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The End of Al-Shabaab
Over the Horizon View of a Stable Somalia
By ROBERT YOUNG PELTON 06/04/2012
Al-Shabaab Suspects Arrested
Al-Shabaab Suspects Arrested

The fall of Afgoye and the coming final showdown in Kismayo may allow westerners to become optimistic about the prospects of a free and stable Somalia. Much like the fall of the Taliban it appears that al-Shabaab is tightening their flip-flops and fleeing rather than fighting. In time the lack of funds and safe havens will reduce the wahabists to a few cranky jihadis and a few foreign volunteers who by their own unfortunate career choice, will have to go out with a bang.

Al Shabaab was often described as a Hawiye clan based group with "several thousand fighters" augmented by an ever changing complement of foreign jihadis and ethnic Somali's with foreign passports. Although the most misty eyed jihadi may have seen Somalia as Afghanistan in the 90's, western style governance is catching on. Yemen, Mali, Afghanistan and even Syria have more appeal these days to foreign fighters. Many of those have returned via the charcoal and fishing dhows that ply the coast. It must remembered that al Shabaab's slogan is “The Army of Hardship in Somalia.” which they are delivering on.

Al Shabaab Logo
Al Shabaab Logo

Running Away to Fight Another Day?

Retreating used to be called 'fleeing' in the face of a stronger opponent now al-Shabaab calls it called 'strategic withdrawal'. Their sources of income like Bakara and soon Kismayo will dry up. Even their lusty squandering of ordnance will have to rely on avarice of unpaid TFG soldiers as airfields are taken and roads checkpointed.

Al-Shabaab is fleeing. But to where? There is no Pakistan, no Syria, no safe haven just across the border. They can go underground and wait but al-Shabaab's only hope is that the west will pull another Afghanistan and turn a victory into failure. It is much more expedient to yell fire in a crowded theater versus creating a national security apparatus that would prevent anyone from yelling fire in all theaters. Al Shabaab can continue to toss grenades, vaporize themselves and make videos with inoperative MANPADs. But my personal guess is that Somali's will get very tired of that behavior.

Afghanistan was different - ten years of chaos followed by a short partial rule of the taliban, followed by an even shorter foreign victory followed by a long insurgency. Somalia had no functioning government to overthrow, no inherent spoils to fight over and no neighbor like Pakistan to succor and recognize the victor. Somalia is simply running out of reasons to war. Disputes and flareups yes. But unless the new government is as corrupt and incompetent as the Karzai one in Afghanistan and the natural mechanisms are defeated by outside "modernization" Somalia may actually stumble into peace.

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) remains an attractive enemy with foreign paid, kitted and trained soldiers manning fixed positions and lumbering around in giant armored vehicles. If AMISOM stays Mogadishu, Baidoa and Kismayo may look like Baghdad. If Somalis choose to root out violence it may suddenly shift from war to peace. Various groups will be eyeing control of the markets, ports, highways and sources of income but it won't be al-Shabaab. Another new arrived group of diaspora, refugees and recently installed politicians will also be eying the swollen checkbooks and good intentions of foreign aid bringers. There will be squabbles over development money and massive abuse. Kindness can kill.

Victory has been the result of slow plodding bravery, phenomenal amounts of free ammunition and endless political wangling. No where has anyone actually addressed the underlying roots of the salafists, their ultimate role in government and just how much the US will meddle in Somali politics going forward. The taliban is angling for some type of political control but only after the removal of what they consider to be a puppet ruler. It will be interesting to watch how politics will evolve in Mogadishu, Kismayo, Garowe, Galkayo and Hargeisa. Event the most adventurous bookie would not take bets on who will be in charge one year from now.

The war is not over, Afgoye is not Mogadishu and Kismayo will not be the final battle but there is now a steady drumbeat of defeat being played out by the US, EU and their weapon of choice, AMISOM. Credit should be given to the Ugandans who have moved from bush fighters to urban rumblers and back to bush fighters with little glory. Over 4600 Kenyans and Ras Kamboni fighters in the south didn't hurt either not to mention a few thousand Ethiopians and ASWJ proxies that hover around the central border. In all a uneven mix of neighbors, mercenaries, militias and under/unpaid local recruits have turned al-Shabaab from an insurgent group to sporadic spoilers.

