Is Somalia's al-Shabab on the back foot?
By Rashid Abdi Horn of Africa analyst
12 January 2012 Last updated at 06:31 GMT
Somalia's militant al-Shabab 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-Shabab'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 armour and fighter jets, have been putting
pressure on al-Shabab in the last three months, making significant
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 mobilised, though it is not yet clear
the extent to which the war is being co-ordinated and who, if anyone, is
taking the lead.
Even if al-Shabab 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, radicalises society and exacerbates political
So far, Somali opposition to the Kenyan and Ethiopian interventions has
largely been muted. We have not seen the huge visceral blowback predicted by
'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
The more plausible explanation is that the insurgent groups are deeply
Al-Shabab'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-Shabab.
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
It could quickly turn into hostility if the war turns messy and protracted
and the political dividends fail to materialise or meet expectations.
The onus must be on Amisom, the lead agency on the ground, to prevent this
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
In particular, there is need to prevent regional rivalries, narrowly
perceived national interests and competing agendas from derailing the whole
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
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 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15499534
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-Shabab, 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
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-Shabab alliance politically.
The quest for a quick and decisive military victory over al-Shabab 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
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
A degraded al-Shabab 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-Shabab 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-Shabab 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
For all its flaws and excesses, al-Shabab did, at least manage to exercise
full administrative and functional control over most areas under its
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
Al-Shabab at a glance
Al-Shabab fighters photographed in October 2009
* Al-Shabab means "The Youth" in Arabic
* Formed as a radical offshoot of the Union of Islamic Courts in 2006
* Affiliated to al-Qaeda
* Controls large swathes of south and central Somalia
* Killed 76 people in double attack in Uganda during 2010 football
* Estimated to have 7,000 to 9,000 fighters
Map showing which groups occupy Somalia
Somalia - Failed State
* Window of hope <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16156157
* Somalis hit the beach
* Suicide strategy <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15188762
* Islamists and famine
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Received on Thu Jan 12 2012 - 18:32:29 EST