More than seven months into its invasion of southern Somalia, Kenya has seized the city of Afmadow. The fall of Afmadow marks the second major blow for al-Shabaab this week, having lost the Afgoye corridor located west of Mogadishu to troops from the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). Having controlled much of south-central Somalia since 2008, al-Shabaab has continued to execute “tactical retreats” from major urban areas, leading some Somalia-watchers to assert that the group is in its dying days. In addition to the KDF assault from the south and AMISOM’s advances to the south and west of Mogadishu, al-Shabaab is also being squeezed from the west by Ethiopia/AMISOM in Beledweyne and Baidoa. (For a good counterargument that the war in Somalia is changing but not over, see Focus on the Horn’s interview with Roland Marchal earlier this week.)
The fall of Afmadow to the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) has been a long time coming – seven months to be precise. (For a timeline of Kenya’s invasion see AEI’s Timeline: Operation Linda Nchi). After all, the city is only about 90 miles from the Kenyan border. However, due to the inopportune timing of Kenya’s invasion at the start of Somalia’s short rainy season, and the unanticipated costs and logistical challenges that accompanied the invasion, the KDF has been bogged down outside Afmadow since October 2011. Now that the KDF controls Afmadow, it will be more difficult for al-Shabaab to block its advance towards the port city of Kismayo, which lies approximately 80 miles south.
According to a statement made by Kenya’s Minister of Defence Mohamed Yusuf Haji in mid-January, Kenya was unwilling to take Kismayo without international financial and logistical support. Thus, it is plausible that there is a correlation between the KDF’s progress in Afmadow en route to Kismayo and the fact that Kenya and the African Union will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that will officially make the KDF part of AMISOM in the coming days. Negotiations on this matter had been taking place since December, but had been delayed – possibly due to disagreements over command-and-control and financial arrangements. In addition to Haji’s reluctance to have the KDF advance on Kismayo on its own, these drawn out negotiations may have also contributed to the KDF’s relative lack of progress since the fall. Once KDF troops are “re-hatted” as AMISOM troops, this will not only alleviate the financial burden of the war for Kenya, but also enable KDF troops to continue the momentum of AMISOM’s progress since the end of last summer, and possibly create the space necessary for the effective implementation of the road map to end the transitional period. General Julius Karangi (Chief of General Staff, KDF) now anticipates that Kismayo will be taken before the mandate of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) expires in August. (One of the conditions of last summer’s Kampala Accord was that the TFG’s mandate would be extended to August 20, 2012.)
However, even if military operations against al-Shabaab are going relatively well, they could still unravel as armed groups compete for control of lucrative territories cleared of al-Shabaab. Take Kismayo as a prime example. Kismayo is currently al-Shabaab’s largest source of revenue, and Kenya seeks to disrupt al-Shabaab’s finances by expelling it from the city. According to the Report of the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, al-Shabaab generates between $35 million and $50 million per year from port revenues from Kismayo, and to a lesser extent, Marka and Baraawe in Lower Shabelle. For more in-depth knowledge of the clan dynamics in southern Somalia, I would strongly advise reading pretty much anything Ken Menkhaus has ever written. But for the purpose of this post, do pay special attention to the part of his paper for the ENOUGH project which discusses how Kismayo has been a chronically contested city since 1991. Highlighting the potential pitfalls of Kenya’s engagement with various clans in the region who will seek to control Kismayo, he states:
Kismayo is the prize that matters most in the region. If a durable deal can be struck on Kismayo, the rest of the region will be relatively easy to solve. The political challenge for Kenya and any other governments seeking to shape a positive outcome in Kismayo is that regional clans have all advanced very inflated claims about their rights to the port city. These disparate claims have been part of the reason the city has remained so contested for 20 years. There are two approaches to a new political dispensation in Kismayo that are likely to fail, and yet they are the two most likely to attract external support. The first is the “victor’s peace” approach: external acquiescence or support to clan domination of the city, most likely by the Ogaden represented by the Ras Kamboni militia, or a narrow coalition of Ogaden and Marehan clans. If the Ras Kamboni leadership has its way, its militia will help capture the city and will look to build alliances with selected clans, but with these two dominant clans maintaining a controlling interest in the seaport and its revenues. As argued above, this will produce armed resistance from other clans and will play into Shabaab’s hands. Kenya will be accused of supporting a narrow clan agenda linked to powerful Ogaden interests within the Kenyan government, which risks domestic problems in Kenya’s large Somali population as well.
So to sum up this post, progress is being made against al-Shabaab on the military front – not only from the south (KDF), but also from the north (AMISOM) and the west (Ethiopia/AMISOM). Kenya will legally become part of AMISOM in the next few days, which implies that they should be eligible for funding for pre-deployment training, payment of troop allowances, logistic support, and the reimbursement for contingent-owned equipment (COE). One major potential pitfall is sub-state governance, that is, who will control Kismayo, and whether fights over this territory will detract from the gains made on the military front.