November 17, 2011

Tracking al-Shabaab’s Counteroffensive

Nearly one month has elapsed since Nairobi launched Operation Linda Nchi, and Kenyan troops haven’t drastically improved their positions from two weeks ago. What began as a rapid advance stalled under heavy rains and beneath the logistical demands of a large-scale operation, but Nairobi’s course has its merits. Imaana Laibuta, a former major in the Kenyan Army, outlined the basic COIN theory of clear and hold in The Daily Nation.

“The military’s continued and seemingly slow siege on Afmadow and Kismayu is a pre-operation anesthetic stage,” Laibuta writes. “It is meant to give the residents of the two towns time to leave likely military targets. It is meant to give civilians time to vacate the towns and abandon the militia.”

From a counterinsurgency vantage, Kenyan forces would err in sweeping through southern Somalia on search and destroy missions. Controlling the airspace and eliminating al-Shabaab cadres is insufficient to restoring national authority in the Lower Juba administration or Jubbaland as a whole. Since Kenya’s military lacks the rapid deployment capabilities of a major power, a steady advance is the best alternative for clearing and holding ground. Kenyan forces are currently policing the area between their border and front line, which runs from outside Afmadow to the Somali coast (around the Buur Gaavo area).

The flow of refugees headed to the Kenyan border has also tailed off due to Kenya’s advance, al-Shabaab’s threats and flooding. Opening humanitarian corridors is paramount to Operation Linda Nchi - permanently disrupting aid organizations will reduce Nairobi’s political capital in southern Somalia.

Laibuta rightfully points out that waiting too long is no less risky. Successful COIN combines mobility with patience; one must design a long-term strategy while moving faster than the insurgent. Kenyan troops are now running behind Nairobi’s ideal schedule and require an undetermined period of months to seize their near-term prize of Kismayo, al-Shabaab’s coastal hub. A longer wait theoretically implies a stiffer resistance.

“If it drags on for too long, it might give the militia enough time to reorganize its defenses,” says Laibuta. “It might also give them time to tactically retreat and move their fighters, weapons, command structures, finances and other assets to safe havens elsewhere from where they can continue their terror.”

Since all of these risks have already surfaced, where and how will al-Shabaab launch its counter-offensive? How will it defend those cities under its control? The group’s overall strategy is unlikely to fundamentally change throughout Kenya’s intervention, instead phasing through an asymmetric defense of towns and topographical points such as river crossings. Strictly defensive cells will hold their positions for as long as possible in order to stretch Kenya’s time-line; time favors the insurgent unless the counterinsurgent possesses a clear advantage. al-Shabaab will employ a combination of ambushes, entrenched resistance and civilian shields to guard against preemptive air-strikes.

“In Kismayo, it was one of the jetty's that's close to the port," Kenyan military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir explained of a militant base. "There used to be a palatial home and they believe this was the nerve center where they used to plan their battles. But now, after the first incursion and the second incursion we've had - they have resorted to moving back to the city to mix with the local population.”

Residents reported a similar pattern in Baardheere and Baidoa, two al-Shabaab strongholds located deep inside southern Somalia, after Chirchir issued an imminent warning to nine towns.

While some al-Shabaab cells defend the towns, others will be tasked to conduct mobile warfare against Kenyan forces. Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe told reporters at Nairobi’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The Al-Shabaab is losing its foothold in Kenya very fast,” but border raids and internal attacks within Kenya will continue for as long as Kenyan forces remain in southern Somalia. Crude grenade attacks that yield few casualties are also difficult to stop and agitating over time. Inside Somalia, al-Shabaab won’t engage in a large-scale battle unless surrounded, or if they somehow get the best of Kenyan troops in a conventional fight (a possibility that is unlikely to repeat). Mobile warfare offers the highest odds of surviving ground confrontations and ariel bombardment.

According to Somalimemo, a website used by al-Shabaab, the group recently obtained radar equipment “to detect enemy aircraft breaching Somalia's airspace.” This unsubstantiated claim must be taken seriously, as it would affect Operation Linda Nchi’s entire outcome. al-Shabaab obviously becomes more dangerous if it can actively avoid Kenya’s air power.

The difference between conventional assault and unconventional ambush also requires clarification. al-Shabaab would be reckless to challenge Kenyan troops and tanks in open combat, and conventional defenses around urban environments won’t hold for long. Large-scale ambushes pose a separate threat. On rare occasions the Taliban deploys hundreds of fighters to assault a military outpost or village, mostly as shock and awe. Large-scale raids are counterweighted by the risk of high casualties, but al-Shabaab may find a tactical use in ambushing Kenyan forces with 100+ fighters.

