“The war is changing, not over”: Roland Marchal on Somalia after Afgooye, part one

As if last week’s feature story in Vanity Fair had not been enough to convince us that things are changing in southern Somalia, AMISOM has launched a military offensive to the north of Mogadishu from which, it claims, Shabaab “may never recover”. But Roland Marchal, a leading specialist on Somalia at CERI, is much less convinced that Afgooye will be a turning point in the fight for southern Somalia. In part one of his interview with Focus on the Horn, he talks about the humanitarian aspects of the TFG’s current offensive, and why al-Shabaab is not going to split anytime soon.

How should we interpret the current military offensive around Afgooye and the recent successes of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG)? Is the balance of power in southern Somalia really shifting?

What we see in Afgooye right now is not so new, it has been in the pipeline for some time. It comes as a consequence of the withdrawal of Shabaab from Mogadishu in July last year, and of course as a consequence of the Kenyan intervention, which in turn created the conditions for a new intervention of the Ethiopian army. The real issue is whether AMISOM, when attacking Afgooye, will get support from Kenyan forces in Lower Juba, and also whether there will be increased activities of Ethiopian troops in Bay and Bakool, so that Shabaab won’t be able to gather reinforcements on a large enough scale to create the conditions for a tough battle around Afgooye. 

A second, more political issue is the fact that in the Afgooye area, the population has been very supportive of Shabaab. It is very uncertain how the population will react, in the medium term, to the end of Shabaab rule. If the TFG is able to provide security and radically change the patterns of banditry and insecurity of the 1990s, then maybe the population of the clans living there may shift their support from Shabaab to the central government. But if that is not the case, then these populations will keep supporting Shabaab, and that may create new problems for both AMISOM and the Somali government.

And there is a third, humanitarian issue. It is getting too little attention right now because people in the TFG feel confident about the military campaign. But I believe that we have to be very alert about the humanitarian implications of what is going on right now. The Afgooye area is one of the most productive agricultural areas of Somalia, and the rainy season just ended. So is the current battle – which is going to last, it is not going to be over in a couple of days – going to disturb and disrupt farming activities? If yes, the consequences would be an increase in the price of most basic foodstuffs and, again, increased vulnerability of IDPs in Mogadishu and elsewhere, people who are slowly recovering from the drought and the famine of last year. So I hope that AMISOM headquarters have a very clear vision on how to contain those humanitarian dynamics and make sure that the population won’t suffer much as a result of the current fighting.

There have been reports that many people north of Mogadishu fled from the recent fighting. Where are they fleeing to?

 Shabaab still controls most of the rural areas in south-central Somalia. People should not feel that the war is over: we are getting into a quite long war. People in the Afgooye area may try to flee up to Merca, or further inland to Qoryoley. That is one possibility. The other possibility is that people try to go back to Mogadishu. The security situation there has improved because Shabaab has been pushed to the outskirts of the city. Most of the incidents – not all, but let’s say up to two thirds of the incidents in Mogadishu – take place in districts that are outside the city centre. So on the one hand, you have a real, genuine security improvement in the city. And on the other hand, because foreign money is now flowing into Mogadishu, people can expect to find jobs and employment, or if not that, then at least they can benefit from people who got employed. Also, access to humanitarian aid might be easier there than in the Afgooye area. So there are a number of factors, not necessarily political ones, which could move people from the Afgooye area to Mogadishu.

Six years ago, when Shabaab was still in its infancy, it was almost completely extinguished by the Ethiopian invasion of 2006. But of course it not only survived the invasion but grew to become the dominant power in southern Somalia afterwards. So why would this current military offensive be any different? What are the factors that make the TFG optimistic that this time around it will be a different story?

That is a very good question. My own views on this differ very much from the majority view, especially the US view, which is that Shabaab is going to collapse or to split into so many parts that it will become irrelevant in the next year, or even in the next six months.

