June 10, 2012

War Clouds Loom Over Kismayo

After months of ambiguity, Kenyan military units have finally reached the beginning of their primary mission in southern Somalia. Bogged down in a rainy season and forced to guard their rear (and the border area behind them) from al-Shabaab insurgents - Kenyan troops never marched to the beat of a public time-line. Some two months after Operation Linda Nichi commenced, their commanders were forced to clarify whether they would even advance on Kismayo, al-Shabaab's main port and last bastion. Only weeks ago an Ethiopian commander boasted of his ability to seize Kismayo, in the process declaring that Nairobi was supposed to attack during Ethiopia's February offensive along Somalia's western border. 

Whether deception or unrealistic expectations are responsible for the current schedule, Kenyan forces are still approaching an opportunity to accomplish the clearing phase of the mission on schedule: August's expiration of the UN-mandated Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Having finally taken Afmadow, a strategic town located along the Lagh Dara tributary, Kenyan war planes and naval vessels have begun softening Kismayo for a ground assault. Abdinasir Serar of the allied Ras Kamboni says the main operation is expected to start in the coming weeks, and will involve Kenyan, TFG, AU and proxy forces.

Ethiopian troops and armor stationed several hundred miles north are likely to be utilized as the reserve force.

Once again, the question of whether Nairobi organized this strategy from the beginning remains obscured to outsiders. Competing media narratives have yet to decide whether Kenyan forces were designated to independently secure Kismayo and Somalia's southern front, or if AU units planned to converge in a joint-attack. Whatever the case, all AU members intended to pressure al-Shabaab on every front and collapse the group into a corner, and AU/TFG forces have built enough momentum to approach Kismayo from the north. Instead of one or two-dimensional assault, Sarar predicts that Kenyan naval forces will land in the port as Somali-allied ground troops advance from all directions. The present strategy greatly increases the chances of initial success. 

Whether al-Shabaab retreats from another financial nerve-center now becomes increasingly relevant after the group lost control of its other strongholds. The group ceded Beledweyne, Baidoa, Afgoye and Afmadow without a major fight, opting for sporadic gunfire and bombings to conserve their forces, but the group has more to lose in the little that it has left. Conversely, Serar describes the formation of what could be deja vu; al-Shabaab's forerunner, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), was politely evicted by Kismayo's clan leadership before Ethiopian forces could invade as part of their 2007 campaign. Serar says that al-Shabaab members are encouraging clan elders to support their resistance, but he doesn't expect a battle in the end.  

According to Raxanreeb media, al-Shabaab's Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, Ibrahim Haji Me’ad (Kismayo's administrator) and Sheikh Hassan Yacqub (Kismayo's military commander) have north to Somaliland. This information, if true, could be related to the U.S. State Department's new bounty program on all three individuals, and suggests that al-Shabaab will fight another day rather than defend Kismayo to the death. Media reports do include "multiple sources" that warn of "a new defensive position" at Birta Dheer, midway between Afmadow and Kismayo. More disturbingly, locals fear being trapped between al-Shabaab and the Kenyan airstrikes that are beginning to rock their city.

This dilemma must be handled with extreme caution, though no massacre was committed in any of al-Shabaab's other lost cities. 

The wisest strategy for al-Shabaab necessitates a light resistance, followed by a long-term attempt to out-wait the Kenyan and Ethiopian troops now stationed across western and southern Somalia. Al-Shabaab needs far more men than it currently employs to defend city after city, but has enough to wage guerrilla warfare on a national level. Now the group must hope that the TFG suffers another political breakdown during its transitional end, and that AU military operations suffer the consequences.

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