Somalia: Extending AMISOM’s Mandate

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has played a decisive role in the Somali government’s reconquest of territory in the southern part of the country from the rebel group Al Shabab.

AMISOM was created in January 2007. The United Nations Security Council authorized the African Union to deploy troops in Somalia in February 2007, and has periodically renewed that mandate. The most recent renewal came in November 2012, when “the council extended the AMISOM peacekeeping mission for four months, instead of the usual 12, to allow for a review of operations, including consideration of the request to lift the arms embargo and a call for permission to resume the export of stocks of charcoal.” The request to lift the embargo, which has been in place since 1992, comes from AMISOM. Introductory commentary on the charcoal issue can be found here.

The new mandate will expire around March 7, and regional leaders have begun calling for its extension. In December, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud released a joint statement calling for the mandate’s renewal. This week, Uganda’s Chief of Land Forces General Katumba Wamala (bio here) added his voice:

“Somalia is like a baby that is still suckling. She needs all the support from the rest of the world,” Katumba said recently in Somalia, where he is currently on the on-spot assesment of the peace operations. Uganda is the leading contributor to the military and police components of the mission.

The AMISOM mission is supported by mainly the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union. “The capacity for Somalia to stand on its own and survive as a country are not yet in place, irrespective of the efforts the world has been putting in,” Katumba said. He explained that in the last few years, tremendous steps have been taken in trying to revive the country, but more support is still needed.

I would be very surprised to see AMISOM leave Somalia in March. It will be interesting, though, to see what happens with the arms embargo issue and the charcoal issue.

Somalia: Media Narratives of Progress and Peril

The media narrative of progress in Somalia has really taken hold. Some parts of it are absurd (a dry cleaner?), and some parts can cut both ways, but much of the narrative deserves to be taken seriously. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its allies – the African Union, Kenya, and Ethiopia – have retaken several key towns from the rebel movement al Shabab. Al Shabab fighters are reportedly defecting to the TFG in significant numbers. In terms of formal politics, the true tests will come later this summer when Somalia adopts a new constitution and holds presidential elections. But having a roadmap toward those goals represents some progress in and of itself.

Yet that narrative of progress coexists with another narrative, one that says Somalia is at a crossroads. I find this second narrative more accurate. This narrative asks, “If the TFG and its allies have wrested control of some areas away from al Shabab, what will the government’s rule look like?” On the answer to that question hangs the government’s legitimacy.

Gabriel Gatehouse of the BBC points to three problems: corruption, law and order, and internal TFG politics.

Despite the military advances, the battle for “hearts and minds” is not yet won.

At Mogadishu seaport, we watch two dozen men unloading bundles and boxes from cargo ships and piling them onto their trucks.

All the drivers said they thought life was better under al-Shabab – less corrupt and more secure, so long as you stayed out of politics.

“In al-Shabab areas, we don’t see guns everywhere,” said Mahmood Abdullahi.

“If the government disarmed the militias and got rid of the checkpoints that steal money from us, then we would support the government.”

Yet it is politics that could make or break Somalia’s current momentum towards stability.

Gatehouse goes on to describe the political roadmap Somalia is to follow this summer, which he calls “hugely complicated.”

“The process,” he concludes, “is fraught with potential pitfalls, not least a number of former warlords who have financial and political interests in maintaining instability.”

Ahmed Egal, writing at African Arguments, has an even more negative take on the roadmap. Egal believes this moment could be different from other times when Somalia tried to establish a new government: he notes “sustained military success,” “widespread fatigue” with al Shabab among ordinary people, and a revitalization of civil society. But he does not believe the roadmap offers a way out:

This positive public mood and hope for the future needs to be harnessed in the service of a genuine Somali-driven process of nation-building and state reconstruction.  Yet, this is precisely what the so-called Roadmap ignores and precludes in favour of establishing yet another bogus ‘parliament’ composed of members that have either bought their seats or which have already been bought and paid for. This ‘parliament’ will, in turn, ratify a constitution that has not been put to the people it purports to govern and ‘elect’ a ‘President’ that has succeeded in buying the largest number votes with cash payments, appeals to tribal solidarity and promises of patronage and disbursements of aid monies in the future.