The Ugandan, Kenyan, Burundian interest in risking the deaths of their soldiers for a dollar has allowed America and Europe to stay in the shadows. Dollars, not ideology, fought this war.

You don't read a lot of press releases about dead and injured. The Somali troops are the least talked about but they are taking the brunt of the beating on many offensives. Poorly paid, badly trained but loaded up with vehicles, white skinned mentors and new eastern bloc weapons they are the ones who add the weight that the conscripts of al-Shabaab fear.

The insurgents source of money and freedom of movement are being slowly erased off the map. When they flee there is no wellspring of anger or support just a sense of relief that business and life may return to what Somalis consider normal.

Yes al-Shabaab does have support but only in the way that tribal and religious politics need a yin to the yang. People pay attention when you are shooting at them. In a post-Shabaab Somalia, other more vocal, logical and possibly armed groups will spring up to represent special and regional interests but the flow of money into government will reward those who play by the rules.

Religion did not resolve disputes well in Somalia. Sharia can punish crimes, insert governance where none existed but it is only the one of the moral foundations and interpersonal expertise that can allow clans to move past flare ups and disputes. This was the weakness of al-Shabaab in Somalia. Their humorless, salafist, socialist, nickel and dime, anti-Western view of Somalia ran counter to the vibrant progressive and inclusive social system of Somalis.

While many focus on the conflict caused by clans in Somalia, there is more evidence to support the robust inter-clan dynamics and effect of the international diaspora that allows most of Somalia to function. Somalia is not about cliques but about movement, change, interpersonal actions, investment, and support between those groups. It is definitely not about killing in the name of religion. In fact the Somalis use of xeer, their traditional legal structure, is the antithesis of al-Shabaab's mindless brutality and corporal punishment. Somalis will put on a show of outrage but disputes are always brokered after the fact with the proper compensation provided and the aggressor admonished privately.

Small Country, Long Retreat

Afgoye is a short commute northwest of Mogadishu. It has been known more for a place of refuge from the fighting inside the capital since 1991. The Afgoye Corridor has been home to around 400,000 internally displaced persons (IPDs) competing with Kenya’s Dadaab camp as Somalia’s second largest city.

Like most “temporary” camps, Afgoye has been a bustling center for IDPs and a fertile recruiting, taxation and safe area for al Shabaab. It was not hard to find disgruntled or desperate recruits and supporters here.

Sheik Mohammed Abu Abdalla, the al-Shabaab appointed governor of Shabelle and the corridor, made an official announcement that AMISOM had taken the town without a fight and that the insurgent group had made a tactical withdrawal. This is the third major retreat that al-Shabaab has made with major losses in Mogadishu, Baidoa and now the critical crossroad between Mogadishu and the south.

African Union Tank
©Somalia Report
African Union Tank

This is the end for al-Shabaab as a military force even though they don’t know it nor do they want to admit it. There will be a battle for their heartland in Marka and Kismayo but it will only be a matter of time before they run out of oxygen and lifeblood. Al-Shabaab operates on funds donated or extorted from locals, willing and unwilling recruits from IDP camps and political legitimacy or illegitimacy depending on which part of the power curve they are on.

All the broken shards of al-Shabaab has left is the legitimate claim that foreigners are meddling in Somalia and their dubious intent on creating a salaafist style caliphate in line with the perverse ideals of al Qaeda. This kept the Taliban ticking over in Afghanistan as they regrouped in Pakistan with government blessings. There is no such haven over the border in Kenya, Ethiopia or in the north. There is Yemen, some pockets along the Kenyan coast and perhaps Pakistan, but al Shabaab doesn't have that kind of money or clout. Their fighters need to eat and a DDR will pull most of them into the Somali military infrastructure.

The initial reaction of AMISOM and NGO groups was that the military advance would now allow aid to flow into the Afgoye corridor. Al-Shabaab had routinely keept out, harassed and extorted western aid agencies as being spies, counterproductive and disruptive.

