When the Somali Islamist Group, al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu last week, the move presented an excellent opportunity for the Somali government, and the African Union (AU) to consolidate their forces, and strengthen the defenses around the capital. Much more than that, it presented an opportunity to unify a country devastated by over 20 years of conflict, and to extend the now emboldened transitional government’s authority to other parts of the country.
Before the withdrawal from Mogadishu, al-Shabaab had tightened the noose around the few neighborhoods of the capital the western backed transitional government controls. International isolation, or perhaps fear of entanglement into the Somali conflict by outsiders emboldened the group to go as far as pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda, and to conduct terrorist attacks outside Somalia. Over the past few years, it ruled most of southern Somalia under strict Sharia law, complete with beheadings and amputations of people it suspected of breaking Islamic laws. Al-Shabaab seemed invincible, and it was poised to take over the whole country—until a few weeks ago.
Somalia is now suffering from the worst famine in many years, and instead of easing the suffering of the Somali people; al-Shabaab became an impediment. The group restricted the movement of much-needed humanitarian supplies, and prevented people from seeking help outside the areas it controls. While the drought and famine are a natural phenomenon, the suffering that resulted is not. The policies of al-Shabaab, and its refusal to accept foreign aid in many cases has contributed to the devastation. The group’s inability to provide leadership in the face of the drought and famine has undermined its credibility, so much that it has lost the goodwill it brought when it emerged as a stabilizing force in 1996.
Nevertheless, the international outcry over the deaths of thousands of children from the famine, and months of fighting with African Union forces backed by private security firms sponsored by Western governments weakened the group’s hold on the capital, forcing a precipitous withdrawal of all its forces from the city. The hasty withdrawal exposes al-Shabaab’s weaknesses in the face of real pressure from both within and outside of the country. It also creates an opening for the African Union and Somali government forces to expand their reach and authority to other parts of the country for the first time in decades.
Sadly, the will to act forcefully is what was, and is still missing on the part of the international community, especially the African Union. Nigeria and other African countries who pledged to provide troops have so far failed to follow up with their promises, and the organization was criticized for not mobilizing support for the famine victims. The black hawk down debacle still haunts the United States, and prevents it from fully engaging in the Somali conflict. While money is being spent on security contractors, and for the training of Burundian and Ugandan forces that make up the bulk of the African Union forces, more needs to be done in terms of long-term tactical support. These forces are still inadequate and ill-equipped to mount any type of serious operations outside Mogadishu. If al-Shabaab is allowed to recover and regroup, it might be able to seize the capital again.
Now that al-Shabaab seems to be vulnerable, all those who really care about the suffering in this country should step up support for the Somali government and the African Union forces. The international community, through the African Union should provide more funding and logistics, and encourage other African countries to increase the number of AU forces in the capital to allow for not only its defense, but also for a potential expansion into the countryside. This will free up large areas of the country so that humanitarian assistance can freely flow to the country. While important, it is not enough to just send food and medicine to Somalia and to the refugee camps of Kenya. Only through expanding the government’s authority to most of the country will suffering on this scale be avoided in the future. A final resolution should be sought, and now that al-Shabaab is on the run is the perfect opportunity.
Mohamed Jallow is a former Colin Powell fellow (Class of 2008/2009). He is currently a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.