The Splintering of Al Shabaab
For the better part of five years, much of Somalia's long-suffering population has been caught in a deadly stalemate between al Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked militant group, and African Union peacekeepers, known as AMISOM. The peacekeepers are tasked with defending the country's weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which, despite years of backing from regional powers and the West, remains politically dysfunctional and incapable doing anything resembling governing. Fielding an army of its own remains a distant aspiration.
That is why quelling the insurgency has fallen entirely on AMISOM. Over the last 18 months or so the 12,000 strong force has honed its tactics and made gains, however stilting, against al Shabaab. Insistent that no American boots hit the ground in Somalia, Washington has backed the mission. (That is, of course, no American boots on the ground with the exception of last week, when a Navy Seal team rescued two aid workers in central Somalia, some 500 kilometers north of Mogadishu.) In return for their troop contributions to AMISOM, the United States has given Burundi and Uganda several hundred million dollars in salary, equipment, training, and logistical support. Perhaps more importantly, Washington now calls both countries allies.
But other powers are involved in the battle now, too. In November, around one thousand Ethiopian troops entered central Somalia in an effort to distract al Shabaab from the floundering Kenyan incursion of around 1,500 troops into the far south. Kenya's decision to invade seems to have been a long time in the making, but it was not coordinated with Washington or AMISOM; more, it proved ill-timed, since it coincided with Somalia's rainy season. For the first two months, Kenya's heavy military equipment was, literally, stuck in the mud just inside Somalia's border. As the Kenyan government helplessly watched its bills pile up, al Shabaab's fighters kept just out of rifle range. Since December, when the rains ended and the Ethiopians stepped in, Kenya has fared somewhat better. But Nairobi has yet to articulate a coherent strategy and, worse, it is belatedly asking for Western assistance to cover the cost of the occupation.