Ten Years?

Al-Shabaab is correct on one point. Creating an entrenched Western welfare system that is political in nature may be the worst thing that can happen. Al-Shabaab was vigorous in trying to move back residents out of camps and back into their homes. This was crudely handled and badly timed but the point is that Somalia will only get back on its feet when the basic units of society begin to function. Although Mogadishu was an epicenter of unrestrained violence by insurgents and AMISOM the city was never subject to the effects of drought and starvation.

The Afgoye Corridor is a mix of those fleeing either violence, drought, hunger or financial devastation. The residents should be encouraged to return home, rebuild their flocks, fields and lives. This will push aid and workers into the remote regions where al-Shabaab held sway. The five long years of al-Shabaab violence will not vanish but the groups that want to see Somalia succeed should take advantage of al-Shabaab’s diminishment and push their help into the hinterlands. In Afghanistan, uniquely western ideas linked to receiving aid and pushing out former taliban and allowing corruption made openings for the Taliban's return. In Iraq the wholesale firing of the entire military and political system created a vibrant, long lasting insurgency. It remains to be seen how well or badly the west handles Somalia's return from two decades of chaos.

There Will Be Blood

The total defeat of al-Shabaab will not be soon. They are bad losers and even worse peace negotiators. There will be the continued and ongoing murders of civilians, suicide attacks against the government, harassments against peace keepers and the comical media releases that claim victory while normal Somalis ignore them. The West will hyperventilate about the threat of terrorism (and include Yemen and al Qaeda) and continue to use Somalia as a killing ground to protect itself. The north will flare up as supplies lines to Yemen remain open.

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys

But al-Shabaab is a bad history student. All three Somali uprisings going back to the Mad Mullah and the Dervish State have been extinguished in the Golis Mountains. Somalis have an irritating habit of going about their business despite Western agendas. The massive overpaid misery mob in Nairobi will start brushing up their resumes, not quite keen on leaving the cool green of Kenya and moving to sweltering in Galkayo, Kismayo or Mogadishu. Peace in Somalia might mean restoring their own agriculture, transportation and an eager diaspora brain trust to a level that doesn't require an army of NGOs to run their country.

At some point the three key elements of al-Shabaab must amputate their rotting limbs to maintain their own survival. Sheikh Robow will most likely perfect his ongoing deal to move to the Emirates to join his family. Aweys, who some say is privately negotiating a surrender with the TFG, may seek political legitimacy with the TFG or flee to Eritrea. Godane will most likely go down fighting in the north and the rank and file of "The Youth" will be demobbed or absorbed into what will become the less than perfect Somali military. Despite the romantic ideas of mujahadeen surviving in the bush, Somalia's wilderness is a brutal place. Al-Shabaab will always have support along the Swahili coast, but even Marka will soon be free. Perhaps they will erect a monument to al-Shabaab next to the ones erected to commemorate the Biyomaal and Ashraaf Revolt

The Next Revolution

Somalis must be allowed to defend themselves, create their own security elements and push back against the return of al Shabaab, criminals or even pirates along the coastal areas. Right now Somalis are treated like truculent children if they dont' agree with "Road Maps" "Dual Track"s or are branded as "Spoilers". This attitude must change. It cannot be said that the UN, the U.S. or Europe have shown significant success in their endeavors nor have the cut and paste government called the TFG.

Success has been seen more the results of regional leaders simply ignoring the UN and getting on with it. Somaliland is it's own country...despite UN ignoring it, Puntland has created its own anti piracy force...despite the UN trying to shut it down. Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea the UAE have all simply brushed the UN aside as they go about their foreign policy work inside Somalia. When convenient these groups and leaders can also push forward the UN agenda.

TFG Soldier
©Somalia Report
TFG Soldier

For Somalis to take charge of their destiny after Shabaab there needs to be something else for the youth and population of Somalia to turn to. The foreign-constructed government and constitution will be simply symbols, not functioning entities for quite some time. Mundane things like jobs, clean water, self interest, lack of corruption will not spring up from the ground. The population must be able to arrest corrupt policemen, oust lazy politicians and set the direction for their own region.

