al-Shabab has seen better days. After withstanding the group’s Ramadan offensive in Mogadishu, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) launched a counterattack and, for the moment, knocked al-Shabab on its heels. As African Union (AU) troops seized neighborhoods of the capital amid rumors of insurgent infighting, TFG soldiers evicted al-Shabab from its strongholds in Beledweyne and Beled-Hawo, where residents burned al-Shabab’s flag to the flashes of reporters’ cameras.
The operations are designed as jump-off points for a wider campaign in the central region.
“Somali government forces have on Sunday morning [17 October] recaptured Beled Hawo District, in southwestern Gedo region of Somalia, bordering Kenya,” said Abdirahman Omar Osman, Somalia’s Information Minister. “Somali government forces have been preparing in Gedo, Bakool and Hiraan regions to bring peace and stability to these regions as part of government plans to bring rule of law to all over Somalia."
But early promise is tempered by déjà vu creeping into the state in the form of Ethiopia, which invaded in 2006 at the behest of Somalia’s fragile government and withdrew in 2009 suffering thousands of casualties. The US-opposed exit of Ethiopian troops spawned a bickering government led by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the moderate chairman of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), and generated an even wider security vacuum. The ICU’s evolution into al-Shabab would overrun the entire south in less than a year and bring the conflict to its present state.
Now Ethiopian troops, likely at Washington’s urging, have fully reengaged after a year of border skirmishes with al-Shabab and local militias. The perfect and only short-term fix to Somalia, Ethiopia’s military has been instrumental in the TFG’s latest offensive, providing muscle and armor in Beledweyne, the Bakool towns of Yeed and Ceel Berde, and Beled Hawo. Sunni militia Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a, who opposes both the TFG and al-Shabab as Wahhabi fundamentalists, also receives its military funding from Addis Ababa and participated in seizing Beled Hawo.
But while Ethiopia has deployed a new military strategy in coordination with America, the TFG, and AU, Somalia’s vast non-military requirements have expanded since 2006. And the ever-present danger that Somalis will reject Ethiopian forces remains a critical factor to the limit of their operations. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the other half of ICU leadership and current leader of Hizbul Islam, openly turned on Sharif once he became president, convinced that he “made friends with the enemy” - meaning Ethiopia, a historic rival of Somalia.
al-Shabab has many disagreements with Hizbul Islam but this isn’t one of them.
"Ethiopia blindly supported and praised Sharif [Ahmed], and that shows the country is still run by Ethiopians and their agents, and that is why we are fighting,” Aweys explained in 2009. “They are fighting to stop any group that can employ shari’a law in Somalia, so this is a religious war. When invaders come in and try to force you to leave our religion, reject your nationhood and independence, and take your resources illegally, there is no option left but to fight.”
Hostility towards Ethiopia isn’t confined to Islamic insurgents. Public perception varies and can shift to a positive tone with genuine, consistent aid, but many Somalis’ freshest memories of Ethiopia entail a catastrophic invasion. Tactical reasons alone can account for the new strategy, but Addis Ababa’s low popularity is keeping it out of the middle of the battlefield. So will Ethiopia’s bandage hold until wider surgery can be completed?
Or will its support act as steroids that eventually run out?
The tactical parameters of the TFG’s offensive appear sound. Leaving Mogadishu to the 7,200-man AU mission to avoid stretching the force, Ethiopian troops and tanks have provided support across the country and bypassed the need for supply lines. This opens up for attack any border towns controlled by al-Shabab, as Ethiopian and TFG soldiers can supply themselves and retreat across the border with ease. The TFG and AU’s strategy to expand out of Mogadishu into al-Shabab territory calls for Ethiopian blocking positions along the western border, ultimately squeezing al-Shabab from the east and west before advancing south.
Using Ethiopia as the TFG’s staging ground plays on the insurgent’s exploitation of foreign sanctuary. Thus Ethiopia may eliminate 2006’s need to deploy deep inside the country and to Mogadishu, while TFG logistics challenges are avoided by working from the outside in.
However this strategy still carries high risk for its reward; ultimate success hinges on the TFG’s unreliable capabilities and the West’s stomach for AU escalation. The battle for Somalia’s central region poses a grind even with Ethiopian support, as Beledweyne switched hands several times in October. Days after the TFG’s takeover in Beled Hawo, Sheik Abdikani informed reporters in Marka, the site of a suspected US-helicopter attack, that al-Shabab had finished training 500 fighters in the Lower Shabelle region.
This news appeared separate from al-Shabab’s latest recruitment drive. Abdikani claimed that reinforcements headed to the Gedo, Hiiran, and Galgudud regions, and his statements must be viewed with some credibility after al-Shabab re-occupied Beled Hawo last week. Ahlu Sunna fighters said they vacated the town to spare civilians.
On a wider scale, al-Shahab’s gradual push north limited its Ramadan offensive to a diversionary maneuver and left it vulnerable in the south. With Ethiopian and TFG soldiers launching incursions behind its lines, it’s possible that al-Shabab will temporarily forgo challenging Ahlu Sunna’s northern stronghold and redouble its own territory. Despite enjoying a short reprieve, Somalis are unlikely to favor an endless give and take over major towns. The brief battle for Beled Hawo displaced an estimated 60,000 people and still has a few more rounds to it.
This stalemate could continue indefinitely until broken, which is why Ethiopian troops only offer a short-term solution. Take them away and TFG operations won’t prove nearly as successful.
Suffice to say, everything depends on the TFG’s ability to govern and the AU’s push beyond 20,000 troops, which Uganda has offered so as long as the West pays. The critical problem stems from the possibility that 20,000 remains a modest estimate. Such a force may meet the requirements of a conventional war but comes up short in troop-intensive counterinsurgency, where troops should outnumber insurgents by at least 5 to 1. Touring the AU’s modest gains in Mogadishu, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Chemonges explained, "This place is a built-up place that needs so many soldiers.”
Though Chemonges represents just one official’s opinion, his warning must be duly noted: “Taking over just one building means a lot. It takes a lot of effort and needs a lot of manpower to occupy, of course. The whole of Mogadishu needs over 16,000 soldiers or 20,000. Something like that."
In any event 20,000 AU soldiers would underestimate the insurgency and Somalia’s demands, which is why Ugandan officials have mused their way up to 40,000. Certainly a more realistic figure from a counterinsurgency standpoint, the financial requirements may also frighten the West away from a long-term commitment, especially when the TFG remains unstable. The exit of prime minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke gave way to another controversy over the incoming prime minister. Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, an American-Somali, has neither baggage, political connections, nor a militia - a blessing and a curse.
The TFG has a mountain to climb before it can host another 25,000 foreign soldiers and disperse them to all parts of the state to face a nasty rural insurgency. There’s simply no reason to clear territory and towns that cannot be held or serviced. So if major delays hit the TFG and AU’s time-lines, Ethiopia would be forced into a semi-permanent blockade while potentially stumbling deeper into the conflict, its worst-case scenario.
With multiple groups floating around Somalia, partially but still loosely coordinated, and the TFG in continual turmoil, al-Shabab will survive its present disarray and likely thrive again. Though it may not survive a larger war if one ever crashes down upon it, counting down al-Shabab's demise would be a strategic mistake.
[Note: This analysis was completed last week and almost cut after being delayed due to political events elsewhere. Most of it is still relevant though. Military time-sensitive analysis will assume priority in the future.]