He foresees a “farce” where “erstwhile warlords, Siyad Barre* henchmen, self-appointed civil society leaders, newly minted clan elders and Diaspora carpet-baggers will take their usual places in the drama,” with the presidency, and seats in parliament, going to “the highest bidders.”

If the new government proves to be illegitimate in the eyes of the people, unable to provide law and order, and riven with internal divisions, that does not necessarily mean al Shabab will come roaring back. But neither would it mean genuine stability for Somalia. As Gatehouse and Egal both point out, there are various powerful parties with an interest in prolonged instability, and parties who prefer instability to having someone else consolidate power.

Which narrative – progress or peril – do you find more convincing?

*Siad Barre was president of Somalia from 1969-1991.

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?

Somalia: A Deadly Mismanagement of Politics by the TFG

Human Rights Watch released a new report Wednesday entitled “Somalia: Pro-Government Militias Executing Civilians.” The report points to key problems in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG)’s campaign to reclaim areas held by the rebel movement al Shabab: brutality, sloppiness, and administrative ambiguity.

The TFG is assisted by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and coordinates in many ways with the forces of Kenya and Ethiopia, both present in Somalia. These groups have pushed al Shabab out of a great deal of territory in southern Somalia since last August, when al Shabab partly withdrew from the capital Mogadishu, and particularly since last October, when Kenya invaded. Yet the TFG’s chronic problem – establishing political control and goodwill in areas it controls – has surfaced in these newly reconquered areas as well.

Pro-government militias in Somalia have committed summary executions and torture in the towns of Beletweyne and Baidoa since occupying them with Ethiopian forces earlier in 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should take immediate steps to stop the abuses and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said.

On December 31, 2011, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and two Somali militia groups – Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a (ASWJ) and Shabelle Valley State (SVS) – ousted the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab from Beletweyne, the capital of the Hiraan region, which borders Ethiopia. Ethiopian troops and militias allied with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia took over Baidoa, the capital of the Bay region, on February 22, 2012.

Civilians told Human Rights Watch that since the transition, security has become worse in both towns due to abusive security operations by allied forces and, in the case of Beletweyne, rising tensions between militias vying for control. Although al-Shabaab no longer controls either town, its forces continue to attack the Ethiopian and other forces and target civilians perceived to support them.

One could say that these are pro-government militias and outside fighters, and not the government itself. One could also say that al Shabab is notorious for abuses against civilians. Both points would be true. But a would-be government hoping to establish rule in new turf can ill afford to have its allies alienating civilian populations. The actions of those who act in the name of the TFG reflect on the TFG.

Flashing back to 2008, when Ethiopia was occupying Somalia, we see the same kinds of problems. Ethiopia invaded in 2006 to topple the Union of Islamic Courts, which held Mogadishu, and they left in 2009 with the TFG nominally in control. But Ethiopia’s brutality, the rallying cry provided by the presence of foreign troops on Somali soil, and the fragmentation of the Courts Union helped spur the rise of al Shabab, formerly the youth wing of the Courts but now a self-standing group, one with ambitions to act as Al Qaeda’s chapter in Somalia.

I do not believe there is a one-to-one equation in which brutality by the Somali government and its allies drives people straight into the arms of al Shabab. But I do believe that such violence has serious political repercussions: namely the violence seems to ensure that many people will have little or no faith in the TFG and will, indeed, fear it just as much as they fear other groups. Somalia looks ahead now to an uncertain transition in August, when the TFG’s mandate technically expires. Core political questions – who controls what, and how – remain not only unresolved, but also grimly contested. And as happens so often, civilians find themselves tossed about between Sylla and Charybdis.

