In the last six months the African Union (AU) has steadily advanced across Mogadishu, cleaning out pockets of al-Shabab in a systematic sweep of the capital. The Bakaara market, long held by al-Shahab, is close to falling into government hands. Meanwhile troops from Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a and their Ethiopian armor have tied the insurgency down behind its front line.
Although many AU soldiers have been lost and a sizable portion of Mogadishu remains under al-Shabab’s control, the group hasn’t suffered this much pressure during its five-year history. AU commanders also speak COIN (even if they don’t exactly match it with action), promising not to harm civilians and keeping a hand open to militants willing to cross over. The possibility of the AU suddenly evaporating should be enough to scare Western capitals.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni warned the international community on Friday, "If the current system collapses, or if it is seriously undermined, we can have no justification to stay in that situation - we will leave Somalia."
Given Uganda’s proximity to the fragile nation, Museveni’s latest statements may be nothing more than a political tactic. Leaving isn’t an option; Uganda could face al-Shabab’s retribution for the past years whether the group regains ground or not. However Museveni does want everyone to know where he stands in public. Augustine Mahiga, the UN’s special envoy to Somalia, recently proposed a power-sharing agreement to loosen the TFG’s gridlock, a vague and controversial arrangement to another controversial arrangement.
With the TFG’s mandate due to expire on August 20th, a great volume of debate has gone into the possibility of a 12-month extension.
The strategic dilemma also rests on a personal feud between President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and Parliamentary Speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden. Among the many grievances surrounding the battle over a new constitution, Aden has blocked Sharif from a term extension while approving his own in parliament. This issue alone has jammed the TFG and attracted scathing rebukes from the UN and Washington. Conflict over a national election, urged by the UN but considered unrealistic by many political actors, adds to the present tension. As a result the Western money flow to the TFG and AU, already seeping out of corrupt politicians’ briefcases, has dried to a trickle.
Political progress in Somalia is running inversely proportional to military gains, an unstable trend in counterinsurgency. Museveni is threatening to pull his 5,000 troops out of Somalia unless an extension is granted to the TFG. He explains in reference to Mahiga’s “win-win” theory, "We believe that to have a win-win situation, we should allow the TFG complete their tasks, after all Somalia has been unstable for the last two decades.”
“Why should one year be a big issue?”
While we consider Museveni himself to be a liability in the TFG’s grand strategy, he’s correct in assuming that Somalia cannot hold elections by August. He’s also adhering to COIN by linking political progress to military commitments, although Museveni may simply care about securing Western-held funds. The major risk comes in extending the TFG’s mandate without resolving the current crisis. Both Sharif and Aden are unlikely to share power judging by their personal history and the magnitude of their divisions.
In backing Sharif’s solution over Aden - the TFG president supported Museveni's "wise and logical" decision "100 per cent" - Uganda's president may be setting up a move against Somalia's Speaker. After Mahiga criticized the TFG for being a “waste,” Sharif responded that he hadn’t met the UN envoy “in a long time,” and jibbed, "it seems he is not aware of what has been going on. May be he needs more details."
The UN is unlikely to muster the political weight necessary to break this deadlock. Conversely, Museveni appears to be backing Sharif and might have the muscle to force Aden out. The president received a hero’s welcome during his last visit to Mogadishu and possesses the unilateral power to make TFG officials move. Or his emergence could further inflame Somalia’s crisis.
Either way Museveni’s position - not to mention his domestic situation - will be factored into the TFG’s end game. Today marks the first of many volleys to come.