Somalia: All Sides Losing?

In the ongoing stalemate in southern and central Somalia, nearly every side – the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the rebels Hizbul Islam and al Shabab, among other groups – seems to be facing setbacks and problems.


The TFG’s problem of the week has been confusion about its policy toward international aid agencies. Earlier this week, “Deputy Water Minister Abdirahman Yusuf Farah said Unicef, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Daryeel Bulsho Guud DBG would be blocked from working in the Horn of Africa nation after they didn’t attend a meeting on Dec. 13.” After some outcry from international observers, the office of the prime minister issued a press release to clarify the TFG’s policies, writing, “The TFG has not suspended the work of any aid agencies. We support and encourage humanitarian agencies to come to Somalia and help alleviate the plight of the suffering population. The TFG would never restrict the work of humanitarian agencies as this would run counter to our declared objective of raising the Somali people from the ashes of the last 20 years.”

Was this a simple case of miscommunication? Not necessarily. As one aid worker noted, “This isn’t the first time the TFG has made noise about banning aid agencies.” In late November, a TFG official in Mogadishu threatened to ban Somali aid agencies whom he accused of helping al Shabab. Whether the TFG ultimately follows through on such threats, tension between it and aid agencies suggests that the TFG is unable to effectively work with the agencies to deliver services. If the TFG cannot play a constructive, major, and consistent role in getting needed aid to the residents of southern Somalia, its claims to political legitimacy could start to seem even weaker to outside observers.

Battles for Mogadishu

As the TFG negotiates its relationships with aid agencies, the battle for Mogadishu remains bloody but inconclusive. This week, Garowe reports that al Shabab is on the offensive:

Al-Shabab has been since on Sunday carrying out sequence of attacks, against the Somali government soldiers and those of the African Union troops.

Al-Shababs is determined to cut off Maka-Almukarama which is the only street in Mogadishu where the Somali government officials and the African Union troops use for their especial purposes, such as going to the airport and other military bases.

A Somali government noncommissioned officer at the frontline has told the press that they had the upper hand in the battle.

Fighting in Mogadishu this week has not produced a clear victor, but has claimed several lives. I wonder how long the TFG can hold out against al Shabab’s repeated assaults.

Al Shabab vs. Hizbul Islam

Outside of Mogadishu, al Shabab and Hizbul Islam are fighting each other. Reversals of fortune in their struggle have occurred periodically, but recently al Shabab appears to have the upper hand: al Shabab captured territory from Hizbul Islam this week in the lower Shabelle region, though Hizbul Islam’s leaders are vowing to make a stand in the town of Agfoi.

Defeats for Hizbul Islam do not mean that al Shabab does not face problems of its own. Recently UPI reported the death of “Rajah Abu Khalid, an al-Qaida commander from Yemen fighting alongside al-Shabaab insurgents in Somalia.” At a broader level, despite gains elsewhere, al Shabab’s failure to (so far) capture Mogadishu raises the possibility that in the long run the group will expend many lives and resources without taking the capital. Nothing lasts forever, but the stalemate between the TFG and al Shabab in Mogadishu has proven quite durable.

Other Groups

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who studies the Somali diaspora, and we discussed whether Western analysts overstated the importance of clan affiliations in Somali life and politics. She affirmed the importance of clans, and I resolved to pay more attention to clan politics and violence (instead of my normal approach, which downplays the clan factor in what is probably a form of overcompensation for my perception that Westerners exaggerate clans’ importance in Somalia). On that note, this article offers another reminder that not all violence in Somalia stems from the conflict between Islamists and the TFG:

Clashes between rival clans in central Somalia have killed at least 20 people, residents said Tuesday [December 7th].


There have been sporadic clashes between the Majerteen and the Sa’ad clans over access to land and water for several weeks. The most recent fighting began early Monday.

It’s also a reminder that violent struggles in Somalia concern resources as well as political power.


To reiterate my opening point, every major faction in Somalia (with the potential exception of the Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna wal Jama, whose battles with al Shabab in November produced conflicting reports) seems to be facing problems of one kind or another, and no group appears to have clear momentum toward control of all of southern Somalia. In the meantime, the political and military stalemate continues to take a toll on Somali civilians. Their problems, which run the gamut from economic to environmental, could in turn produce more conflict in Somalia.


8 thoughts on “Somalia: All Sides Losing?

  1. Somalia is stalemated, but the inherent dilemma in counterinsurgency is that stalemate often favors the insurgent. al-Shabab certainly has problems of its own. Though the leadership rift may be exaggerated, it is reducing al-Shabab’s ability to fight at the national level. To score a decisive victory it must push beyond its present capabilities. Nevertheless, al-Shabab has survived the TFG and Ethiopian counteroffensive after its own Ramadan and remains active across the country, particularly now.

    The TFG and AU have shown some indications of progress, but relatively doesn’t work in their favor. al-Shabab has managed to repulse a combination of enemies – the TFG, AU, Ahlu Sunna, and Ethiopia – because these groups, while semi-coordinated, still lack a true cohesion in their objectives and movements. This must change.

    Somalia’s stalemate will continue until August at the least, as the West is inclined to let the TFG fall and replace it. Another Ugandan battalion may be ordered to stave off al-Shabab’s advances, but not the 20,000 troops Museveni has openly promised in the event of US or EU payment. Whether either of these strategies is correct remains unpredictable.

    Clan politics are extremely important though, especially during the formation of a new government.

  2. The Economist ran this article in which AMISOM officials come off as rather optimistic about its recent claimed gains, though the article takes a more cautious tone:

    Harakat al-Shabab is, I think, also facing problems of governance in areas it controls, particularly trying to adjust to a non-military role. There are signs it’s trying to better its social image through small and medium scale public works projects and distributing zakat. The movement also released a statement saying it was forming a committee to aid those civilians suffering from the drought. Even if untrue, these statements suggest that there is at least some concern about public image.

  3. Harakat al-Shabab, like Al-Ittihad and the Union of Islamic Courts before it, has been unable to overcome, it seems, clan identity despite the idealized Islamism expressed by many of its senior leaders. It’s noteworthy how much of a role it reportedly plays within the movement, particularly with regard to Mukhtar Robow’s Rahanweyn fighters, ‘Ali Rage and the importance of his Murasade (with Duduble) Hawiye fighters, and Godane’s favoring of clansmen loyal to him. It may be why Robow and Rage cannot be fully sidelined by Godane and his loyalists (if reports of a rift between Godane and Robow/Rage are true).

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