This conclusion is partially drawn from al-Shabaab’s military parade in Marka, where Somali and Kenyan media reported “nearly 1,000” fighters brandishing their weapons and artillery (and a few armed speedboats). Although presumably overestimated, this figure might not be off by more than a few hundred; al-Shabaab’s strength in souther Somalia is estimated around 2,000 fighters. After adding Kenya’s force, also estimated over 2,000, to hundreds of TFG and proxy fighters, a 2-1 or 3-1 ratio against al-Shabaab still favors the insurgent.

Since al-Shabaab’s strategy of mobile warfare and dispersion applies to Kenya’s air and ground operations, the primary influence over its strategy hinges on the scope of Operation Linda Nchi. al-Shabaab claims to be operating under the impression that Kenya is invading all of Jubbaland, not just Lower Juba, and appears to be distributing its forces accordingly. The group could expend less resources on Kismayo and Afmadow if anticipating an assault from the north, deploying a national counter-offensive if necessary. With Ethiopian troops lurking along the western border, anonymous Somali officials recently tagged Baardheere for an eventual TFG operation.

Government units lack the capabilities to deploy independently, so the threat is either a bluff or supported by external forces. Baardheere is located 150 miles north of Afmadow and Kismayo, 100 miles south of the Ethiopian border, and over 200 miles west of Mogadishu.

Somalia’s war-torn capital won’t be left alone either; al-Shabaab must maintain diversionary pressure for its southern front. Valiant attempts to rebuild the city continue to be interrupted by sporadic al-Shabaab attacks and the group has yet to be fully cleared from every district. Keeping with its tactic inside Kenya, grenade attacks against government targets were reported throughout last week, including one attack near the Bakaara market. al-Shabaab withdrew the bulk of its troops from their entrenched positions in order to spare them and reinforce the south, but the terminated Fazul Abdullah Mohammed advised that a low-intensity presence in Mogadishu cannot be eliminated.

“We are the ones who are attacking now,” warned Ali Mohamud Rage, an al-Shabaab spokesman. “They will not attack us anymore.”

This lingering problem dovetails into Kenya’s available forces and territorial ambitions. Nairobi is counting on AU reinforcements to buttress Mogadishu and eventually land in Kismayo, otherwise Kenyan forces would potentially overstay their welcome. Yet according to AU spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, "Sometimes the coffers are dry and other times, bureaucracy delays the process. We've been having 2,000 Ugandan troops ready to deploy but there is no equipment for them. The result is, you have less forces on the ground to maintain operational momentum."

Any delay presents a grave threat to Operation Linda Nchi; the mission was predicated on immediate AU reinforcements. Burundi has prepared another 1,000 soldiers for the 9,500-man force, except they too will clog the pipeline until Western funds are released. Ankunda said that unstable funding also discouraged other members from contributing to the force. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni advocates a 20,000-man force for a national campaign.

"The helicopters are ready to go now," said Lt. Col. Felix Kulaigye, the Ugandan army spokesman. "It is very critical. You can do operations, you can do casualty evacuations, you can do quick resupplies. Given the state of roads in Somalia, they would be very handy ... We will send them when the U.N. has money to pay for them."

At roughly $10 million the UN’s deficit still makes for incredibly cheap COIN. Western funding has been a chronic source of friction due to the TFG’s corruption, but foreign powers have no alternative at the current juncture - Kenya’s operation requires coordination with a larger AU force. al-Shabaab will enjoy greater mobility to defend to its territory without an expanding presence in Mogadishu, along with the potential of a Kismayo detail. The group could also gamble on large-scale raids without the immediate threat of an AU/TFG raid into Baidoa or Baardheere.

AMISOM's situation is dire enough for Kenya to offer its own forces, even though the issue of funding would remain unresolved.

Policymakers and commanders must account for these factors and many more in predicting al-Shabaab’s defense. Conversely, they must never forget that Operation Linda Nchi is primarily political in nature. While Colonel Cyrus Oguna declared that his troops “have been able to register one victory after another,” victory in every battle may not yield stability in southern Somalia. Kenyan forces must constantly fight for Somali approval, and a proactive strategy allows Nairobi to jump on the grim inevitability of war. Getting Somali President Sharif Ahmed on the same page is vital to Operation Linda Nchi. Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) also recommends an international donor fund to compensate for civilian deaths and injuries caused AU and TFG forces, an idea that should be adopted for the benefit of Kenyan forces.

al-Shabaab’s counter-measures are most effectively neutralized at the political level, not on Somalia’s military battlefield.

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