Maps of the Military Situation in Southern Somalia

Since October, Kenya has been waging war against al Shabab, the Muslim rebels of southern Somalia. Kenya’s incursion into Somalia has also prompted Ethiopia to send (not for the first time) some of its own soldiers into the southwestern part of Somalia. The capital Mogadishu, since al Shabab withdrew in August, has been controlled by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The TFG is supported by the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

With conditions changing by the day, determining who holds what is difficult. It is clear that al Shabab is losing territory by the month, and that Kenyan forces are advancing on some of the movement’s key strongholds, particularly the port city of Kismayo. Beyond that details are somewhat hard to pin down – I have probably gotten some things wrong in what follows. On a technical note, things are made even more confusing by the fact that transliterations of Somali town names vary widely in English.

Here is one list of the towns Kenya controls: Bilis Qooqani, Ras Kamboni, Bibi, Jilib, Tabda, Gherile and Bardere. Other sources say Kenya controls Burgabo (“a key trade route” for al Shabab), Hosingo and Badade. Top towns that Kenya is targeting appear to include Baidoa, Afmadow, Afgoye, and Kismayo.

VOA describes the areas where Ethiopia has a presence:

Soldiers…reached the town of Luq in the southwest Gedo region.

The location includes a major road leading to the Bay and Bakool regions, which are under al-Shabab’s control. The official says the Ethiopian convoy entered Somalia through the border town of Dolow.

And here are two maps: one, by the BBC, is a political/military map of all of Somalia.

The second is my own creation. The red shows towns that seem to still be in al Shabab hands, the blue shows towns in Kenyan hands, and the green town is Luq, held by Ethiopia. No pin marks Mogadishu, but it should be visible.

Finally, here is an in-depth Al Jazeera report on the recent al Shabab-al Qaeda merger.

On the Bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia

Yesterday, two men drove a truck laden with explosives into a building in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. Al Shabab, a Muslim rebel movement in southern Somalia, has claimed responsibility for the attack. This attack attracted major attention because al Shabab only withdrew from Mogadishu in August. The bombing symbolizes the inability of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and their allies from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to control the capital. E.J. Hogendoorn of the International Crisis Group ably explains this point, as quoted by Scott Baldauf at the Christian Science Monitor.

“The unfortunate reality is that this was to be expected,” says Mr. Hogendoorn. “This was announced by Al Shabab when it withdrew from most of Mogadishu. Essentially, they could not fight AMISOM or the TFG conventionally, so they would adopt asymmetrical warfare tactics such as suicide bombings.”

But while expected, Hogendoorn says, “this raises questions of the capability of the TFG, and it also raises questions of the capability of the AMISOM to protect the areas under their control.”

As AMISOM forces establish their presence further out into Mogadishu, and as the TFG begins to administer more parts of the country, Hogendoorn says, “inevitably this will increase the risks that its security forces take. They are more exposed to attack.”

However, what’s bad for the TFG is not necessarily good for al Shabab. The choice of target could provoke a political backlash. The blast claimed the lives of government employees, but also “killed scores of college students queuing up for results of a scholarship program that would have allowed many Somali students to study in Turkey.” Turkey is not only a Muslim country, but is also headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader, one of the most popular figures in the Muslim world, visited Somalia with his family in August to show solidarity during the country’s famine. I don’t know how many ordinary Somalis have heard of Erdogan, but I would imagine that there are a good number, even among the government’s opponents, who are horrified by this act of violence against Muslim students heading to a Muslim country ruled by a popular Muslim leader.

The attack, then, may be yet another instance where all sides in Somalia lose, especially the innocent civilians who are now dead.

Somalia: 3,000 More Troops for AMISOM/TFG

Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is battling al Shabab, a Muslim rebel movement, for control of the southern part of the country. Assisting the TFG in this campaign is the African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM), which has around 9,000 soldiers drawn primarily from Uganda and Burundi. In August, al Shabab completed a “tactical withdrawal” from Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, allowing the TFG to extend its control over much of the city. Conquering the rest of southern Somalia, however, will prove very difficult.

AMISOM commanders have long asked for greater international support and for reinforcements. In July, Boubacar Gaoussou Diarra, the head of AMISOM, wrote in Foreign Policy,

Virtually everything we do at AMISOM revolves around donor support. If that support were to stall now, amid our biggest gains to date, the results for Somalia would be disastrous. The extremists, now on the brink of defeat, would regroup and renew their campaign of terror — not just in Somalia, but as they have shown, across the region and potentially the globe.

