Balancing the inherent long-term demands of counterinsurgency with the expensive threat of mission creep presents a leading challenge in COIN. Another challenge, geared more towards the observer, is sorting battle lines and troop movements on both sides. Afmadow, Somalia rests at the intersection of both dilemmas. Three months ago Kenyan and Somali forces seized the town with minimal resistance from al-Shabaab, roughly seven months after three Kenyan battalions entered southern Somalia. Problematically, Nairobi has yet to move out of Afmadow despite setting a now-expired public goal to reach Kismayo by August's end.
The town, which lies some 70 miles from Kenya's border and 50 miles west of Kismayo, is caught between waste and potential.
Targeted as the main stopover to Kismayo, the larger of al-Shabaab's two remaining ports, Afmadow was conceived as the midway to Somalia's coast. The town sits along the Lagh Dara tributary of the Jubba River, making it a natural choke point between Somalia's mid-region and Kismayo. From here Kenyan forces planned to stage a pincer assault in coordination with a southern unit moving up from Ras Kamboni. The country's second rainy season helped put an end to a speedy advance on both fronts, inducing domestic concerns over Operation Linda Nchi's timing. Nevertheless, Kenyan forces still maintain a heavy advantage against al-Shabaab and have no choice except to gradually progress through southern Somalia. Failure to consolidate all cleared territory, including Afmadow, would play into the insurgency's advantage by maintaining active rear-lines.
For months Kenyan officials have searched for the correct moment to move out of Afmadow and towards their final destination, but al-Shabaab's lingering presence ultimately obstructed their public statements. Now recent events suggest that something is about to give: al-Shabaab's fortifications or the African Union Mission In Somalia's (AMISOM) time-line. Seemingly consolidating Afmadow's final pockets of al-Shabaab's territory before moving out, AMSIOM and Somali government troops advanced into Agah Libah and the Birta Dheer district last Wednesday, reportedly under the air cover of Kenyan warplanes and assault helicopters. The pro-government Raskamboni Movement also participated in the operation, demonstrating the three-headed network that AMISOM and Mogadishu have cast across the south.
Two days later AMISOM forces met resistance upon entering Miido, located 10 miles south of Afmadow.
"This was a brave and important operation conducted by the AMISOM forces in lower Juba," Force commander Lieutenant General Andrew Gutti. "Securing the strategic town of Miido will allow the local community to rebuild their lives free from the terror and tyranny imposed by Alâ-ÂShabaab. I pay tribute to the bravery and commitment of all the soldiers involved in this operation. AMISOM is committed to protecting hard won security gains to ensure Somalia continues on the road to a sustainable peace."
Although al-Shabaab received the worst of both confrontations and cannot fight effectively against AMISOM's level of force, the insurgency appears to be mounting a conscious counteroffensive under the realization that Kismayo is next. No town taken by Kenyan forces has been initially defended, but the port could be the one spot that al-Shabaab decides is worth fighting for. If so, proper depth would begin a counteroffensive away from Kismayo in order to slow an advance towards the city. Interestingly, these battles have unfolded just as viciously in the media and on Twitter, offering at least one window into the minds of both sides.
"Afmadow remains in the full control and security of AMISOM troops," Gutti responded to opposing rumors. "Al-Shabaab has issued untrue and baseless propaganda suggesting otherwise. It is a desperate attempt by Al-Shabaab, misrepresenting the realities on the ground where AMISOM troops are providing security and stability to allow the local population to carry on with their normal lives, free from the fear, intimidation and violence propagated by Al-Shabaab."
In coordination with AMSIOM's statements, Somali spokesman Adan Ahmed Hersi announced that Kismayo "would be captured in the coming days." Meanwhile Sheikh Hasan Yaqub Ali, the spokesman of al-Shabaab’s administration in Kismayo, predicted that the port's capture is "just a dream." The final outcome will likely fall in between, but Kismayo's battle could be as large as advertised and might begin this month (the latest reports indicate an operation before September 20th's presidential election). A high level of force and determination is being directed towards the area and neither will have any more space or time to give at the coast. All Africa's conclusion included The Trench's: "some military analysts have stated that the battle for Kismayo could be dragged on for quite some time due to miscalculations by the allied forces that have been battling Al Shabaab in southern Somalia since October 2011."
Nairobi's military situation isn't necessary disadvantageous. The development of Somalia's new government and Kismayo's stability were bound to require more time than foreign capitals allocated, and Somalia cannot shake its friction over several years. The more AMISOM's mission creeps, though, the more room opens for unstable factors.