Rumored for several days on Twitter and local media, dozens of news organizations are now proliferating local accounts of al-Shabaab's retreat from the Somali port of Kismayo. These reports, in the words of Kenyan army spokesman Col. Cyrus Oguna, hover between “partly true” and true. African Union and Somali troops are currently engaged in their "final military offensive on al-Shabaab's positions in the Kismayo corridor," with AMISOM'S main force prepared to advance from Birta-dher (24 miles west of Kismayo) at any moment.
Oguna wouldn't give reporters a "specific date for marching on Kismayo," only that "it will be soon and the assault will comprise of ground, air, and naval forces."
Due to these developments and the gradual encroachment of Kenya's air and naval forces, both civilians and al-Shabaab's officers have fled the city to other areas of southern Somalia. Eye-witnesses claim that al-Shabaab's younger recruits patrol Kismayo's streets under the distant guidance of leaders who are "fleeing toward various locations, some are going north, some are going into the forests." Commanders allegedly disappeared from their tea shops and took their radio transmitter with them. As a result, Oguna says that AMISOM is cautiously expecting minimal resistance from a leaderless force. al-Shabaab's overall leadership is also too divided to organize a spirited defense in the face of overwhelming numerical and technological forces. Snipers, boobytraps, and ambushes could mark the extent of a relatively short urban battle.
“We do not anticipate stiff resistance as we get into the city because the main commanders are leaving," Oguna told reporters. "We do not expect the junior forces to fight without their commanders. So we expect minimal resistance as we get to Kismayo.”
For their part, al-Shabaab's Twitter feed denied all thoughts of retreat while a local commander told The Christian Science Monitor by telephone, “these are all fabrications that we are leaving.”
Whether or not al-Shabaab manages to hold out longer than expected, the battle for Kismayo's governance will exceed the military battle as local clan interests compete with regional influence (Kenya and Ethiopia). The inability to negotiate a quick resolution of Kismayo's authority would contributed to the delays in Kenya and AMISOM's schedule, and Somalia's new government must cooperate with or fend off external interests. As for al-Shabaab, Oguna theorizes that Kismayo's commanders are headed for Jilib, located across the Jubba river some 90 miles to the northeast. From here they will have to consult with the insurgency's leadership, which allegedly resides around Baraawe, and make a strategic decision on their future tactics and political position. The group can only operate freely in roughly 1/8th of the territory it possessed at the beginning of 2010 (a triangle between Jilib, Baardheere and Baraawe), nor should they attempt to earnestly hold the rest.
This situation is both similar to and diverging from Ethiopia's occupation between 2007 and 2009. al-Shabaab has far less credibility now than 2006, when it rallied a generation of jihadists around the promise of an Islamic state, or after Ethiopia's disastrous exit. The insurgency may not be able to recover in its present form, and a rebranding campaign and internal shuffle may precede a looser phase of guerrilla warfare. The most practical plan would likely attempt to exhaust AMISOM's financial and military capacities before Somalia's new government can restore national order.
Further observations of Kismayo's battle and its aftermath will be posted as more information becomes available.