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Al-Shabab on the Ropes?

OOne indication of the changed security situation in Mogadishu is the re-opening of the UN Political Office in this war-ravaged city after an absence of 17 years. Other embassies have followed suit reflecting greater confidence in the security situation. African Union forces in the form of AMISOM together with Somalia Transitional Federal Government (TFG) troops forced al-Shabab fighters from the capital in August 2011. Feeling more confident now that troops from Djibouti have joined the AMISOM mission which now numbers 12,000 another major offensive together with TFG forces was launched in January 2012. The results of this saw AMISOM and TFG forces taking control of Mogadishu University as well as Barakat cemetery and allowing these forces for the first time in years to be in a position to defend greater Mogadishu as opposed to just the city limits of the capital.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian forces captured Beledwyne, 30 kilometres from the Ethiopian border. The town is quite strategic in that it is the main artery linking the north and south of the country. From Beledweyen, Ethiiopian forces rapidly advanced to the central regions of Hiran and Galgadud displacing al-Shabab fighters there. Ethiopian troops have continued their rapid advance southwards into the heart of al-Shabab territory by forging an alliance with clan militias in the Shabelle River Valley.

In the south, al-Shabab fighters are also attempting to repulse a formidable force of Kenyan combat troops and local clan militias backed up by fighter jets and heavy armour. The Kenyans have been making significant territorial gains in Gedo and Juba. All this is compelling al-Shabab to fight on multiple fronts at a time when the movement is wracked by internal rivalry between Mukhtar Ali Robow and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys on the one side and Ahmed Abdi Godane on the other. In addition, al-Shabab has also been losing some of its most important military commanders, such as Fazul Abdul Mohammed who was killed at a government roadblock in Mogadishu. Mohammed was al-Qaeda’s military operations chief in East Africa and a key Godane ally. With the loss of his key military planner, Godane’s rivals within al-Shabab might well think that now is an opportune moment to strike at Godane himself. At the same time, American drones continue to take out key military skilled foreign jihadis among the group. This month Lebanese national Bilaal Al-Barjawi, also known as Abu Hafsa, was killed in such a drone attack.

Whilst definitely, on the ropes, it is much too early to dismiss al-Shabab as a spent force. The movement has a history of rebounding following previous military defeats. For instance, al-Shabab has shifted back to guerrilla tactics and far from confronting foreign forces is once again using suicide truck bombs, like that used against the Ethiopian military base in Beledweyne which killed 10 Ethiopian soldiers. Moreover, there is an average of eight improvised explosive devices discovered or detonated every day in the capital.

Whilst doing well on the military front, AMISOM (together with the UN) needs to have a clear political strategy. Areas liberated from al-Shabab control are little more than tiny fiefdoms at the whim of the local militia commander. According to the UN, there are already between 14 and 20 “min-states” in the country. If the international community is serious about sustainable peace in this blighted country they need to give urgent attention to the overarching political strategy and not just focus on the military defeat of al-Shabab, important as this is as a short term goal.