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The Advance on Al Shabaab in Somalia (Dispatch)

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Kenyan defense forces took control of the southern Somali town of Afmadow on May 30. The push on Afmadow follows a several-monthlong approach on the al Shabaab jihadist group’s position, and paves the way for a potential approach by Kenyan and allied forces on the jihadist stronghold of Kismayo.

Kenyan forces first began battling for Afmadow shortly after they entered southern Somalia in October 2011. The town itself is at a crossroads between the southern Somali regions of Gedo and the Juba Valley, as well as between southern Somalia and Kenya. Taking the town interdicts some al Shabaab supply lines, though its significance is not to the same degree as Kismayo, a citadel and significant financial hub used by the jihadists.

Seizing Afmadow is part of an overall containment strategy applied against the Somali jihadists. Kenyan forces have concentrated their operations against al Shabaab along the southern Somalia border. The second component of the containment strategy is the African Union peacekeeping force, AMISOM, pushing beyond the capital Mogadishu by seizing control of the crossroads town of Afgoye. The third component of the containment of al Shabaab is the positioning of Ethiopian forces and Ethiopian-supported Somali militias throughout central Somali regions bordering Ethiopia, notably the Bay and Bakool regions and its town of Baidoa.

Kenyan and other pro-Somali government forces, possibly aided by additional AMISOM deployments, will undoubtedly next look to Kismayo as the next stronghold to capture. There is not likely to be a rapid advance on the jihadist coastal position, however, and instead a careful and thorough approach akin to a siege.

Kenyan defense officials first floated the idea of capturing Kismayo when they entered Somalia in 2011, but there has been no material move made as of yet. The coalition of forces supporting the Somali government has more than likely applied lessons learned from the Ethiopian intervention of 2006 to 2009. During the intervention the Ethiopians did displace Somali jihadists from Kismayo and occupied the port city that was a significant rearguard hub used by al Shabaab. The Ethiopian intervention merely displaced Somali jihadists but did not defeat them, however. Sustained guerilla activities by al Shabaab against the Ethiopian’s long supply lines ultimately led to the withdraw of the Ethiopian intervention force and its replacement by AMISOM.

The 2012 approach on Kismayo is likely to be more carefully crafted and conducted. It is likely that Kenyan naval forces operating in southern Somalia waters are positioning themselves in support of a maritime interdiction strategy to try to block the ability of al Shabaab to transport manpower, weapons and money from offshore havens. The seizures of Afmadow and Mogadishu plus Afgoye will be efforts to constrain the movements of al Shabaab to within smaller and smaller territories of southern Somalia. The approach will likely be to disrupt al Shabaab’s rural operations before Kenyan and allied forces move towards Kismayo so as to try to prevent the jihadists from escaping to ungoverned spaces and waging renewed guerilla operations.

Alongside the military advances are efforts to support Somalia political governance gains. The Somali transitional federal government will see its internationally supported mandate end in August, at which point new national elections will have been held to install a new federal parliament and related institutions. The new Somali government will be tasked to deliver governance, such as social services and economic development, so that security gains can translate into popular support and blunt what grassroots complaints jihadists are able to prey upon. Expectations of improved Somali governance will be slow but measured, trying to ensure that military advances do not outpace political gains to the extent the containment strategy becomes an empty shell.

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