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Issue 522/ 28th Jan - 3rd Feb 2012
Is Somalia's Al-Shabaab On The Back Foot?
By Rashid Abdi
Somalia's militant al-Shabaab insurgent group stares a possible military collapse in the face as a coalition of African forces, fighting on multiple fronts, steadily advances on its southern heartland and the United States steps up drone and naval attacks.
Its military fortunes have dramatically worsened in the last year.
It began when an alliance of clans supported by Ethiopia pushed it out of most of the central regions of Hiran and Galgudud.
This was followed by the loss of the capital, Mogadishu, in August 2011 - no doubt a big psychological and political blow.
Outgunned by the African Union force (Amisom), its ability to wage a conventional war seriously diminished and having suffered huge losses, al-Shabaab's badly mauled combat units pulled out of the battered capital they have struggled to control since early 2007.
In the southern regions of Gedo and Juba, Kenyan combat troops and allied local militias, backed by heavy armor and fighter jets, have been putting pressure on al-Shabaab in the last three months, making significant territorial gains.
Ethiopian troops made an incursion into Somalia in the New Year, the biggest since the December 2006 invasion.
They quickly overran the strategic south-central town of Beledweyen and rapidly advanced southwards towards the valley of the River Shabelle.
That an ambitious and increasingly concerted military campaign is now under way in southern Somalia seems obvious.
A formidable array of forces has been mobilized, though it is not yet clear the extent to which the war is being coordinated and who, if anyone, is taking the lead.
Even if al-Shabaab is not decisively defeated, the group is unlikely to withstand the combined firepower of these armies.
Of course, many things could go wrong on the military and political front.
Foreign military intervention is deeply unpopular in Somalia and hugely counter-intuitive, at least from a historical perspective.
It inflames public passions, radicalizes society and exacerbates political polarization.
So far, Somali opposition to the Kenyan and Ethiopian interventions has largely been muted. We have not seen the huge visceral blowback predicted by some critics.
'Gratuitous, indiscriminate violence'
More interestingly, the extremists appear to have failed to rally Somalis or to effectively play the nationalist card as they did in 2006.
All this does not however mean Somalis are now more accepting of foreign military involvement.
The more plausible explanation is that the insurgent groups are deeply unpopular.
Al-Shabaab's use of gratuitous and indiscriminate violence; the callous decision to block aid from reaching millions of starving Somalis; its unrelenting belligerence and rejection of a peaceful political settlement and the brutal Sharia regime it has imposed in the south have all combined to create a profound sense of alienation.
The overwhelming majority of Somalis, desperate to see peace restored to their homeland, want to see the back of al-Shabaab.
Despite an instinctive opposition to the presence of foreign armies, many are beginning to accept - grudgingly, no doubt - this can only happen through a concerted regional and international military response.
This new attitude of realism and cautious endorsement on the Somali street is fragile.
It could quickly turn into hostility if the war turns messy and protracted and the political dividends fail to materialize or meet expectations.
The onus must be on Amisom, the lead agency on the ground, to prevent this from happening.
It needs to move with speed to craft an overarching military and political strategy and build cohesion and unity of purpose, aware the alliance could become unwieldy and potentially fractious as more countries join the mission.
In particular, there is need to prevent regional rivalries, narrowly perceived national interests and competing agendas from derailing the whole campaign.
Two countries whose renewed involvement in Somali has fed such fears are Kenya and Ethiopia.
Kenya's decision to join Amisom is partly designed to fend off such suspicions.
Nairobi has been stung by the intense speculation its aim is to create a buffer region in the Juba Valley.
It is far from clear to what extent, if at all, its new membership in Amisom may have modified the original plan to create Jubaland.
If the cynics are to be believed, Kenya has - by joining Amisom - simply obtained a convenient regional diplomatic and political cover to lend legitimacy to its Jubaland project.
Ethiopia's renewed military foray into the central regions of Hiran and Galgudud and further south into the Shabelle Valley may be part of the concerted multi-pronged offensive to cripple al-Shabaab, as suggested.
If true, it is perhaps a signal Addis Ababa intends to stay in the game and ensure it does not lose out on the political spoils of a victory over al-Shabaab.
It is equally plausible the operation is limited in nature and nothing more than a routine military "housekeeping" designed to shore up allied factions battling rivals for control of key towns like Beledweyn.
This Ethiopia has done in the past without much success.
The move into the Shabelle and the fact that the Ethiopians are backing a new clan grouping called the Shabelle Valley Alliance has raised speculation the motive may be more ambitious and part of an elaborate strategy to preempt the emergence of Jubaland.
The dilemma for the coalition is that Ethiopia's military help is critical and, perhaps, indispensable, notwithstanding that it could complicate matters for the anti-Shabaab alliance politically.
The quest for a quick and decisive military victory over al-Shabaab seems to be encouraging the use of massive lethal firepower.
This is heightening Somali fears and may complicate matters and prove costly and counter-productive, not least, because the militant group is now faceless in some parts of the vast war theatre in the south, having successfully blended in with the civilian population.
A cautious, well-paced counter-insurgency campaign must be the preferred option.
Victory will not be achievable within the short time-scale envisioned by regional military planners.
But this is a less costly strategy that will hopefully allow the attrition of fighting on multiple fronts to degrade the group's conventional capabilities systematically.
A degraded al-Shabaab is unlikely to be amenable to peace or dialogue, though many Somalis would prefer to see that happen.
The more fanatical elements wedded to al-Qaeda's global jihad agenda will seek to regroup and resume the armed insurrection and step up the terror campaign across the region and beyond.
It is possible some of its less hardline leaders may seek some form of accommodation with their clans or cut political deals with the transitional federal government and other political formations.
The glue that holds the new anti-Shabaab military alliance together appears to be the common desire to once and for all cripple the extremist Somali movement and dismantle its terrorist infrastructure and support networks.
The determination to act decisively and prevail is, certainly, laudable, but not enough to resolve the Somalia crisis.
Without a clear and coherent long-term political strategy, any military victory over al-Shabaab will be short-lived.
Many of the so-called "liberated areas" - whether in Mogadishu, Hiran, Galgudud or Mudug - remain unstable ill-governed pockets, a depressing patchwork of clan fiefdoms filled with belligerent and heavily-armed clan militias.
For all its flaws and excesses, al-Shabaab did, at least manage to exercise full administrative and functional control over most areas under its control.
Could its defeat and the glaring failure to create a credible and cohesive political dispensation to fill the vacuum inaugurate a new era of anarchy?
Rashid Abdi works for the International Crisis Group from Nairobi