|African troops in Somalia are planning a surge to free areas still controlled by al-Qaeda-linked militants, with more than two-thirds of the country already liberated, government and African Union officials said.
The multinational force is advancing on the al-Shabaab stronghold of Barawe at the coast, which the militant group uses as an operations and logistics center, Zaddock Syong’oh, policy adviser at Kenya’s Foreign Ministry, said in an interview yesterday. Kenya contributes troops to the AU mission, which is also targeting Jilib, the most-populated town in the Middle Juba region in the south, as well as Bwale and Badadhe, he said.
Barawe serves as an access point for al-Shabaab “to get weapons and supplies by sea,” Syong’oh said. “It will be the next big thing after Kismayo,” he said, referring to the capture two years ago of the Somali port that severed an income stream generated by illegal charcoal exports.
Al-Shabaab has been in retreat in Somalia since its fighters were forced to withdraw from the capital, Mogadishu, in August 2011 after a series of military defeats. The AU Mission in Somalia, known as Amisom, along with the Somali national army has forced the insurgents to relinquish control of about 70 percent of southern and central Somalia, according to the Somali presidency. On Sept. 1, a U.S. missile strike killed the militant group’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane.
“Somalia is now the only fragile state in the world successfully defeating a terrorist organization on its own soil,” President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud said in New York on Sept. 24.
While Amisom has the capacity to take strategic towns such as Barawe by the end of the year, a “decisive” defeat of al-Shabaab remains elusive, Ahmed Soliman, Horn of Africa analyst at Chatham House, the London-based research group, said in an e-mailed responses to questions.
“Al-Shabaab has consistently shown its ability to withdraw and regroup in rural areas after losing key towns such as Kismayo in the past,” he said. “Its use of asymmetric and guerrilla tactics including suicide bombings and the ability of its fighters to disperse into communities makes it impossible to defeat the group using regular warfare.”
In the most recent major assault, al-Shabaab on Sept. 8 carried out a twin suicide car bombing that killed 16 civilians in an attack targeting AU soldiers outside Mogadishu. The group also claimed responsibility for the raid on a shopping mall in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, last year that killed at least 67 people, and for twin bombings in Uganda in 2010 in which 76 died.
Somalia has been mired in civil war since 1991, when the dictator Mohamed Said Barre was removed from power. The government is using its recent military gains to try to attract investors to help rebuild its economy.
Companies including Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA),. Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) andBP Plc (BP/)are in talks with the government about returning to the country for the first time since war erupted two decades ago, Mohamoud said in an interview last month.
While Somalia has no proven oil reserves, drillers are betting the country has a geology similar to that of Yemen, which lies across the Gulf of Aden and has 2.7 billion barrels of proven reserves.
The current Amisom-led offensive, known as Operation Indian Ocean, began earlier this month and will last until October, Eloi Yao, spokesman for Amisom, said in a Sept. 23 response to e-mailed questions. The forces will concentrate on areas that serve as illegal sources of revenue or tax collection, and as re-supply routes for al-Shabaab, he said, declining to identify the towns that are being targeted.
“I cannot predict when exactly Amisom will recover those areas, but the operation has been going on well,” Yao said. Areas that have been recovered recently include the towns of Tiyeglow, Bulo Marer, Fidow, Kurtunwarey and Golweyn, he said.
Advances by the African forces have been carried out by Ethiopian soldiers advancing from the north, Ugandans and Burundians making gains from the northwest and the Kenyans from the south, Syong’oh said. The nations, together with Djibouti and Sierra Leone, contribute more than 22,000 personnel to Amisom, according to information on its website.
Destabilizing the leadership of al-Shabaab and recovering more territory should now be matched with political action on state formation, Syong’oh said. The formation of government, justice and security systems has been slow among liberated areas such as the new federal state of Jubaland, on the border with Kenya, he said.
“For instance, the Kenyan government is still sponsoring the paramilitary force of Jubaland, yet according to the road-map, it should be integrated into the Somali National Army, and benefit from the common kitty,” Syong’oh said. “That is a political process that must happen between Mogadishu and the federal states.”
The road-map to end the transition period in Somalia includes the liberation of territory, formation of federal states and integration of militias into the SNA, before a general election scheduled for 2016.
“The forces also want to make sure that liberated areas are consolidated or secured so that there is no vacuum for al-Shabaab to return to the same areas,” Yao said.
The formation of the federal state of Baidoa, in the northwest based on the regions of Bay, Bakol and Lower Shebelle is now in progress, according to Syong’oh. Galmudug in the central region is also starting the process of forming a central state, he said.
“It is critical that we use this window to quicken the stabilization of Somalia,” Syong’oh said.