for the AU’s military expansion and retake Mogadishu before next September, when the TFG’s mandate expired. This momentum would allow TFG officials to extend their mandate or else secure positions in the incoming political structure.
Unfortunately for Mohamed, the TFG is now suffering its first real set back since he took command.
In less than two months Mohamed has gone from optimistic to desperate, his smooth mission turning sharply onto Somalia’s dusty roads. After al-Shabab finally merged with Hizbul Islam in early December, the pro-al-Qaeda Zubeyr was reportedly cast out by its own internal leadership and replaced by Robow’s ally, Ibrahim "al-Afghani.” al-Qaeda's decision indicated the pressure it was under to back the nationalistic Robow, who enjoyed majority support amongst the rank and file.
If the TFG reported morale as down during al-Shabab's power rift, that leaves it to go up afterward. Robow and Hassan Yaqub Ali, al-Afghani’s spokesman, issued recruitment calls for Mogadishu and fighting once more came to dominate life in the capital.
Mohamed faces more obstacles than al-Shabab though. One cannot control the enemy so much as one’s self, and it was simply matter of time before al-Shabab regained its footing. Fighting in Bondhere has resumed. Rather than sweep into enemy territory with Mogadishu’s wind at their backs, TFG and AU troops now prepare a counteroffensive to al-Shabab’s ongoing activity in the capital.
Only Mohamed is starting to enter political turbulence just as al-Shabab clears its own.
Several weeks ago the TFG’s parliament extended its term for three years, a move that's gumming up the rest of the system. Rather than fill a vacuum, as Speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden argued, parliament’s shiny three-year contract spawned a new confidence crisis with the West. Considered the least functional of the TFG’s institutions, its self-approved extension frightened the international community not just because of its poor performance, but because of the example it set. President Sharif wants his own extension instead of submitting himself to a national election, both unrealistic demands that threaten to deadlock the TFG.
Isma'il Mo'allim Muse, the chairperson of Somalia's national reconciliation committee, has since called on parliament to cancel its extension, surely at the international community’s behest.
The breakdown isn't waiting to manifest. With Western donors permanently fearful of corruption and already behind on payments to the TFG and AU, their trickling money flow could slow to a crawl. Parliament members already receive irregular pay and often fail to show as a result, a problem that could reach absolute zero.
A lack of funds has especially impaired the TFG’s limited military and police force, which must assume a frontal role in their own counterinsurgency. While government troops received their paychecks in December and January for the first time in recent memory, Mohamed asked his officers of their primary complaint. “They told him they were lacking salary in two years.”
The shortage of funds tragically dumps social services for Somalis at the end of the line. Days ago Abdi Hajji Goobdoon, the TFG’s spokesman, told local media that cabinet ministers decided to assist in Somalia’s drought by donating a portion of their Western salaries. Each minister will contribute $500 dollars “in an attempt” to fill the aid shortage during a record drought. So not only are TFG officials paying out cash that the West should be supplying in the first place, this gesture amounts to $9,500 for several million displaced, sick, and starving.
Although Mohamed rolled out another headline claiming that 80% of Mogadishu’s population resided in government territory, he neglected to mention that the TFG lacks the funds to provide for them. Counterinsurgency cannot succeed in this way.
That the West possesses little confidence to bankroll the TFG’s final burst is justifiable, given the counter-productivity of a corrupt system. However, even if the West and AU do clean house after August, turning off the lights for the next six months will create a strategic dilemma for the TFG and AU itself. A feeling of “holding on” until after August has set in, but this strategy could place the TFG’s replacement at a severe disadvantage.
And another large-scale problem stalks the horizon: Somaliland and Puntland.
U.S. and African powers have cautiously rejected Somaliland’s independence for the last 20 years, instead favoring a national reconciliation with Somalia proper. However Washington has increased its tacit support in recent years, and Somalia’s next system of governance was expected to include input from the breakaway territories. A key ingredient to regional stability, this sphere has rapidly destabilized of late. Somaliland officials never took a liking to the dysfunctional TFG, and now Puntland’s hope for a federal government and regional autonomy is drying up too.
Abdi Hasan Jimale, Puntland’s Minister of Federal Affairs, recently declared from his own regional capital of Garowe, “I have to make clear today that Mogadishu is no longer the capital of Somalia, it’s in doubt now.”
Defeating al-Shabab requires Somaliland and Puntland’s support on multiple levels. But the TFG’s dilemma has less to do with the cells that al-Shabab cultures in Somaliland, or its Puntland loyalist Mohamed Said Atom. While containing al-Shabab’s perimeter is vital to successful counterinsurgency, a lack of non-military support (political, economic, social) inflicts the most harm on the TFG.
Distractions equate to friction and these territories have more immediate concerns to attend to than Somalis.
Somaliland and Puntland, their security forces, and their respective clans have clashed along a disputed border for years. According to local sources in Kalshale village near Buhodle, a battle broke on February 7th between two clan subsets - Habar Jelo of Isaaq clan and Dhulbahante of the Harti clan. That Somaliland troops entered the fight isn’t disputed, only the resulting casualties. Somaliland's Information Minister Ahmed Abdi Habsade later told the BBC Somali Service that five Somaliland soldiers and 12 Dhulbahante fighters had been killed.
While local sources and Puntland officials allege that Somaliland initiate the hostilities, they also claim that Dhulbahante lost only 22 men compared to 65 Somaliland troops.
This chain of events exemplifies the current dynamic between Somaliland and Puntland. Their respective presidents belong to the tribes in question, personalizing the conflict at the highest levels of authority. The region where their latest battle developed - Cayn - remains disputed between the territories, as do the Sool and Sanaag regions (collectively known as SSC). Though Puntland’s Harti clan occupies all three regions, Somaliland troops have gradually saturated them and provoked periodic clashes with the Harti.
Somaliland officials accuse their Puntland counterparts of arming local tribes and insurgents in the SSC, including al-Shabab cells in Somaliland's cities and the Sool-based PSS, led by U.S. citizen Suleman Essa Ahmed. Conversely, Puntland accuses Somaliland President Ahmed Silanyo's administration of effecting a hostile takeover.
Although both sides have interspersed ceasefire calls between their accusations, neither has followed through and their feud will continue simmering as it blows off steam. This instability serves neither the interests of Somalia proper nor the Horn; regional conflict demands a regional solution. Unfortunately the breakaway territories hold contempt for Somalia and, caught in their own squabbles, will offer negligible assistance to the war.
Resolving the SSC's political dispute is crucial to forming a realistic strategy for Somalia itself. Much international debate goes into strengthening Somaliland and Puntland without a corresponding urgency to broker peace between them. The region cannot stabilize so long as the three territories remain politically, militarily, and economically divided.
The TFG promised many “large-scale” offensives last year that never materialized, and now might be a good time for a letdown. Instead of the TFG and AU’s campaign flowing from good governance, an operation is being used to conceal poor governance. Mohamed and his men hope to convince Western donors to fund the TFG despite its renegade parliament, perpetual corruption, and regional insecurity. But the downward-trending TFG shouldn't try to contest al-Shabab on its upswing.
Only when the TFG has regained an advantage should it begin offensive operations, lest it needlessly waste political and military capital. Knowing when to fight is equally important as knowing when not to.