An early dawn operation conducted by the African Union's Mission In Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali auxiliary forces has finally liberated one of al-Shabaab's ports. "Captured" with limited resistance from the insurgency, Merca has now been placed under nominal government authority for the first time since 2008. The town is equally vital to policing Mogadishu's sphere of influence, as al-Shabaab's commanders would take refuge in the port, and to the AU's grander plans of clearing the entire Somali coast.
The fight for Kismayo could be just as light, given al-Shabaab's realization that it cannot wage conventional war against the African Union (AU). However the group's leadership may feel the urge to resist in the face of other defeats, and defend its main port with an intensity that has yet to be seen in its nation-wide withdrawal.
Weeks or even months might pass before anyone witnesses a tangible answer. Contrary to reports that Kenyan and other AU troops would begin assaulting Kismayo before the end of August, its residents must continue their anxious wait under a thickening fog of war. A battle was supposed to erupt at any point of the month, according to Kenyan officials, but Nairobi has been unable to synchronize actions with rhetoric since Operation Linda Nchi began in October 2011. At least one scheduled attempt to clear the port was aborted and AU reinforcements have been summoned for extra weight. The loss of three Ugandan helicopters tasked to support AU forces pushed the mission's nose further into the dirt, chewing up more time.
From Linda Nchi's beginning, The Trench observed that Kenyan forces entered as part of AMISOM's grand strategy to evict al-Shabaab from Somalia's urban centers. Unable to stretch its forces over the whole country before August's transitional process, Ethiopian and Kenyan units deployed in the west and south in a patch-work formation with AMISOM (Kenya has since joined while Ethiopia chooses to maintain operational independence). This positioning had the effect of reversing Kismayo's priority from first to last; instead of heading directly to the port, AU forces planned to capture all of al-Shabaab's urban territory before converging on one of Somalia's largest cities.
AU forces still have a ways to go before reaching Kismayo. With Merca now behind them, they must advance another 100 miles south to al-Shabaab's other secondary port of Barawe, where resistance could be heavier. Locals claim to have spotted the group's leadership in the area, namely Sheikh Mukhtar "Abu Mansur" Robow Ali, Sheikh Fuad "Shangole" Mohamed Qalaf, Mukhtar Abu al-Zubeyr "Godane" and his in-house rival, former Hizbul Islam commander Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. As the commander of al-Shabaab's transnationlist faction, Al-Zubeyr has reportedly established roadblocks and stocked desert training camps with local recruits, along with those foreign fighters that haven't fled to Yemen, Mali or other safer areas.
Another 100+ miles separates Barawe from Kismayo. Barring a surprise attack, a clearing operation must wait until September at the earliest and possible the one-year mark of Kenya's entry into Somalia.
Silver lining can be found in this delay though. Taking Kismayo before a new government can establish itself poses a greater risk to Somali civilians and AMISOM's strategy, and AU forces might not reach their positions until Mogadishu sorts out its political process. The capital is experiencing predictable growing pains as Somali politicians, clan elders, businessmen and warlords attempt to influence the selection of a new president and parliamentary speaker. However, now that August 20th has already passed, AMISOM can forgo its schedule and delay an operation until Somali's new government begins to officially coalesce. Removing the imposed deadline can free up the operation's unrealistic pace, allowing AMISOM to gather an appropriate level of force and minimize the risk of prematurely governing Kismayo.
Otherwise the area, which will remain saturated with al-Shabaab, could fall victim to local factionalism or political ambitions stemming from the pursuit of an autonomous Jubaland (also known as Azania).
"The capturing of Kismayo and, more importantly, returning it to proper Somali authority other than al-Shabaab is an important objective," David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, recently explained. "I am not in a position to judge the likelihood of this happening in the coming months. It was an early Kenyan objective last year but did not happen. I doubt that Kismayo will be taken easily; it is equally important to identify appropriate Somali forces who can then keep al-Shabaab from retaking it. Long-term occupation of Kismayo by foreign forces is a bad idea."