Sustainable growth will be slow. The fertile fields of the south, the depleted fisheries, devastated stock numbers and the transportation system are in need of repair and may be beyond salvation. The promise of oil, self interested neighbors, and a lost generation will cause conflict.

Afghanistan and Iraq has shown that massive input of funds leads directly to kleptocracies often run by minorities with direct links to unwelcome players. Spoon-fed constitutions and hand-picked politicians soon turn into tyrants and eager investors from the diaspora can quickly be discouraged by the heavy hand of bloated underpaid local agencies. Perhaps the new Somali government should take a junket to Baghdad and Kabul to see what IED-sized political potholes lay ahead.

There is much work for the international community to do within their own ranks. The 20-year-old UN Arms Embargo should be dropped, the structure and future of AMISOM should be examined. The role of the US, Europe, Turkey, UAE, Ethiopia and Kenya should be brought into sharper focus. Each has an ultimate agenda unrelated to each other and each has been operating in the region with different impact on the future of the country. Turkey has been held up as a very positive, proactive player who wishes to extend the area of influence. The United States has been operating inside the region over a wide spectrum from clandestine to political to direct aid, with both positive and negative results. Ethiopia and Kenya both with large populations of Somalis have both border concerns and internal agendas.

The mythical structure of the AU being relevant to Somalia should be re-examined and the regions role as a maritime center, food producer, oil producer and force for stability should be written anew. AMISOM should no longer pretend to be a UN or African fielded force but rather a US proxy force and piracy should no longer be talked about in plush conferences but dealt with swiftly on the ground.

Conversely Islamic insurgent movements in Yemen, Kenya, Ethiopia and al-Shabaab should be brought to a formal forum to understand how the new Somalia can avoid the senseless violence perpetrated in the name of God. If al-Shabaab wishes to adopt something other than a 7th century political agenda they should be welcomed. If not they should be treated as a violent antisocial cult. The short reign of the ICU was no more the future of Somalia as were the old colonial structure.

Finally the world needs to recognize that Somaliland is indeed a nation having earned that title after two decades of patient progress. Puntland has chosen to stay within the larger framework of Somalia but once they have oil revenue, there is little stopping them from looking north to their largest trading partner, the UAE, and away from Mogadishu if political solutions are not beneficial. Somaliland has been married to Ethiopia for a while and Kenya will not simply up and leave Jubaland without capitalizing on their military investment. Whether Somalia sees success as a basket of clan based fiefdoms or a unified border-free nation is the decision of Somalis not the outside world.

Somalia vs Afghanistan

Somalia is destined to be yet another developing nation with a bustling capital, where everyone pauses for a few minutes after a large boom and then goes back to their business. Baghdad, Kabul and Mogadishu have become these new centers of growth. Neither at war or at peace but taking a more pragmatic approach towards their nihilistic incendiary brethren. Caught between a rapidly growing economy and a shrinking security apparatus there is little civilians can do except hope they are not the victim of sporadic, apolitical violence. Slowly the appeal of jihad will fade and if Somalis get grass root politics right, there will be no need to splatter oneself to get attention from the government. Somalia may be better suited for success. A vigorous diaspora, strategically located, underutilized resources and an entrepreneurial energy that has created successes amongst chaos portend hope. Afghanistan has suffered from political meddling, an overbearing military presence and a deliberate blindspot to of the traditional political structures that were ignored in favor of a unified modern political system. Somalia is also effectively under the control of hired foreign troops which have no clear exit strategy. Just as America used the correct political structure and tactics to topple the Taliban in three weeks, but stayed ten years too long, Somalia and AMISOM may share the same fate. The UN has taken twenty years to get one month away from a legitimate government but AMISOM (or its morphed successor) find themselves stuck in an endless fixed battle against endless insurgent hit and run attacks. The next time the UN sits down to extend AMISOM is January 2013. It remains to be seen how the then functioning Somali government will view their babysitters. Much like a massive ISAF and American presence allows President Karzai to stay alive, will Somalia protect their own government from the tattered or resurgent threads of Islamic fundamentalists?