By Nick Smith
As African Union Forces launch Operation Juba Corridor against al-Shabab, questions remain as to the effectiveness of their efforts. The largely Ethiopian and Kenyan makeup of the force could backfire, allowing al-Shabab to claim they are the Muslim defenders of Somalia against neighboring Christian invaders.
In direct response to an expectedly successful attack last month by al-Shabab militants against an African Union military base in the Somali town of Lego, which left over 50 Burundian soldiers dead, the African Union mission in Somalia has launched a major offensive codenamed Operation Juba Corridor. The Somali National Army, bolstered by strong elements of the Kenyan and Ethiopian armies, was able to retake several towns and villages previously held by al-Shabab in southern Somalia. A reported 72 al-Shabab militants were also killed during the operation, and it has been heralded as a major success for Somalia and the African Union.
Despite the territory regained from al-Shabab during this operation, it seems clear that al-Shabab has neither the need nor the desire to retain ground when faced by conventional forces. Indeed, the successful attack in Lego clearly demonstrated that, even after losing most of its territory in southern Somalia in recent years, the organization still retains the capability to launch well-planned and costly attacks against its enemies. Also troubling is the very active participation of Kenya and Ethiopia in this latest offensive. When the original African Union mandate sent AU troops into Somalia in support of the newly established government in 2007, it specifically precluded the military participation of neighboring states. This was for good reason. Both Kenya and Ethiopia have a long history and a very complex relationship with the Somali people, and their true motivations in Somalia are likely very far from simple assistance to a neighboring state. Other countries from elsewhere in Africa, notably Uganda and Burundi, have played a major part in AU operations in the past. Their lack of prominence in this offensive is telling. More worrying still, reports of civilian casualties caused by Ethiopian and Kenyan have been used as a propaganda tool by al-Shabab, which recently launched an attack against a Mogadishu, Somalia, hotel in supposed retaliation for these civilian deaths.
Since the creation of the AU military mission in Somalia, the major focus has been on supporting the foreign troops fighting al-Shabab, at the expense of the Somali National Army (whose training has paled in comparison). However, these non-regional African countries will not be willing or able to maintain forces in Somalia indefinitely, especially when significant casualties are inflicted and domestic crises develop. This is currently the situation with the Burundian force, as violence erupts in the Burundian capital following a disputed election and the country reacts to the massive casualties in Lego. As these countries’ participation diminishes, the lack of an effective Somali military will leave a vacuum that will soon be filled by regional actors, most notably Ethiopia and Kenya. If al-Shabab’s members are able to successfully portray themselves as the defenders of Muslim Somalia against an invasion of its largely disliked Christian neighbors, the new Somali government may face far greater problems in the near future.
Nick is the Editor of Parabellum Africa.