October 13, 2011

Slow and Steady In Somalia

[Editor’s note: This analysis was finished before last Friday’s bombing in Mogadishu, and initially shelved before reconsideration.]

A cautious aura has fallen over Mogadishu. Simultaneously stable and unstable, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) welcomed al-Shabaab’s “withdrawal” from the capital as the calm after the storm, not before another. Accounts from locals are pleasantly surprising, and many moved back into their shattered neighborhoods after fleeing the front line between al-Shabaab and the African Union (AU). Urged to immediately fill al-Shabaab’s void, the TFG has dispatched security forces to most districts of Mogadishu and approved a UN-sponsored “roadmap” to reconfigure the government.

“Due to the brave efforts of the Somali National Army and our brothers Amisom we are able to enjoy a night like this in Mogadishu,” President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed told his audience of national and regional officials.

Unfortunately for the TFG’s image, one successful year since 2004 has failed to instill a permanent sense of confidence in the body. Many analysts responded to the UN’s roadmap with tepid skepticism, bullish on its ideals but fearful of the TFG’s divisive qualities. Three months ago Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed was sacked after a back-room deal between Sharif, Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. The deal extended the TFG and AU’s mandate to 2012 - and triggered an unusually vocal round of protests in Mogadishu. Mohamed was replaced by the equally capable Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, but political and clan fault-lines were left unresolved.

The TFG is now under extreme pressure to organize itself before the final deadline, and al-Shabaab’s vacuum in Mogadishu provided the optimum opportunity to reaffirm control of the state. The TFG needs every last advantage it can find. According to the roadmap Somalia’s 550-member parliament must be reformed by November 19; a final draft constitution must be published by May 18 and adopted by July 1; and presidential and parliamentary elections must be held by Aug. 20.

“There will be no more extensions and we must work together to end the transition by August 2012,” Augustine Mahiga, the Special Representative of Secretary-General for Somalia, told last month’s Consultative Meeting on Ending the Transition.

While the TFG has improved its weak position since last year, al-Shabaab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu doesn’t factor into some of these obstacles. The personal rivalry between Sharif and Hassan was never buried, only postponed by a sacrifice, and reforming parliament will provide a stiff initial challenge. Part of their feud also stems from debate over a new constitution, a problem that won’t be solved by Mogadishu’s open space. However the latter problems do trace back to al-Shabaab, specifically the UN’s condition that presidential and parliamentary elections be held by August 20th, 2012.

Barring a large influx of AU troops and a miracle, neither Mogadishu nor the rest of the country’s security will be ready to hold a semi-legitimate election. The international community is staring at a perfect storm for vote rigging, one that would make Afghanistan’s election look clean.

Because of this demand, the AU has finally been authorized to push out of the capital and secure the neighboring regions. This step always followed the seizure of Banaadir region - Phrase 1 - but it must build on a secure Mogadishu rather than a contested capital. Some TFG officials claim that Mogadishu has already been secured; Abdisamad Moalim Mahamud, Minister for the Interior and Security, recently declared, "There is no doubt that the government is now in control of all the areas that were previously under their [Al-Shabab] control.” AU General Fred Mugisha repeated over a month later, “We control the whole of Mogadishu.”

Prime Minister Mohamed Ali is taking a more cautious approach, requesting 3,000 UN peacekeepers to “prevent a security vacuum in the areas of Mogadishu vacated by Shabaab.” Local accounts generally confirm the TFG’s statements, although suspicion of the government’s ties to local clan militias is running high. Jeremy Scahill’s latest report from Somalia deals with this topic in depth.

Good news aside, it seems impossible that secure elections can be held within 11 months. Mogadishu as a whole has yet to be secured; many checkpoints have been set up by militias rather than the government. al-Shabaab continues to maintain a limited presence around the capital’s outlying districts (Karaan, Heliwa and Daynile), and a yet-to-materialize ambush campaign inside the city remains a possibility. Parts of the capital remain vacated by either side, yielding a weak, de facto control for the government. al-Shabaab no longer aims to control Mogadishu’s territory outright, instead settling for the easier task of undermining its security.

Although relatively weakened from its highpoint in mid-2010, al-Shabaab’s strategic withdrawal does appear to be a legitimate and conscious decision. The simple fact is that al-Shabaab chose an incorrect form of semi-conventional warfare, a style that eventually played into the AU’s superior numbers, weapons and gradual sweep across Mogadishu. A change in guerrilla tactics was overdue. Scahill added a new piece of information to al-Shabaab’s decision-making process, reporting that the documents seized from deceased al-Qaeda commander Fazul Abdullah Mohammed advised such a shift.

“Among the documents recovered were writings by Fazul criticizing the Shabab leadership for trying to fight AMISOM and Somali government forces head-on,” writes Scahill, citing a Somali official with access to the documents. “Instead of seeking to hold territory, he advised Shabab fighters to ‘go back to their old ways of hit-and-run insurgency and underground operations, and to disband the areas that they control.’”

Fazul advocates the basics of guerrilla warfare. Instead of occupying a particular area that can be targeted through concentrated force, insurgents must spread out to “just wreak havoc, carry out small operations, assassinations” across the country. Even though most areas won’t be targeted on any given day, a wider perception of instability forces the government to fill more territory than it can manage, creating new weak spots to exploit. Spreading too thin is the TFG and AU’s number one enemy in their fight against al-Shabaab.

The two forces could end up fighting themselves by committing routine errors in counterinsurgency: mismanaging expectations and failing to restore government authority/services to “secured” areas.

At roughly 9,500 troops, the AU must still rely on TFG forces and local militias to control the sprawling Mogadishu. Even when factoring in the arrival of another 5,000-10,000 AU troops, potential U.S. air-strikes, Ethiopian support and local militias, controlling rural Somalia will prove far more difficult than the capital, a formidable challenge in its own right. Brigade-level forces may be needed to hold Kismayo and Baidoa, two of al-Shabaab’s remaining strongholds, and the centrally-contested Beledweyne. These cities won’t fall easily even when assaulted sequentially rather than simultaneously, and the real test only begins with the building phase.

Ethiopian aid corridors could amplify instability rather than secure humanitarian officials and materials.

Al-Shabaab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu does open up possibilities, and risks are a necessarily component of obtaining victory in warfare. However AMISOM would be wise to proceed with caution and nurture the gains it has already made. Running too far ahead of itself could leave AU forces isolated in al-Shabaab country, as well as stretch the entire force too thin. Judging by al-Shabaab’s maneuvers and redeployment to southern regions, the group is expecting and planning for a rural insurgency.

AMISOM must be on guard against a premature, nationwide campaign. al-Shabaab will be waiting whenever AU convoys do roll out of Mogadishu.

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