The support AMISOM most wants is more men. Now AMISOM is slated to get some of the reinforcements it wants. The BBC reports that some 3,000 troops will join the force over the next six months, coming primarily from Sierra Leone and Djibouti. But the reinforcements will not necessarily solve AMISOM’s problems, nor is their deployment an indication that international doubts regarding the TFG and AMISOM have been allayed. The subtle skepticism toward AMISOM’s claims evident in the BBC’s language is interesting to see, and likely reflects broader skepticism regarding the force:

AU commanders have long complained they have do not have sufficient numbers.

Their current force deployment is too small to hold the whole of the city, they argue, even though the Islamist insurgents of al-Shabab have pulled back from some areas they held until early August.

[...]

Now they are promised the reinforcements they say they need.

One reason for skepticism toward the AMISOM (and I suspect there are many in Washington, London, and elsewhere feeling skeptical) is the math. If AMISOM needs 3,000 more soldiers just to hold Mogadishu, how many will it need to take territory beyond Mogadishu? (20,000, at least?) And what are the chances that those forces are available? And how long, given problems within AMISOM such as soldiers’ complaints about unpaid salaries, will existing troop commitments last? Taking Mogadishu was a major accomplishment for AMISOM, and the TFG almost certainly could not survive without AMISOM, but the barriers to future success are huge, even with the scheduled reinforcements.

Somalia: Military Reform Cannot Succeed Without Political Progress

AP has a nice article out on efforts to train the Somali military, which is technically commanded by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) but is mostly funded by the US, Italy, and others. The article notes that “Somalia’s armed forces — 10,000 soldiers, 5,000 police and assorted allied militias — have seen some improvements over the past year.” These improvements include new facilities and uniforms, payment methods designed to eliminate embezzlement, and closer contact between Somali soldiers and African Union (AU) peacekeepers. But the Somali military is still a deeply flawed institution:

In recent weeks Somali forces have shot civilians, each other, and looted food aid meant for famine-hit families. Yet these are the forces many aid agencies must rely on to protect vast amounts of food pouring into Somalia. They are also supposed to help the 9,000-strong African Union force secure the country’s capital after Islamist rebels withdrew from bases there this month.

 

But many now fear that with the Islamists gone, Somalia’s armed forces — still organized largely along clan lines — may simply fight each other and try to extort money from the civilians they are meant to protect.

[...]

Most Somali soldiers are loyal to individuals, not to the weak U.N.-backed Somali government, and most brigades are still organized along clan lines. Analysts say unless the government — widely perceived as divided and corrupt — must improve its performance and command loyalty.

That final line contains a typo, but it’s worth elaborating on the implied meaning, which is that military progress and political progress are inextricably linked. There are two points to make.

The first is that the TFG is a political mess. International Crisis Group wrote in February that the TFG “has squandered the goodwill and support it received and achieved little of significance in the two years it has been in office. It is inept, increasingly corrupt and hobbled by President Sharif’s weak leadership.” And that was before the ugly deal that Sharif and Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden concluded in June, when they (with questionable legal basis) extended the TFG’s mandate and postponed presidential elections by a year (to August 2012). The deal also forced out Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, whose initial, public refusal to step down underscored how nasty the government’s infighting had become. If the TFG cannot resolve these crises and establish a legal footing that is credible at home and internationally, will it be able to run an effective military, even with massive outside help?

The second point is that the military’s brutality – which has, despite improvements, continued up to the present – undermines governance in TFG-controlled areas. Much of the commentary on Somalia’s civil war focuses on the brutality of the Shabab rebel movement, against which the TFG is fighting. There is no question that al Shabab frequently commits abuses against civilians. But as Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been pointing out since 2008, the TFG’s soldiers are no saints. This month, HRW’s report on the famine in Somalia assigned blame to all the major actors, saying their indiscriminate use of force was leaving civilians with no one to protect them:

All parties to Somalia’s armed conflict have committed serious violations of the laws of war that are contributing to the country’s humanitarian catastrophe…All sides have used artillery in the capital, Mogadishu, in an unlawful manner that has caused civilian casualties. Al-Shabaab has fired mortars indiscriminately from densely populated areas, and the TFG and AMISOM forces have often responded in kind with indiscriminate counterattacks. As a result, civilians have not known where to turn for protection. While al-Shabaab’s reported withdrawal from Mogadishu may bring some respite to civilians in the capital from the incessant fighting, future abuses are likely unless the warring parties take assertive measures to end them.

