August 15, 2012

Downed Ugandan Helicopters Postpone Kismayo Assault

In preparation for the African Union's (AU) long-awaited offensive on Kismayo, the largest Somali city still operating under al-Shabaab's authority, Kenyan naval forces have commenced a new phase of bombardment on the port. The latest shelling by an "unidentified naval ship" left three civilians dead and four injured, triggering UN warnings of an imminent battle for the contested delta.

“We have anticipated this one could be one of the larger battles and again, there's a large civilian population, there's a large IDP [Internally Displaced People] population and they are very likely to get caught up in that fighting,” said Justin Brady, head of the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs [OCHA] in Somalia.

Problematically for AU powers and the transitional government that they are trying to defend, the assault on Kismayo just suffered another delay and is unlikely to commence before the target date of August 20th. The AU's plans have already bogged down in the friction of conventional and asymmetric war; Somalia's second rainy season literally sunk Kenyan armor into the mud soon after Operation Linda Nchi launched in October 2011. The ripple effect forced Nairobi to miss a planned offensive in February, timed to Ethiopia's entry on Somalia's western front, and Kenyan soldiers have also inherited the humanitarian care of Somalis now living in their rear-lines.

A lack of funds presents another obstacle to capturing and holding Kismayo (Kenyan officials have requested Western financial assistance), while plans to establish a new political authority remain incomplete.

Now an air-block threatens to further delay the AU's offensive. Last week Lt. Moses Omayo, spokesman for the Uganda Air Force, informed Reuters that combat helicopters had been deployed to provide cover-fire over Kismayo. According to African and Western news sources, the Ugandan military spent three months preparing the aircrafts and their support system for operations in southern Somalia, more evidence that Nairobi requires extensive AU assistance to secure Kismayo. Unfortunately for all involved, Ugandan and Kenyan officials have confirmed that three Russian Mi-24s crashed en route to their destination. The helicopters went down in the vicinity of Mount Kenya's numerous peaks, above the Mi-24’s 4,500 meter ceiling, and they could bring Kismayo's assault down with them. The fourth air-craft of the unit, an Mi-17 transport helicopter, landed safely in the Kenyan border town of Garissa, but "commanders organizing the operation have since been recalled to the Kenyan capital Nairobi to rework plans for the long-awaited attack."

"Government will re-examine itself and assess its capacity as to whether to continue with the deployment," General Odongo Jeje told reporters.

Al-Shabaab naturally gave credit to Allah: "They planned, and while they perceived not, Allah destroyed them and their old, reconditioned helicopters."

Given the strategic need to wrestle Kismayo from al-Shabaab, and now Uganda's urgent political need to demonstrate its military capabilities, the AU's plans remain green-lit despite repeated setbacks. Most available evidence indicates that an offensive will begin after Ramadan, sometime at the end of August or beginning of September. Months of military buildup and naval shelling will intensify in accordance with the ground assault, but one Kismayo resident told Voice of America that "there is no sense in the town that a major battle is about to happen." Separately, a spokesman for the Kenyan-allied Ras Kamboni militia argues that the AU's assault was delayed over "political reasons" rather than military shortages.

"We are avoiding a situation where we capture a town and people fight over what clan should be in charge of a specific area," said Abdinasir Serar. "We are working closely with clan elders to avoid clan clashes. You don’t want a situation whereby al Shabab is taking advantage of disorganization in an area. We have to move very carefully so that al Shabab won’t have any opportunities to exploit."

Serar's advice is fundamentally sound. For years Kismayo's clan leadership has resisted al-Shabaab, going so far as to evict the group before Ethiopian troops could arrive. Yet the inefficiency of Somalia's government has left the port at the mercy of al-Shabaab, whose commanders vacated the city under the realization that they can return with ease. Recent reports also suggest that the group's commanders moved out of the area and left the resistance to their subordinates. They will likely mount a limited counteroffensive inside the city before taking the battle into its jungle outskirts, although eyewitnesses claim that the group is ordering clan elders to donate hundreds of recruits. Other sources claim that al-Shabaab is preparing another withdrawal and a heavier shift into guerrilla warfare.

Whatever the case, clearing the city won't be as difficult as administering it; the AU must ensure that an organized local force awaits al-Shabaab's return.

The most practical near-term strategy for governing a post-Shabaab Kismayo is a local transitional council, but this arrangement will consume a great deal time and may turn out lopsided in the end. Serar's statements thus hit the COIN mark, highlighting a key factor that is infrequently discussed in the media. He can't diminish the collateral of Uganda's crashed Hinds, however his promise to begin an offensive before the end of the month sounds doable. Nairobi in particular can't afford to wait much longer.

One year in Somalia and no Kismayo won't play well on the home front.

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