For the first time in over a decade, international confidence is steadily building in the world’s archetypical war-torn state. The change in temperature marks a dramatic turnaround from 2010, when al-Shabaab had increased its presence across Somalia proper and launched a consistent mortar assault on Mogadishu's presidential palace. The militancy’s failed Ramadan offensive (al-Shabaab erroneously predicted the fall of Villa Somalia) would initiate a gradual decline that continues to the present, and post-Kampala reinforcements from the African Union (AU) culminated in the relative clearing of Mogadishu.
A historic famine and the introduction of Kenyan forces into southern Somalia has further diminished the militancy’s sustainability, with the latter signaling an entry for Ethiopian forces to the west.
Now, after a year of intense lobbying, the United Nations Security Council is fulfilling Yoweri Museveni’s wish by raising AMISOM’s cap from 12,000 to 17,731. Some 10,000 troops currently operate inside Mogadishu and are beginning to expand outside the capital’s perimeter, but Uganda’s President has requested a force in excess of 20,000 to retake the country. The additional 5,000 soldiers are sure to face delays, given the track record of previous deployments and uncertainty of international donors, so their immediate effect is primarily felt in spirit as AU commanders become increasingly emboldened. Nevertheless, the 3-front campaign between Mogadishu, Kismayo and Beledweyne presents al-Shabaab with a deadlier threat than Ethiopia’s U.S.-approved occupation.
The degree that Somalis suffer under foreign occupation has shrunk from past invasions; both Kenyan and Ethiopian forces have been warmly received despite the inevitable incidents of abuse that accompany a military campaign. Unfortunately the price of peace often includes warfare, and another vicious cycle will preclude any attempt to destroy Somalia’s insurgency. With Mogadishu relatively secured by AU and TFG units (sporadic gunfights and suicide bombings still disrupt the city’s rebuilding process), the AU plans to move on al-Shabaab positions in Afgoye, Merka and Baraawe. However the force ratios and logistical requirements behind this expansion demand a waiting period until AU reinforcements arrive.
A preemptive assault could lead to unnecessary casualties and civilian deaths.
Kenyan soldiers are experiencing their own battle with protracted time-lines and stretched logistics as they fight their way to Kismayo, located roughly 90 miles from their border, and clearing the port will require months of urban fighting. No one outside of Kenyan and Somali policy circles is privy to Nairobi’s strategic vision, but Kenyan officials reportedly aim to push al-Shabaab across the Jubba River. Nairobi has yet to commit the resources for this expanse of semi-lawless territory.
In conjunction with Kenya’s Operation Linda Nchi, Ethiopian troops entered the country in late December and are building up a significant force on al-Shabaab’s western flank. Addis Abba has stretched its front from above Beledweyne to Mandera, a Kenyan border-city, with the intent of seizing al-Shabaab’s central garrisons: Garbahaareey, Beled Hawo and the strategically vital Baidoa. Battle tanks are reportedly advancing on Baidoa, Somalia’s largest internal city, and al-Shabaab should greet Ethiopia’s armored convoy with fiercer resistance than Kenya’s troops currently experience.
As Somali and African officials prepare to lock down international support at London’s summit, Western officials are debating the feasibility of expanding their air cover over Kenyan and Ethiopian forces. U.S., British and French military assets already operate along the Horn’s coast, but a coalition of American, British, Dutch, French units could intensify their air raids as AU forces expand across the country. One British source explained, "There was no political will on this to begin with, but that has been changing. We know where the camps are, where they set up and where they launch from."
Although a simple military operation into Somalia doesn’t exist, the coordinated nature of Somalia’s foreign campaign represents a vast improvement over previous attempts to stabilize the country. This strategy could yield lasting fruit if paired with a sustainable political construct at the local and national levels; the UNSC’s resolution orders TFG and AU forces to enter central Somalia “on the basis of clear military objectives integrated into a political strategy.” James Swan, the U.S. special ambassador to Somalia, also emphasized this point on Tuesday during a conference call to reporters.
"United States believes a key priority that straddles security, politics and recovery is how to govern and assist in areas recaptured from Al-Shebab," Swan told reporters in a conference call. "It is urgent to avoid security and governance vacuum in these locations and to provide a rapid recovery where Al-Shebab has left.”
Problematically, increased coordinated between the TFG and its neighbors has yet to transfer to Mogadishu’s political arena, where President Sharif Ahmed maintains a deadlock with Parliamentary Speaker Hassan Aden.
A separate report on Somalia’s current environment will be posted shortly.