Agencies mull alternative means to defeat Shabaab

A Kenya Defence Forces soldier takes position at a vantage point during patrol in Afmadow town, Somalia, on November 22, 2015. Disputes about payments for Amisom soldiers serve as a morale boost for the Islamist fighters. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • At the same time, Mr Hashi noted, parts of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) also lack grassroots political support.
  • Dr Pham said Amisom may in fact reduce its presence in Somalia next year, but significant segments of its fighting force will remain in place.


With a decade of military force having failed to defeat Al-Shabaab, officials and analysts are being asked to consider whether the Somali government and its international backers should seek a political settlement to the conflict.

Humanitarian considerations do require efforts to reach at least a limited accommodation with the Islamist insurgents, the top United Nations official in Somalia said recently.

Al-Shabaab controls some parts of the country hardest-hit by a worsening drought that is posing a growing risk of famine, noted Michael Keating, the UN secretary-general's special envoy for Somalia.

Gaining access to those areas for relief operations "is highlighting the need to engage with al-Shabaab," Ambassador Keating said last month at a think-tank session in New York.

But exploratory attempts to hold talks with Shabaab did not prove successful in the past, the UN official added.

And the time for direct political negotiations is not yet at hand, Ambassador Keating added.

The Al-Qaeda-aligned group has made clear that it is not interested in bargaining with its enemies, Abdirashid Hashi, director of the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, said in an emailed reply to a series of questions posed by the Sunday Nation.

Shabaab's "core, specific demands" include imposition of Sharia law in Somalia and withdrawal of all foreign troops, Mr Hashi pointed out.

But the Constitution adopted in 2012 stipulates that any law contrary to the tenets of Islam is null and void, he said, suggesting there may be some “common ground” between the insurgents and the government.


If the two sides were to agree to discuss national reconciliation, “I do not think the international community would object to this,” Mr Hashi added.

But the US and European Union, which jointly bankroll the fight against Shabaab, find Shabaab's disregard for human rights standards “unacceptable”, said Stig Jarle Hansen, a Harvard University research fellow and author of the book, Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

A more feasible political approach would involve distinguishing between “hard-line jihadis” loyal to Al-Qaeda and “clan-based militant groups” that have aligned with Shabaab due mainly to Somalia's social dynamics, suggested Dr J Peter Pham, head of the Africa programme at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

“There's no negotiating” with the most militant ideologues, but elements identified as “Shabaab-by-convenience” may prove amenable to holding talks, Dr Pham said.

“The key thing is figuring out how to peel away those groups,” he added.

Even if that were to occur, “the need for a credible interlocutor” would have to be resolved, Dr Pham continued.

Somalia's federal government, fresh from “the fiasco of an election”, may not qualify as a dependable negotiating partner, he said.

Mr Hashi also cited the obstacle of “an inept national government with corrupt/mediocre leadership”.

Over the years, the Somali think-tank director added, “there has not been serious reflection and discussion among the Somali elite and perhaps among Al-Shabaab leadership as to ‘where to go from here’”.

Despite its recent round of bloody strikes on African Union and Somali national forces, Shabaab is not operating primarily from a position of strength, the analysts noted.

The militants lack a genuine base of support even in rural parts of the country that they control militarily, Mr Hashi and Mr Hansen both said.

Local residents of those areas “have to try to stand on friendly terms with them in order to survive, including supplying recruits and funds and sometimes even marriage", Mr Hansen said.

And Mr Hashi expressed the belief that most Somalis do not share Shabaab's worldview.


At the same time, Mr Hashi noted, parts of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) also lack grassroots political support.

“Most Somalis do not believe Kenya and Ethiopia are in Somalia for Somalia’s interest,” he said.

“They are in Somalia for their own interests and sometimes these interests align and other times they do not.”

In addition, many of Shabaab's leaders and fighters have 10 years of experience in battling much larger forces, Mr Hashi noted.

The likely scenario, he suggested, is continuation of the military status quo, “and that would not signal defeat of Al-Shabaab”.

“All these factors give Al-Shabaab energy and enable them to appear bigger then they actually are,” Mr Hashi commented.

Similarly, disputes about payments for Amisom soldiers, leading to threats of at least a partial pullout of troops, serve as a morale boost for the Islamist fighters, Mr Hansen said.

“What is certain is that the haggling is observed by the Shabaab, and it encourages them, as the pullout of Ethiopia in 2008 paved the way for Shabaab's 'Golden Age' and their largest territorial control ever.”

Amisom may in fact reduce its presence in Somalia next year, but significant segments of its fighting force will remain in place, Dr Pham said.

Burundi and Uganda do not have the same “frontline” outlook as do Kenya and Ethiopia, he noted, raising the possibility that countries further away from Somalia may draw down their troops.


The two bordering countries, by contrast, have “direct national interests” in Somalia, and “you're therefore not going to see a total disengagement”, added Dr Pham, who is reportedly under consideration to head the State Department's Africa Bureau in the Trump administration.

Nicholas Kay, Ambassador Keating's predecessor as top UN official in Somalia, offered a perspective three years ago that remains relevant today.

“Most conflicts end in some kind of political settlement,” Ambassador Kay told reporters at the UN.

He added on that occasion in 2014 that such an outcome was not yet in sight in Somalia.

And despite its arguable inevitability, a political settlement appears to still be a distant prospect.


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.