A Pyrrhic Victory in Mogadishu?

In Somalia, the forces of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) are poised to take control of Bakara Market, a key rebel-held position in the capital of Mogadishu (see here and here). Analysts are saying that control of Bakara could translate into a decisive advantage within Mogadishu, but that the TFG/AMISOM victory over al Shabab rebels could cause more problems than it solves.

The push toward Bakara has already come with costs, including disruptions for the traders there. Some fear that as fighting continues, casualties will run high among both fighters and civilians.

That’s not the only problem with the campaign. At Reuters, Richard Lough argues that military control will not automatically bring about political progress:

Winning Mogadishu might expand the government’s capital prison a little, but it is unlikely to bring any tangible peace to the rest of the nation.

“Has enough emphasis been put on a political strategy of holding that territory and putting in a civilian administration which is acceptable, legitimate and can provide minimal services that help win hearts and minds?” said Rashid Abdi, Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group.

For now, the answer appears to be no.

The United Nations’ patience is running out with Somalia’s bickering leaders who are locked in acrimonious feud about what should happen when the government’s mandate runs out in August.

Some donor aid, the Somali government’s life support machine, could be pulled if the president and speaker of parliament, who covets the top job, fail to overcome their differences, Security Council members have said.

AMISOM also says the political row is undermining military gains in the capital. The aim is to capture the capital and install a government that can at least make progress and demonstrate to the rest of the country that peace is viable.

Since the TFG’s offensive began several months ago, I’ve argued that the military campaign is a political campaign too: the TFG hopes to prove its viability to its international backers. As Lough points out, though, progress on the battlefield will not mean as much when the civilian government is racked by infighting and corruption.

Lough adds that, as far as the rebels are concerned, losing control of Mogadishu

would deal a major psychological blow to al Shabaab, but it would not be a mortal blow to the four-year insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

The militants hold sway over much of central and southern Somalia and can lean on other sources of revenue, including taxes from ports under their control and a cut of some ransoms paid to pirate gangs.

Whether or not the TFG takes Bakara, August will be a major turning point for Somalia’s would-be government. The continued progress of the offensive could make some difference to the TFG’s political fortunes, but it seems that much will depend on whether the TFG addresses its internal flaws as well.

2 thoughts on “A Pyrrhic Victory in Mogadishu?

  1. Pingback: Security Council: Somalia’s leaders must agree on way forward for peace process. « SomaliSwiss Community . Somalida Switzerland

  2. Counterinsurgency against al-Shabab is purely political and military; unfortunately TFG/AU campaign remains imbalanced. The government needs to fill its captured territory with services, and these aren’t following the AU’s assault. Granted, delivering services is the most difficult part of COIN – the hold and build – but failure cannot be excused by political corruption. Military gains may start to evaporate when these problems kick in between now and August – and beyond.

    That said, losing all territory in Mogadishu will knock al-Shabab on its heels. Perceptions are critical in COIN and the mere appearance of winning can translate into real success. Recruitment may suffer. However holding territory is often a burden for insurgency, and Mogadishu’s loss will free the rest of al-Shabab’s forces. Rather than hold, it may be easier to cede the city and harass AU forces inside and out. The war could then evolve into a rural insurgency rather than urban warfare.

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