assessments

In Somalia, African Forces Make Gains Against al Shabaab

6 MINS READJul 23, 2015 | 09:05 GMT
In Somalia, African Forces Renew Efforts Against al Shabaab
(MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB/AFP/Getty Images)
African Union Mission in Somalia officers patrol around the Gashandhiga academy compound in Mogadishu.
Forecast Highlights

  • The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) will overcome temporary setbacks to build on accomplishments from its large-scale offensive operations in Somalia.
  • Despite gains by African Union and Somali forces, al Shabaab will continue to be a potent guerrilla and terrorist threat in the region.
  • The deployment of Ugandan helicopters to Somalia will serve as a force multiplier and a step toward establishing a strong Ugandan military with regional capabilities.

The African Union Mission in Somalia, better known as AMISOM, has launched a renewed offensive against al Shabaab. Despite achieving major successes with the liberation of Mogadishu in August 2011 and Kismayo in September 2012, the Somali military and AMISOM failed to eradicate the jihadist militant organization. Sustained ground operations and the targeted killings of its leaders by U.S. airstrikes damaged the group, but al Shabaab is still dangerous. As well as conducting direct attacks, the group routinely interdicts the movement and supply lines of African Union forces with guerrilla-style operations. The African Union is drawing on new resources and capabilities in an attempt to defeat al Shabaab, or at least render the organization ineffective.

The fight will not be easy, however. AMISOM forces have suffered setbacks in the past, being forced to conduct tactical withdrawals from untenable positions in the face of al Shabaab attempts to dislodge them. A June 26 attack on an African Union base in the village of Lego inflicted a notable defeat on AMISOM forces. Al Shabaab fighters detonated a suicide car bomb at the base's entrance, opening a breach through which an assault group flooded. Around 100 Burundian soldiers were stationed at the base, and witnesses reported that as many as 50 bodies were left in the wake of the attack. As a result of the incident, AMISOM forces reportedly vacated base locations across the Bay region of Somalia.

The Lego attack highlighted a major problem facing African Union forces as they expand their area of operations. While typically able to defeat al Shabaab in conventional head-on battles, AMISOM forces become overstretched as they project into the expansive reaches of southern Somalia. They lack the necessary resources to secure lines of communication over land and, as a result, frequently have to withdraw from newly liberated areas to protect their own personnel.

Addressing Tactical Shortcomings

The nature of AMISOM's limitations is not lost on military commanders. In an attempt to prevent further embarrassments, major efforts to stabilize the situation are underway. The most immediate is the launch of a major offensive against known al Shabaab strongholds. Known as "Operation Jubba Corridor," separate maneuver elements converged on the city of Baardheere on July 22, successfully routing its militant defenders. Baardheere had been under al Shabaab control for six years and has served as a refuge in the fertile valley region.

Early in July, approximately 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers, part of the AMISOM contingent, crossed into Somalia near Dolow. Bolstered by Somali National Army units, the sizable force advanced in the direction of Buurdhuubo and the Somali town of Baidoa. Meanwhile, forces controlled by the local Jubaland administration launched a separate offensive. This thrust marched on the city of Baardheere from a separate direction.

The Ethiopian offensive continues — with the intent of clearing al Shabaab from villages in the Bay and Gedo regions — but the advance toward Baardheere has slowed. On the road from Baidoa, an al Shabaab suicide car bomb hit Ethiopian forces, inflicting an unknown number of casualties and temporarily stalling their advance. Kenyan soldiers and fighters from the officially unrecognized region of Jubaland reportedly took control of Baardheere, while Ethiopian forces and Somali National Army units were still moving on Dinsoor, another al Shabaab stronghold.

The local Jubaland administration with its seat of power in Kismayo has a troubled relationship with Mogadishu, only reluctantly accepting its federal authority. In the absence of an effective security strategy from Mogadishu, neighboring Kenya has taken to backing Jubaland air assets and ground forces. Beefing up the Jubaland elements along the Kenyan border is a viable way to protect Kenya from spillover effects from the Somali conflict. However, Jubaland has begun to compete with Ethiopian forces: Jubaland's offensive operations were likely meant to establish control over Baardheere before Ethiopia's contingent could arrive there. Despite the competition, the dual thrusts overwhelmed al Shabaab's defensive resources in and around Baardheere, leading to the city's fall to Jubaland forces. The rivalry is unlikely to lead to direct confrontations between the two sides, but it could manifest in a race to liberate surrounding areas.

Even though the Baardheere offensive was successful, it will not necessarily prevent continued al Shabaab operations. The militant group has already been forced to stop depending on territorial control; its guerrilla and terrorist attacks have become its most potent tool against African Union forces. Denying al Shabaab refuge in the Juba valley will contribute to the gradual decline of the militants' capabilities. The more territory AMISOM forces liberate, however, the more resources they will require to patrol and secure those areas. That said, a weakened al Shabaab poses less of a threat to extended positions than before.

Ugandan Air Support

Perhaps a more lasting improvement to overall AMISOM capabilities comes from the decision to deploy Ugandan attack and transport helicopters to Somalia. Operations have generally lacked an air element, dependent largely on African Union and Somali ground forces — apart from occasional strikes by the Kenyan air force on al Shabaab training camps in the southernmost regions of the country. Ethiopia has conducted some air operations in Somalia; attack helicopters stationed in Baidoa are supporting the advance toward Baardheere, but these assets have not been shared throughout AMISOM. Ugandan helicopters could provide much needed close air support, which in turn enhances AMISOM's ability to withstand localized al Shabaab offensives.

For Uganda, the deployment of air assets to Somalia is another step toward establishing a powerful military with regional capabilities. Uganda gained experience in providing close air support during its recent military intervention in South Sudan, where crucial Ugandan assistance halted an initially strong rebel advance toward the capital. Uganda's helicopters will serve as a force multiplier in Somalia on account of their firepower, speed and range. Whether Uganda will be able to effectively integrate its aviation with other African ground forces, however, is less clear.

Transport helicopters will help improve the security of AMISOM's lines of communication and resupply. The movement of even a minimal amount of logistic support or reinforcements through the air will avoid incessant ground attacks and ambushes by al Shabaab. The number of Ugandan helicopters deployed to Somalia is unlikely to be enough to cause an immediate, radical change on the ground, but the growing size and complexity of the African Union operation illustrates the resolve of different parties to continue the fight against al Shabaab in Somalia.

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