The big news out of Mogadishu are the gains secured by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union (AU). Eager to show off their progress in the international media, they've proudly displayed their hard fight through al-Shabab’s urban maze of trenches and abandoned buildings. Beyond these ancillary goals, TFG officials hope to ride their momentum into clearing al-Shabab from Somalia’s shattered capital.
The bigger news out of Somalia is how its government might not stop at Mogadishu’s city limits.
Campaign deliberations between TFG and AU military commanders revolve around a central question: how hard should they hit al-Shabab? Successful as Mogadishu’s clearing operation appears, al-Qaeda elements have entered the fray to help al-Shabab retake ground while the TFG and AU regrouped, prompting criticism that they didn't hit the insurgents hard enough. President Sharif Ahmed seems to agree, telling reporters, “The offensive has not yet occurred as intended. There are ongoing concrete plans to clear out al-Shabaab from Mogadishu... The shortest way to impair al-Shabab is to exert a powerful military action on them.”
So goes one strain of thinking on how to permanently eliminate the group.
This strategy, like most others, weighs its pros and cons. Estimated around 5,000 fighters and amplified by the TFG’s overall weakness, al-Shabab hasn’t needed to field a strong force in order to maintain control of its territory. Now that the TFG and AU increased their total forces past 20,000, smashing al-Shabab and pick off the pieces becomes a tempting vision. Combined with al-Shabab’s alienation of most Somalis, a successful outcome to this plan cannot be ruled out.
The main problem with a “smash” offensive recognizes the fact that Somalia presents a counterinsurgency (COIN), not conventional warfare. Clearing becomes the easiest task despite the guerrilla's many arms: hit and run tactics, attacking the weakest security points and rear lines, dispersing to divide the enemy. Although al-Qaeda has created a "little Afghanistan" in Qobdoro, in the northern Mogadishu neighborhood of Kanan, this stronghold will be abandoned after being "smashed," only to pop up somewhere else. And while the TFG and AU can hold a portion of seized territory, they lack the immediate means to rebuild the daily lives of Somalis.
The “clear, hold, build” theory of COIN activates when overlapped, not implemented in separate and potentially delayed phases that allow the insurgent to regroup. Pieces cannot be picked up later. al-Shabab may further interrupt this fragile cycle by intentionally ceding ground and going mobile, contrary to its present strategy of stiff resistance to superior numbers.
But the allure of a quick end might be baiting the TFG and AU beyond their abilities. While preemptive attacks outside Mogadishu are viewed as diversionary measures to tie up al-Shabab reinforcements, the TFG appears to be giving real consideration to a national offensive. Ethiopia and its proxy Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a have repeatedly assaulted Beledweyne, a major border city northwest of Mogadishu. 1,000 freshly-trained Ahlu Sunna fighters just returned from Ethiopia to reinforce their stronghold of Galgudud, where al-Shabab remains active. And Kenya keeps a battalion near the southern border town of Mandera, opposite Doolow and Beled Hawo, which are subsequently patrolled by Ethiopian forces.
"The Ethiopian troops are heavily armed and deployed along the border between Mandera and Doolow, giving us ammunition," explained a TFG officer on condition of anonymity. "Our troops and the Ahlu Sunna fighters are in the frontline. The fighting will continue. We want sustained fighting to weaken their power.”
Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua claims his nation’s troops have no plans to deploy inside Somalia, saying, “There is fighting at the border, mostly on the Somali side.” However Kenyan military helicopters do swoop along the border providing support for TFG and Ethiopian troops, and they may be called upon to surprise al-Shabab from the south. The group is already nervous over reports of a local, Kenyan-funded militia drawing from its own recruits in Kismayo.
Meanwhile the TFG’s cabinet moved to blockade al-Shabab's three ports - Barawe, Marka, and Kismayo - hoping to lock the group in a vice grip.
The TFG and AU used to hole themselves up in Mogadishu, fighting for survival like a cornered boxer. Never would they regain the initiative while al-Shabab roamed freely across the country. Yet overextension swerves towards the extreme opposite a lack of coordination. The TFG and AU find themselves with enough force to regain parts of Mogadishu, but still lacking the military power or political organization at the state level. Before, the TFG and AU could barely coordinate their offensive in the capital. Now they may be trying to bite off too much.
The same counterinsurgency dilemma in Mogadishu manifests on a larger scale. How will the TFG hold cities hundreds of miles from Mogadishu? Does it possess the political ability to govern territorial gains, or will Somalia’s non-military vortex negate that progress? Can the TFG truly rely on Ethiopian military support to stabilize Somalia after historic animosity between the two nations? And how can it avoid the rising odds of civilian casualties that come with assaulting contested ground?
"My troops have very clear instructions," says Ugandan Maj. Gen. Nathan Mugisha, commander of AU forces in Somalia. "There are no-fire zones: markets, hospitals, schools, residential areas. There are some incidents which happen. But those are isolated. The picture you are getting is largely exaggerated.”
This may be true enough, but protecting civilians presents an even greater challenge outside Mogadishu - along with treating the wounded.
al-Shabab isn’t sitting still as the walls close in either. Mukhtar Robow, al-Shabab’s deputy and de facto chief, has launched a new recruitment drive with Sheikh Fu’ad Mohamed Shongole, overseer in Puntland. And Mansur claims to have met four former Somali military officials who fought against Ethiopia in the 1977-78 Ogaden War, hoping to prepare for large-scale warfare. A propaganda stunt to be sure, but not the type of information to be completely discard. Ethiopia remains the weakest link in the TFG’s strategy, militarily necessary yet politically and religiously unpopular.
Until sorting itself out in regards to its parliament and regional interaction with Somaliland and Puntland, the TFG remains politically disadvantaged heading into a wider campaign against al-Shabab. Although Mansur tried to lay defeat on the TFG for its parliamentary crisis, simplistic propaganda given al-Shabab’s losses, he does point out a valid concern that President Sharif has tried but so far failed to resolve. Nor have the TFG’s peripheral assaults yielded lasting gains; TFG and Ethiopian troops waste resources on failed assaults rather than change strategy. And local Kismayo businessmen question the effectiveness of a blockade, doubting international assistance and concerned for their trades.
While the international community may wish to patrol all of Somalia’s coast, providing the funds for land and sea is another matter.
The TFG, AU, and their allies have a critical decision to make in the months ahead. Can they concentrate on Mogadishu and allow al-Shabab to regroup in its territory, or does al-Shabab's continual operations impede lasting security in the capital? Does the TFG and AU have enough forces and political reach to simultaneously capture Somalia’s key cities, or must they work sequentially? Does a wider offensive boost or deplete rising morale? Most importantly, how much military strength, time, and confidence do they risk in failing at the national level?
Judging by their general escalation, AU reinforcements are likely moving down the pipeline to accelerate Mogadishu’s momentum. The plan has always been to sweep Mogadishu by August, when the TFG's mandate expires, then push west and south with a secure capital behind them. Perhaps additional forces - and a more secure flow of Western aid - will provide the TFG with the resources to liberate all of Somalia. But until then, it must be careful not to overextend itself into territory it can neither clear nor hold. Dividing forces can be costly when done too soon.
In a classic test of tortoise vs. hare, the slow and steady campaign will likely trump a blitzkrieg attack that prematurely exhausts itself. Despite the risks of allowing al-Shabab room to operate, the TFG and AU can’t delay themselves even longer by fighting COIN battles they’re unprepared to win.