Somalia: Al Shabab Loses Afgoye and Afmadow, Kismayo Next?

On Friday, troops from Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) captured the town of Afgoye from the rebel movement al Shabab, in what the Associated Press called “the biggest victory over al-Shabab since the pro-government forces took control of the capital last August” (more here). Further south, troops from the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF), who have been fighting in Somalia since October, took the town of Afmadow from al Shabab some time between yesterday and today (Kenyan troops also took the town of Hayo). The KDF’s next major goal is to capture the port city of Kismayo – al Shabab’s “last key bastion” – by August.

McClatchy says the importance of Kismayo lies in the fees al Shabab charges at the port. Its loss would therefore deprive the group not only of territory but of much of its income.

Brief fighting occurred in Kismayo earlier this week, when Kenyan warships reportedly came under fire and shelled the city in response. “For the past couple of months,” VOA says, “Kismayo has come under fire targeting al-Shabab from air and sea.”

Here is a map showing Afgoye, Afmadow, and Kismayo, as well as the capital Mogadishu.

Military conquests by the government and its allies are coming at the same time as some political progress – namely a framework for holding presidential elections by August 20. This combination has generated significant optimism about Somalia’s future. It is important to note, though, that there has been some criticism of and disagreement with that line. Dayo Olopade, for example, notes that the Kenyan intervention in Somalia has lasted much longer than Kenyan leaders first implied it would, and decries “unacceptable side effects” of the conflicts, namely bombings inside Kenya that seem to be reprisals by al Shabab and its sympathizers. Roland Marchal, meanwhile, asks important questions about what political arrangements conquerors will create in areas formerly held by al Shabab:

The question is, and we see that everywhere, what kind of political answer you give to the population after having beaten Shabaab. In Beledweyne and Boosaaso, two big cities that have been taken from Shabaab, the Ethiopians promoted their friends, their allies. That makes a lot of sense. But if you don’t have local reconciliation with clans that explicitly supported Shabaab – because they had some good interest to do that, some very real interest beyond the jihaadi rhetorics – if you don’t do that, then sooner or later you create tensions and new problems come up.

[...]

So if you look at the very short term, you may believe that there are still incidents, but there is no longer a battle, and therefore the situation is going to improve. If you take a longer perspective, however, then it becomes a very concerning issue. Look at Mogadishu: the number of people who were killed last week is basically the same as the number of people who were killed ten or twelve weeks ago, so that means that the intensity hasn’t diminished. What has changed is the targeting.

To put it in a nutshell: it is very dangerous for the Somalis and the international community to assess the condition of the current war with the parameters of what was the war in 2011. And I believe that is exactly the mistake the Ethiopians made in 2007. They had been able to crush Shabaab in December [of 2006] in a very easy and very radical manner, because they fought face-to-face, and of course Shabaab couldn’t confront a professional army and therefore lost with many casualties. But then Shabaab shifted to an urban-style guerrilla, and that created a new problem for the Ethiopian army.

What do you think? Where is this all headed?

Afmadow: Another Flashpoint in Somalia’s al-Shabab/Hizbul Islam Conflict

The conflict between rival Somali Islamist groups al Shabab and Hizbul Islam, who were formerly allies in the fight against the Transitional Federal Government, turned ugly in the port city of Kismayo back in late September/early October. Both sides, and especially Hizbul Islam, have sometimes downplayed the seriousness of the conflict, and judging from variation across southern Somalia it seems that the degree of hostility between the groups varies from locale to locale. With headlines yesterday proclaiming that major fighting is spreading into areas outside of Kismayo, though, I am wondering whether the chances of reconciliation are shrinking to zero.

As I understand the chronology, fighting around Kismayo started this weekend.

There were no reliable reports on casualties, but local sources said Al Shabaab guerrillas carried out attacks on Hizbul Islam fighters based in the area, leading to heavy gun battle.

Sheikh Hassan Yaqub, Al-Shabaab’s spokesman in Kismayo confirmed that his forces carried out attacks on their rivals after learning that they are regrouping in the village to launch attack on the Islamic administration in the region.

I had read before that Hizbul Islam still controlled villages around Kismayo. Perhaps we can infer then that Hizbul Islam tried to retake Kismayo, and al Shabab not only launched a pre-emptive strike but also kept pushing into Hizbul Islam’s territory.

Shebab fighters attacked the Hezb al-Islam militants and took control of the town located some 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Kismayo [...]

“The Shebab invaded and the Hezb al-Islam tried to defend themselves but they were overrun after the city was attacked from three different directions,” said Iman Abdi, an Afmadow resident.

Another resident, Ahmed Ali, said the Shebab came in large numbers and seemed well prepared for the assault.

“There could be renewed fighting because the Hezb al-Islam fighters are regrouping to recapture the town,” Ali told AFP by phone.

Many of the dead were fighters, other residents said, indicating civilians had been among the casualties.

The fighting follows last week’s attempts by [...] Hezb al-Islam militia to re-take Kismayo over which they have fought with the Shebab.

According to the BBC, there was fighting on the outskirts of Afmadow by Saturday, which could fit with my theory that after al Shabab attacked they just kept pushing Hizbul Islam back until they got to Afmadow.

Also over the weekend, Hizbul Islam fought TFG/AU forces in Mogadishu. Thinking about that (does Hizbul Islam have a country-wide strategy?) and reading that dissension within Hizbul Islam’s ranks expedited their decision to withdraw from Afmadow makes me wonder how centralized command is in either Islamist militia. Are local commanders operating largely autonomously? How much unit cohesion is there? Reports of talks between Hassan Dahir Aweys, a top Hizbul Islam leader, and leaders within al Shabab adds to my suspicion that Hizbul Islam, especially as the (apparently) militarily weaker of the two groups, has some deep fissures if not an outright fragmented structure.

That does not mean that this civil-war-within-a-civil-war will end any time soon, but it does suggest that what sometimes look like big conflicts (Islamists vs. TFG, al Shabab vs. Hizbul Islam) might be better described as a patchwork of interlocking conflicts, some local, some regional, some both. Finally, if al Shabab does possess greater cohesion – and firepower – than its rival, that suggests that time is ultimately on their side in this fight.