Soldiers and generals alike confront the eternal pull between bravery and recklessness. Few gains can be secured without chancing a degree of risk, but peoples and nations also prematurely exhaust themselves with imprudent maneuvers. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its allies struggled with this strategic dilemma throughout 2009 and 2010, ultimately ceding southern Somalia to al-Shabab at the expense of government territory in Mogadishu.
And their dilemma remains unchanged despite recent military success over al-Shabab.
The ongoing offensive against al-Shabab launched with a core deficiency: perpetual instability within the TFG and between its regional neighbors, Somaliland and Puntland. Rather than solve political and social problems first, the TFG and African Union (AU) expect a political solution to emerge from military victory. Their thinking reflects U.S. operations to separate the Taliban from the Afghan people, a basic tenet of counterinsurgency. Yet this strategy, while sensible and courageous to those on the ground, borders on recklessness when employed in an environment that cannot be permanently stabilized.
This is especially true when the counterinsurgent operates on scarce resources, as in the TFG's present condition. Efficient COIN clears and expands on territory that can be held and governed, instead of draining resources in areas beyond reach. The TFG fell victim to this dilemma before receiving reinforcements in July 2010.
In most counterinsurgencies, a single track emphasizing either military or non-military conditions is prone to negate whatever progress is secured. Varying shades of COIN aside, counterinsurgency aims to distribute itself simultaneously across the politico-military spectrum. In Somalia’s particular case, Western governments and Somali President Sharif Ahmed both realize the problematic nature of campaigning in political turmoil. The TFG's urgency is driven by August 20th, the day its mandate expires, with its leadership auditioning for the next government. Nor was Sharif pleased when Somalia’s parliament, widely considered the TFG’s least effective body, extended its term another three years. And it did so without delivering a new constitution, a key demand in the UN’s mandate.
"While taking into consideration the rule of law, the country's current political status, security and economy, I have decided to reject the decision by the parliament," he warned last month. "Somali government and International Community, which has enormously shown concerns over the extension, should be considered.”
However a personal element also exists within Sharif’s opposition. Somalia’s president spent the last six months persuading parliamentary speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan to extend his own term, which Adan refused on the grounds of holding an election. Sharif interpreted Aden’s extension as more than an affront to Somalis and the international community. This was a challenge to his rule.
“The President and the Speaker have been ex-friends and now it seems that there is greater rift between them,” explains one MP, Mowlid Macane.
Now that Adan announced a presidential election will be held before the August deadline, their relationship is primed for higher tensions that could have far-reaching consequences on the TFG and AU’s military strategy. Awad Ahmed Asharo, head of parliamentary committee for information affairs, released a statement explaining, “There will be a committee that organizes the presidential elections,” including the African Union, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and UN.
A host of problems present themselves, starting with these organizations’ opposition to parliament’s self-extension. It may have to submit to elections in order to win their support.
Next comes the question of whether an election can be held at all, even locally in Mogadishu. The TFG and AU envision a cleared capital by August, but five months may not afford enough time to secure the city from al-Shabab. Even if the group is largely evicted, an election provides an easy target for disruption. And as Afghanistan demonstrates, al-Shabab’s real threat stems from the political corruption seeking to take advantage of a security vacuum.
Holding an August election gives the impression that the TFG is biting off too much. Already embarked on a national offensive before clearing Mogadishu, the political stress of an election is likely to prove overwhelming. TFG officials continue to promise the destruction of al-Shabab, opening up a front along the Ethiopian border to pressure the group behind its lines. Berhan Jipkirist, Ethiopia’s state minister for foreign affairs, recently dismissed reports of troops operating inside southern Somalia. Ethiopian units have been spotted entering Beledweyne, Doolow, and Beled Hawo, and were also outed by the Kenyan military.
Months ago we noted that Ethiopia’s strategy, when employed temporarily, allowed its military to support TFG operations without running cross-country logistics or antagonizing the Somali people. This advantage erodes the deeper Ethiopian support becomes. Obviously the government itself remains concerned about its perception. But Jipkirist added, “Ethiopia could answer if IGAD or TFG asks urgent support for the military.”
What probably began as diversionary measures appear to be accelerating into full-blown holding operations. Omar Aden Hassan, a Somali MP, recently met with military officials and subsequently declared the whole Hiiraan region would be liberated. Hiiraan is a sizable territory containing Beledweyne, Somalia’s third largest city, and sits too far from Mogadishu to hold without Ethiopian support.
That the TFG, AU, Ethiopian military, and proxy military Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a can supplant al-Sbabab from its major towns remains a possibility. Never has al-Shabab faced such unified military cohesion, relatively speaking. The alliance had to launch an assault at some point, having poured 5,000 AU troops into the country since July 2010, and losing momentum may prove costly. But to clear and hold Somalia’s border, take back the central region, and seize Mogadishu in time for an August election appears impossible.
Several suggestions for the TFG and its international support: postpone the TFG and AU’s mandates by one year to accommodate the transition to a new political structure. Rather than change over just when the TFG is beginning to stabilize, the new government should be allowed additional time to gel and respond together. The TFG needs to focus politically, yet its current deadline drives a risky military offensive, one with a good chance of stalling before its conclusion.
Given an additional year, the TFG must ensure that its national offensive doesn’t obstruct the task of securing Mogadishu. The capital must remain the first priority in order to hold an election, and though a difficult task, moderate success will boost the TFG's credibility. Encroaching upon al-Shabab from all sides is a tempting maneuver, but these gains remain impermanent in the absence of political authority.
Judging by ongoing operations another battalion or two may be in the AU’s pipeline. Until then, the TFG must constantly weigh the risk and reward of securing Mogadishu at the expense of the countryside, and of distracting themselves far from the capital. Impression and expectation management - promising only what can be delivered - is crucial to success in counterinsurgency.