A government that does not offer basic protection, it seems to me, will have a hard time commanding more than superficial loyalty in Somalia.

What the TFG has then is a cycle where its political dysfunction exacerbates its military’s abuses, and the military abuses compound challenges of governance. And the political dysfunction, of course, owes much to the structure of the TFG as a government funded from the outside, staffed heavily by the diaspora, and imposed through a foreign (Ethiopian) military occupation. Those underlying problems are not going away. AP’s article ends with a quote by an AU trainer who gives a variation of the “when they stand up, we’ll stand down” line heard so often in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing is impossible – the TFG could rule over a prosperous and thriving Somalia five years from now – but given the government’s current problems, it seems unlikely that the Somali military will fully “stand up” any time soon.

I leave you with an Al Jazeera report on civilian suffering in Mogadishu:

Human Rights Watch on Somalia’s Civil War and Famine

If you thought the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces were the good guys in Somalia’s famine and civil war, Human Rights Watch has news for you:

All parties to Somalia’s armed conflict have committed serious violations of the laws of war that are contributing to the country’s humanitarian catastrophe, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. All sides should immediately end abuses against civilians, hold those responsible to account, and ensure access to aid and free movement of people fleeing conflict and drought.

The 58-page report, “‘You Don’t Know Who to Blame’: War Crimes in Somalia,” documents numerous abuses during renewed fighting in the past year by parties to the 20-year-long conflict in Somalia. These include the Islamist armed group al-Shabaab, the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the African Union peacekeeping forces (AMISOM), and Kenya- and Ethiopia-backed Somali militias. The report also examines abuses by the Kenyan police and crimes committed by bandits in neighboring Kenya against Somali refugees.

There are no good guys among the major players.

I imagine a lot of people feel that abuses by the TFG and AMISOM are “worth it” in the fight against al Shabab. But whatever territory the TFG gains, it will have to rule, and not just through force, but through politics. Abuses against civilians now will have long-term effects.

To demonstrate that point, this is not the first time Human Rights Watch has pointed to patterns of violence and abuse against civilians in Somalia. During the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia from late 2006 to early 2009, when Ethiopia was supporting the TFG, “the worst abuses [were] by Ethiopian soldiers…Ethiopians…often indiscriminately attacked civilian areas and looted hospitals.” I suspect the brutality of the Ethiopian occupation gave al Shabab a boost in the early days of its insurgency, driving recruitment and pushing civilians into the arms of al Shabab.

Today, al Shabab may be pulling back, and the TFG may be gaining ground, but the TFG’s behavior is quite possibly setting the stage for future conflict, whether in terms of a resurgence by al Shabab or the rise of another rebellion.

Somalia: What Does Al Shabab’s Withdrawal from Mogadishu Mean?

On Saturday, al Shabab, southern Somalia’s Islamic rebel movement, pulled out of the capital Mogadishu. For months, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and approximately 9,000 troops from the African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM) had been battling al Shabab block by block in the city. In July, Boubacar Diarra, the head of AMISOM, argued in Foreign Policy that the battle for Mogadishu demonstrated what the force could accomplish with donor support. Diarra did not reveal what AMISOM’s strategy would be after taking Mogadishu, except to say that if donors provided the means to increase the force to 20,000, AMISOM could drive al Shabab out of Somalia. Now that the conquest of Mogadishu is at least momentarily complete, a moment of truth has come for the TFG and AMISOM. What comes next?

