HARGEISA, 14 January 2010 (Somalilandpress) – Last Friday, the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council voted to extend for another six months the mandate of its woefully undermanned military force in Mogadishu. The AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), comprised of some 5,000 soldiers from Uganda and Burundi, has been besieged by Islamist insurgents since its arrival nearly three years ago, losing dozens of its members to repeated attacks like the suicide bombing last September 17th, which killed 17 peacekeepers, including the deputy force commander, Brigadier General Juvénal Niyoyunguruza of Burundi, and wounded some 40 others. Despite the peacekeepers’ valiant efforts, they cannot be expected to confer legitimacy and viability on Somalia’s “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) when it does not possess those qualities in its own right. Hence, the international backing of the regime may not be sufficient to ensure its survival and that it is very possible – if not likely – that, by the end of the year, the TFG’s few remaining outposts in the capital will have fallen to its opponents. Thus policymakers and analysts need to consider what will be the consequences of such a victory by the jihadists.
Of course the mere possibility that the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (“Movement of Warrior Youth,” al-Shabaab), the insurgent group declared a “specially designated global terrorist” by the United States two years ago and a “listed terrorist organization” by the Australian government last year, and its allies in the Hisbul Islam (“Islamic party”) movement led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys, a figure who appears personally on both United States and United Nations antiterrorism sanctions lists, might actually triumph is so anathema to some members of the international community that they have essentially been rendered incapable of rational analysis about the situation. As a result, their actions hasten the very outcome that they seek to prevent at all costs. Thus the shipment, first reported last week by the Mareeg news service, that the TFG had imported a large shipment of arms, including tanks – the latter representing a considerable escalation from the “technicals,” improvised battle wagons constructed by mounting a machine or anti-aircraft gun on a pickup truck or four-wheel drive vehicle, which have been ubiquitous in the Somali conflict. It later emerged that the shipment came on Sierra Leonean-flagged vessel, the MV Alpha Kirawira, which, according to a press release by the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) Somalia’s Operation Atalanta, was chartered by the UN Support Office for AMISOM (UNSOA) and escorted out of the Kenyan port of Mombasa by the Spanish frigate SPS Navarra and accompanied all the way to Mogadishu by the French corvette FS Commandant L’Herminier.
Unfortunately, what I noted here six months ago with respect to the unfortunate U.S. shipment of arms to the TFG earlier this year is also true about the current consignment: it is likely to prove “a “poorly thought-out gesture may have handed the Islamist extremists both the weapons and the nationalist (and anti-American) card to use in their fight against the TFG.” (One does not have to agree with all her conclusions to acknowledge the validity of the assertion made in the essay by Bronwyn Bruton of the Council on Foreign Relations for the November/December 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs that “had it not been for the United States’ counterterrorism efforts, the sharia courts and al-Shabaab might have remained marginal.”) In fact, as I have had occasion to argue, “if any further proof is needed of the failure of the policy of simply shipping weapons to the TFG is mistake of startling proportions,” it is the evidence from the open markets of Mogadishu that “the TFG is both so corrupt and so lacking in capacity that sending it materiel has only made it more convenient for the insurgents fighting it – who are well-financed thanks to their foreign donors, both state and non-state – to simply replenish their arsenals on the open market.” The observation about the weakness of the TFG should, of course, come as no surprise given the extra-legal machinations which were required one year ago by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and the appositely-createdparliamentarians just to give birth to the regime’s current incarnation under the supposed “moderate” Islamist Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed (see my report at the time on this episode).
