March 12, 2012

AU Plans Next Operational Phase In Somalia

Three weeks ago al-Shabaab's central garrison of Baidoa fell in undramatic fashion. Following a pincer movement along Somalia's western border, launched in December to capitalize on Kenya's operation in the south, Ethiopian troops and tanks rolled into the city as the militants blended into the surrounding grasslands and fled south. Brigadier-General Johannes Woldegiorgis, the commander who led a mechanized force on a 140-mile assault through 10 towns, quickly summoned foreign journalists to tour the city.

"They are history," he declared of al-Shabaab.

Confident in the progress of its soldiers, the Ethiopian government recently announced a near-term withdrawal after meeting with representatives of the African Union's (AU) troop contributors. Beyond an open admission that Addis Ababa doesn't want to overstay its welcome, the decision has a sizable financial component built into its status within Somalia's AMISOM. Ramtane Lamamra, the Commissioner of the AU Peace and Security Council, told reporters on Friday, "The decision up to now is that it is essentially Baladweyne and Baidoa (for Ethiopia) and they have to be handed over to AMISOM and then Ethiopia will withdraw its forces to its own national territory."

"It provides for Djiboutian forces to be deployed in Beledweyne by the end of April at the latest. Two thousand five hundred troops from Burundi and Uganda will also be deployed in Baidoa by the 30th of April at the latest."

Lamamra held the door open for continual military assistance inside Somalia's western border, seemingly expecting to negotiate a "support package" for Ethiopia's military. The government is currently fighting on its own dollar, though Washington has provided political and financial compensation in the past (including payment for the drone base in Arba Minch). Bringing both Kenyan and Ethiopian troops under the AU's financial umbrella would streamline AMISOM and increase its long-term viability after the Transitional Federal Government's (TFG) UN-sponsored mandate expires in August. The AU's national campaign to recapture central and southern Somalia, lost to al-Shabaab after Ethiopia withdrew in January 2009, cannot succeed without Ethiopian firepower.

"For now, it's mission accomplished and AMISOM would be able to take over in both places," Lamamra said.

This situation represents the day to Ethiopia's previous invasion, a dark episode that killed thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians and opened a vacuum for al-Shabaab's rise. Both missions unfolded with similar speed - Ethiopian battalions seized Baidoa, Beledweyne and Mogadishu within a week of entering Somalia in December 2007 - but troops are now greeted with reserved optimism. During the two years following Ethiopia's exit, Al-Shabaab became its own worst enemy by engaging in the systematic destruction of local life and drying up the last of its water. When Kenya and Ethiopia finally entered the battlefield in relative unison, the popular scales tilted to the TFG and AU's advantage.

Even minor improvements in governance and social laws could have buffered popular resistance against the group, but years of hard line rule (including the use of child soldiers) turned the despised Ethiopian military into a friend. Although he condemned al-Shabaab for brainwashing children into jihad, Captain Mahamoud Yissak admitted from Baidoa, “At that time people liked Al Shabaab, there was a lot of support for them."

The positive takeaway is an increased acceptance of Ethiopian aid and the possibility for sustainable cooperation. One local MP, Mohamed Habselleh, said he believes, “We need Ethiopia’s long presence here." Most residents appear to believe that al-Shabaab's reign in Baidoa is over, but expect the militants to return when the Ethiopians leave. Other reports indicate that Somalis from al-Shabaab's remaining territory have requested Ethiopian armor, giving Addis Ababa plenty to think about in the weeks and months ahead.

While al-Shabaab mounted no initial resistance in Baidoa, the group has staged multiple bombings and attacked Ethiopian troops in nearby areas. The latest 3-hour battle near Yuktow, situated halfway between Baidoa and the Ethiopian border, is connected to al-Shabaab's counterattack; Ethiopian military sources claim that they preempted an ambush on a nearby unit. Both sides have reported substantial casualties (above 70), but neither side gives accurate information about their losses.

"They engaged our troops after regrouping in tiny pockets outside our area of control," Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told Reuters. "Al Shabaab rebels sustained heavy casualties and have retreated... the battle scene is littered with the bodies of dead enemy combatants. "It's a statement of survival, a desperate attempt. All claims are false."

The negative takeaway is that al-Shabaab remains determined to mount a resistance outside of its main urban centers. The decision to defend most of its threatened territory could exhaust the group and leave it vulnerable to a decapitating blow, but al-Shabaab's guerrilla tactics will distort the AU's time-frame. Its leadership appears to be satisfied with outlasting the Ethiopians - the latest attack was immediately spun as a sign of retreat - and taking their chances with the incoming Burundians and Ugandans. Even in a weakened state, al-Shabaab could exceed the AU's planned force levels and keep Ethiopians inside the country.

In order for the AU's strategy to gain traction outside of Mogadishu, TFG representatives must move in with AU troops and begin their work immediately to restore confidence in the Somali government. Western pipelines into the UN and AMISOM cannot afford to fail political and military personnel in the field. Now the TFG must fill every space that Ethiopians and Kenyans clear, forming a triangle of security between Mogadishu, Beledweyne and Baidoa. From here they must expand across the rest of the country, an area more than double the size of the territory in question, and they need to move fast despite the risks of rushing their advance.

"You know the character of al-Shabaab," explained regional governor Abdifatah Mohammed Ibrahim. "They like to fight, hit-and-run. So I think they will be back. They are [just] hiding here, under trees."

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