First of all, it is not clear that al Shabab’s withdrawal from the capital presages their imminent defeat. The optimism Diarra projected in July is not shared, for example, by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, whose recent report (.pdf, p. 12) said:

The response of Al-Shabaab to military setbacks in Mogadishu, the central regions and the Juba Valley has been to aggressively expand its control over the southern Somali economy. Given its lack of popular support, political fractiousness and military limitations, Al-Shabaab’s greatest asset today is its economic strength. The Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea estimates that Al-Shabaab currently generates between US$ 70 million to US$ 100 million per year in revenue from taxation and extortion in areas under its control, notably the export of charcoal and cross-border contraband into Kenya. Given the corrupt and predatory practices of the Transitional Federal Government, many Somali businessmen find Al-Shabaab to be better for business, and from a purely commercial perspective have little interest in seeing the group displaced by the Government.

 

Al-Shabaab’s core leaders have also responded to domestic difficulties by seeking to align themselves more closely with foreign jihadist entities and to provide a platform for like-minded groups in the region. The July 2010 Kampala bombings were the first successful Al-Shabaab operation beyond Somalia’s borders. They also signalled a new and alarming trend, in which East African extremist groups inspired and mentored by Al-Shabaab, including the Muslim Youth Centre in Kenya, might represent the next generation of extremist threats in East Africa and the wider region.

Reuters’ Richard Lough argues that al Shabab’s withdrawal indicates that within its divided leadership, the “international wing influenced by foreign fighters who favor guerrilla tactics like suicide bombings…won the day.” This wing’s victory, Lough adds, “could herald a wave of al Qaeda-style suicide attacks.” Whether or not that prediction proves true, the widespread reports of divisions within al Shabab suggest the movement’s tactics may soon change, making a conventional military campaign against them more difficult.

It is also not clear that al Shabab has left the capital for good. Ali Mohamud Rage, a spokesman for group, promised that al Shabab would return, and some analysts take him at his word. Mogadishu remains vulnerable in part because of the TFG’s own operational and political weakness:

The rebels’ departure from the capital offers no guarantee that Somalia’s weak transitional government, which has let innumerable other opportunities slip through its fingers, will be able to gain control of Mogadishu, or that the city’s population will rally behind the government. The Transitional Federal Government has been propped up by millions of dollars of Western aid, including American military aid, but its leaders remain ineffectual, divided and by many accounts corrupt.

[...]

Mogadishu residents said that emissaries of various warlords were beginning to identify bases in the neighborhoods that the Shabab had just vacated, which could spell another problem for the troubled government.

Al Shabab may not even be completely gone. Reports say al Shabab was still launching some attacks in Mogadishu over the weekend.

The complications the TFG faces – guerrilla attacks from al Shabab, difficulty controlling Mogadishu, and a vast expanse of unconquered territory in southern Somalia – lead James Gundun to say that while al Shabab’s insurgency may have peaked, he expects prolonged and brutal fighting ahead if the TFG tries to push further into rebel territory.

Reinforcing the TFG’s military challenges are its political problems. Its legal mandate was set to expire this month, though a deal signed in Kampala in June delayed presidential elections for a year and temporarily resolved a dispute between President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden. The Kampala Accord bought the TFG some time, but also paraded the government’s weakness and internal fractures before the world. Donor confidence was waning earlier this summer, and even the victory in Mogadishu is unlikely to completely restore it. The clock is ticking on the time the TFG has left to show the international community that it can not only fight, but govern. As Ambassador David Shinn told the US Congress in July,

If [the TFG] cannot make significant progress by the end of its extended mandate, it is difficult to imagine there will be any support left for it in the international community. Many in the Somali-American diaspora and anumber of American scholars who follow the situation in Somalia have already given up on the TFG. I have not heard, however, from those who want to end support for the TFG an acceptablealternative entity to work with in Somalia. Nevertheless, if the TFG continues its internal squabbles and fails to make progress, I may find myself joining this group in August 2012 when there would hopefully be an acceptable alternative.

The “significant progress” that Shinn and others want to see would involve, I think, political progress even more than military progress. A lack of political will, in other words, could undo any gains made on the battlefield.

As the TFG attempts to consolidate its gains in Mogadishu and al Shabab pulls back to re-evaluate its tactics, something in Somalia’s civil war has definitely changed. But whether that change favors the TFG in the long run remains to be seen.