My colleague, Michael Weinstein of Purdue University, is quite on target when he noted in an analysis last week that while, “in the sense of international recognition, the TFG is Somalia’s ‘legitimate’ government and [al-Shabaab and Hisbul Islam] are the ‘armed opposition’; in the sense of power and momentum, the TFG and the rest of the anti-Shabaab coalition…form a variegated and divided opposition” as the jihadists go about their strategy of encircling the transitional regime in Mogadishu by achieving dominance in the central regions of Hiraan, Galguduud, and southern Mudug. As I reported last week, it was Dhuusamareeb, the capital of the Galguduud region, which was being contested; it now appears that fierce fighting taking place across the region, including its commercial hub at Guriceel. Even if the jihadists lose any specific battle, it is unlikely that their overall strategy will be frustrated given their broad momentum and deep resources. Moreover, Professor Weinstein is also correct in dismissing the wishful thinking of some that fissures are opening up among the insurgents, noting both that al-Shabaab’s “contending factions made a demonstration of unity on January 1 at a ceremony in Mogadishu showing off hundreds of newly trained fighters” and that “despite its conflicts with [Hisbul Islam] in the deep southern regions, [al-Shabaab] appears to be able to collaborate with Hisbul Islam tactically and, perhaps, strategically elsewhere.” In fact, in fighting this week around Beledweyne, capital of Hiraan and Somalia’s second largest city in terms of population, armed units from the two Islamist groups were fighting side by side.
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These considerations are important when one begins to tally up estimates of relative strengths the various opposing factions and compare their training and command-and-control structures. Well-informed analysts estimate that al-Shabaab has somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 fighters in and around Mogadishu, at least one-third of whom have had advanced training from its foreign jihadist allies, who apparently exercise a great deal of control over them. In addition, al-Shabaab has up to 6,000 fighters scattered around the country. The group also has anywhere between 500 and 1,500 foreign jihadists who have flocked to its banner from as far away as Nigeria and Pakistan as well as several hundred Somalis from the diaspora. Hisbul Islam’s organization is more clan-based, with perhaps as up to 5,000 fighters around the capital, the majority of whom hail from the Hawiye clan of Habar Gidir, and perhaps as many as 3,000 elsewhere in the southern and central Somalia. Although only about 10 percent of Hisbul Islam’s forces have had advanced training, most of those more skilled fighters are deployed in or close to Mogadishu, thus increasing their impact. The Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama’a (roughly, “[Followers of] the Traditions and Consensus [of the Prophet Muhammad]”) militias opposing al-Shabaab in the central regions have maybe several thousand members, but most of these are clansmen mustered on an ad hoc basis, rather than a standing force, notwithstanding Ethiopian efforts to train and assist them. In contrast, the TFG claims to have 5,000 troops, although that figure is inflated with clan militiamen it manages to hire from time to time and over whom it has no effective control. At the most, the regime of Sharif Ahmed may actually command 1,500 poorly trained fighters. However, what it does have, thanks to the largess of its foreign benefactors, is an excess of armaments. This, however, is a double-edged sword. As the representative of one Mogadishu-based Somali nongovernmental organization told me over the weekend, the lack of training and the large amounts of ammunition means that TFG troops can and do fire at will – and the resulting high level of “collateral” civilian casualties hardly improve to the TFG’s popularity.
So, what will happen if the TFG collapses?
First, the event, however undesirable, needs to be kept in perspective: while the jihadists in Somalia and their allies abroad will undoubtedly try to capitalize on the propaganda value of their victory, it really does not change the strategic balance that much. As I told a Congressional hearing last June, “even without taking Mogadishu, al-Shabaab and its allies have already succeeded in carving out a geographical space where they and likeminded jihadist groups can operate freely…even without toppling the TFG, al-Shabaab has already achieved a major objective of jihadists worldwide by securing a territorial base from which they can carry out attacks elsewhere, especially against targets on the Arabian Peninsula.” Even a supporter of continued backing the TFG like Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College has acknowledged in a RUSI Journal article last August: “While a Shabaab victory in Mogadishu would constitute a major political setback, it would not appreciably worsen the security threat that exists in Somalia.”
