Somalia: failure of international community not yet acknowledged
Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed – head of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government
By Roland Marchal, Senior Research Fellow, French National Centre for Scientific Research
Military Wishful Thinking
Throughout the last week of February, several important military operations took place in Somalia – Mogadishu, Hiiraan and Gedo – against al-Shabaab. Militia supported by Ethiopia, the army of the Transitional Federal Governement (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) acted for the first time – if not coordinated, at least simultaneously – on different fronts.
In Mogadishu, the main fighting took place near the military Academy, Bakaraaha market and Daynile. It was the first time Burundian troops reached many of the most important military location in Mogadishu for al-Shabaab logistics. The battle was bloody, and it seems likely that a few hundred Shabaab fighters died (“up to 400”, said AMISOM sources). This was enough to generate a fresh hope that al-Shabaab could be defeated militarily. However, this period of fighting also highlights weaknesses of AMISOM and the lack of a coherent policy to address them by key players such as the US and the EU (the funders of both AMISOM and the TFG army.)
Firstly, AMISOM (largely Burundian troops) fought impressively, but suffered significant losses. While the official figure of AMISOM soldiers killed in the fight is 6, diplomats quote a number nearer to 40. The number of wounded soldiers is such that there are no more beds in Kenya to accommodate them – some of the wounded having to be to be sent to Djibouti for treatment
Al-Shabaab was however beaten in a way that provoked near panic from its commanders to the extent that they appeared in all of the neighbourhoods they control in Mogadishu requesting civilians to join them and fight to death. Reinforcements were also sent from Lower Jubba, including a fair number of foreign fighters.
The main show of weakness from the AMISOM side was not military, it was political. The TFG army was unable (or unwilling depending on the version) to keep the positions so recently won from al-Shabaab. The end result was that the population which sided with the TFG and AMISOM have had to leave for safer TFG areas. The trust that the AMISOM and TFG army should have built among the civilians evaporated as fast as the TFG soldiers.
This is a recurrent problem that has not yet been addressed by the international community. They seem unable to effectively recruit the NCOs and officers to take charge of TFG soldiers. This lack of an intermediary level in the TFG army is not addressed by its leadership, since the latter prefers AMISOM to do the job, and not create an instrument that may make them increasingly irrelevant. One must question why the US and EU (among others) are so powerless to move things in the right direction, while they spend millions of Euros on a debatable training program. Is it because they prefer to focus on the TFG’s term extension, and the famous constitutional process?
Second, in Gedo and Hiiraan, Somali militias supported by Ethiopia were unable to significantly challenge al-Shabaab. Moreover, in Buulo Hawa (Gedo), those forces took refuge on the other side of the border, in Mandera (Kenya), to shell the city controlled by al-Shabaab and used schools and civilian buildings to do so. Al-Shabaab does not have the monopoly on this kind of deadly strategy.
The main explanation for failure (as argued by Somalis) was the lack of heavy weaponry. This again raises an interesting question on what Ethiopian policy is: Meles Zenawi twisted arms at the IGAD summit in early February to get the TF parliament extended and the position of the Speaker consolidated (he is an ally of Meles). This is seen as an initial move to get rid of the TFG President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed who is despised in Ethiopia.
Ethiopian support for militia on the border is more a containment policy than a way to strategically weaken al-Shabaab. What Addis-Ababa needs is a government in Mogadishu it can guide without paying for. Dealing with al-Shabaab is secondary to the reassertion of Ethiopian influence in Mogadishu.
One should also add that this attack was a message to Kenya, since the Kenyan authorities seem to have reached an agreement of non-aggression with al-Shabaab on the border. This situation does not please Ethiopia and the troubles in Buulo Hawa are, once again, a reminder of the dangers created by such passivity. The focus here on Ethiopia should not conceal questions on what other players (TFG and international community) do – or more exactly – do not do.
Failure of the TFG
Thirdly, AMISOM is expecting 4000 fresh troops in the next 6 weeks. AMISOM may attempt to take over the whole capital city by the end of the transition on 21 August 2011. It is going to have the man power and the military hardware to do so. Yet again, concerns should be raised on two aspects.
- If there is no TFG back up in this process, Mogadishu would appear controlled by foreign forces, which sooner or later would push sections of the population to endorse al-Shabaab. This is a real risk, and the new cabinet has proved no different from the previous ones in its capacity to pledge and not deliver on this very dimension.
- People should remember that between January 2007 and December 2008, the Ethiopian army –well trained and well equipped – also occupied the city but had eventually to leave.
Because of the lack of any decent and realistic political strategy (since all efforts are put on a non –delivering TFG), AMISOM will win all the battles, but still lose the war.
This current lack of vision is manifest in the pathetic stalemate of the international community – manipulated with amazing mastery by Ethiopia and, more surprisingly, by the various factions within the TFG.
The main external players (beyond the region) are prisoners of their own mistakes. No one seems to remember why and when the constitution became seen as the primary instrument of “reconciliation.” Moreover, having spent more than 8 millions USD for a draft constitution, it is hard to throw it in the dustbin of history (or even, as this author believes, to freeze it for the time being). There is also little thought on what kind of constitution Somalis are going to get at a time of deep polarization within Somali Islam.
There were also no answers to two key questions raised by Somali people when programs on the constitution were aired on Mogadishu radio. Would this new constitution be a way to find a settlement to the war against al-Shabaab? The answer is no (and actually quite the opposite.) How and why would the TFG respect the new constitution when it has not respected the Transitional Charter? The only decent reply is that the TFG respects this transitional constitution as little as the international community (as illustrated by the confidence vote given to the current Prime minister).
While the international community claims to be willing to work politically out of Mogadishu with local polities, its actual activity is completely focussed on micro-managing the TFG – particularly the relations between the Speaker and the President. This continues at the price of a failure to develop legal and political instruments that would contribute to strengthening local administrations and make them fit a more national framework.
Al-Shabaab is going to lose important battles and key commanders in the next months. However, its weakening may be much less than the vacuity, contradictions and the lack of vision of an international policy that is unable to handle the TFG for what it is. It must propose a clear alternative to the current containment/anti terrorist policy that has failed but whose failure is not yet acknowledged politically.
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