There are two assumptions behind this view. The first is that there is a leadership crisis inside Shabaab. There are many different statements made by Shabaab leaders that show that there is absolutely no common view on what Shabaab stands for, what the priorities are, whether Shabaab should coerce the population or should try to strike deals. And of course over the last month, because the military situation has been more difficult, people have expressed their views more loudly. All of this contributes to the impression that there is a crisis. And in Somalia when such a division in the leadership appears, one can expect splits. Of course western states, western security services are working very hard to make sure the conditions for such a split are in place, especially with respect to those people who are not hardcore Shabaab fighters. The second assumption is that Shabaab is actually very unpopular, hated by most of the population; that Shabaab lost the sympathy it enjoyed in 2007, when the Ethiopians were occupying parts of Somalia, and that it is therefore bound to disappear.

I believe that hose arguments are real, but they are overstated. Any political organisation can face strong leadership rivalries and still remain united. And that is, I believe, the case with Shabaab. Especially because there is no political room between Shabaab and the TFG – there is a misconception, brought in by the Americans, that you are either with one or the other. As a result, people in Shabaab will argue until the end, but they will stay together, because if they leave, they will either be dead, or they will have to join the TFG soon after, and both are inacceptable solutions. 

What we see on the ground is that Shabaab members are still paid, and they no longer have a problem with access to ammunition, so they are able to fight. What we also see is a readiness, maybe out of necessity, to leave the main city centres and stay in the countryside, and to basically wage a type of asymmetric war in the countryside, and then carry out terror attacks in the cities. This model of war is possible because they still have support from many clans, because the TFG is unable – and has no real will – to reconcile with those clans. The TFG believes that these people have been defeated, so they now have to follow the mainstream, which is the government funded by the West. 

The movement [ie. al-Shabaab] has also been able to undertake more military activities in Puntland, and to secure areas in the mountains which are very hard to access, and where drone surveillance is more difficult. Shabaab also has access to natural ports, which allow it to get ammunition from elsewhere, mostly from Yemen, but perhaps from other regions as well. So they have been able to secure their logistical lines, and they have made a number of agreements with clans, all the way from Puntland up to the Kenyan border. This means that, yes, the war will change its form, it will give a sense of victory to AMISOM and the Somali government, but insecurity will very much remain, and maybe preempt any significant development in terms of building infrastructure, or building a state apparatus.

Moreover, over the last three or four years Shabab has been recruiting people from Eastern Africa. Not only from Ethiopia as before, but even from Kenya and Uganda. So we can expect a kind of homeostatic situation in which the intensity of fighting in southern Somalia is reduced, but at the same time there are more security incidents in the neighbouring countries. Ethiopia of course is well prepared to cope with that, because it is a military and a police state, but Kenya and Uganda are still democratic countries. The security services, the army, the police, are of course working to preempt that, but this also creates a number of tensions in the Kenyan and Ugandan society, which may, with time, work in favour of Shabaab. 

So I think the whole question is whether Shabaab has a short-term strategy, in which case the analysis by US experts and their friends is certainly accurate. But if you are convinced that Shabaab has a medium-term strategy, then I’m afraid that the US experts are getting it slightly wrong. Shabaab will get weaker, will be less numerous, but will survive and will try to capitalise on any political crisis that may take place in Somalia and elsewhere. 

Come back on Wednesday for part two of our interview with Roland Marchal! Find out why the divide-and-rule tactics in places like Beledweyne and Baidoa have played into Shabaab’s hands, and why the road map process may soon run into trouble. For a more comprehensive analysis of the post-London political dynamics in Somalia, check out Roland’s paper ‘Somalia on Hold‘.

Interview by Toni Weis. Many thanks to Roland Marchal.

1 Comment

Filed under Al Shabab, AMISOM, London Conference on Somalia, Somalia

One response to ““The war is changing, not over”: Roland Marchal on Somalia after Afgooye, part one

  1. Pingback: The KDF (finally) takes Afmadow and Kenya to (officially) join AMISOM « Lesley on Africa

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