Second, the jihadists’ Wahhābist ideology is as alien to the Somali tradition of Islam as the foreign trainers and fighters they have imported along with it; therein lie the seeds of their downfall. The brutal hudud punishments that have been meted out in areas controlled by al-Shabaab this past year – including public stonings, beheadings, amputations, and floggings – have revolted the majority of Somalis even as the militants’ petty social regulations – like the order, handed down last month and enforced last week with the imprisonment of dozens, requiring men in the port of Kismayo to have their moustaches and grow beards – have irritated them needlessly. Without a foreign “invader” like the AMISOM force to rally nationalist sentiment against, al-Shabaab and its allies will be forced to rely on pure terror to keep the masses under control.
Third, conquering a collapsed state is easy enough when faced with a weak opponent like the TFG, but administering the country is another matter entirely. The very ties to foreign terrorist and other jihadist networks that will have facilitated al-Shabaab’s military victory will leave any regime led by the group isolated internationally. A sign of things to come, as it were, was last week’s decision by the UN’s World Food Program, which provides emergency food assistance to more than 3 million Somalis, to suspend its program in southern Somalia, which distributes food to one million people, because of what it described in a statement as “the imposition of a string of unacceptable demands.” Nor is autarky an option given that the relatively few highly-qualified Somali professionals from the diaspora that the TFG has managed to lure back to the country would most certainly flee again in the face of a jihadist takeover.
Fourth, the defeat of the TFG will present the international community with logistical challenges of monumental proportions for which contingency plans ought to be developed now, even if it is not politically possible to publicly acknowledge their existence. Someone will need to quickly evacuate the AMISOM peacekeepers and their equipment, including artillery and armored vehicles, to prevent them from falling into the hands of the insurgents – the AU certainly does not possess this type of massive airlift capability. Then, the international community in general and relief organizations in particular will need to be ready to cope with large numbers of Somalis trying to escape Mogadishu’s newly ensconced extremist rulers. The 20,000 refugees who, in response to the WFP pullout, trekked toward already-packed camps in Kenya this week from the immediate border districts of southern Somalia may just be the start of a mass exodus.
Fifth, the development will be a wake-up call: the combination of the irredentist claims of the some of the radical Somali Islamists and the wider jihadist agenda of others will galvanize regional opposition. Thus far, Ethiopia has been most sensitive to the challenge, but Kenya and other countries in the Horn of Africa have grown increasingly concerned. The subregional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) rallied together last year for an unprecedented appeal for the sanctions on Eritrea which the UN Security Council imposed on the Asmara regime last month for its role in supporting the Somali insurgents. A Somali regime headed by al-Shabaab can expect similar treatment from neighbors anxious to prevent the spread of its noxious ideology as well as to protect their own territorial integrity and national security.
Sixth, the collapse of the TFG may have a silver lining insofar as it forces the international community to finally get over its nearly two-decade-long fixation with southern and central Somalia and move beyond repeated “top-down” efforts, each more disastrous than its predecessor, to install a central government (there have been fourteen such abortive attempts since 1991, with the current version of the TFG representing a fifteenth try). Instead, driven by the necessity of containing a jihadist regime in Mogadishu and, eventually, rolling it back, a “bottom-up” approach will have to be adopted. Thus legitimate and functional Somali entities – whether they are found in the nascent states like Somaliland and, to a certain extent, Puntland in the northern regions or in local communities and civil society structures in parts of central and southern Somalia – may finally get the recognition and engagement that has been lacking for all too long.
The TFG has had its chance. If, after more than five years since its inception and hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid and military support, it has proven unable to rally to its banner the very populace it purports to represents there is nothing that any outsider can or should do to impose its writ upon southern and central Somalia. Rather, it is time for Somalia’s neighbors and other international partners to undertake a long-overdue triage and henceforth refocusing scarce resources on minimizing the fallout from the interim regime’s collapse and strengthening the salvageable parts of the former Somali state, thereby simultaneously safeguarding their own legitimate national interests in regional security and stability.
Written By: Peter Pham