Is Al Shabab gaining or losing ground in Somalia?

Some say that African Union troops are succeeding at pushing back Somalia's rebel movement, Al Shabab, but news reports make it unclear whether that's really the case.

By , Guest blogger

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    Al-Shabaab fighters display weapons as they conduct military exercises in northern Mogadishu, Somalia in Oct. 2010.
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Last week, The Economist reported that African Union troops were pushing back Somalia’s Al Shabab rebel movement in the capital, Mogadishu. “The Shabab are far from beaten,” the magazine continued, “yet their ability to attack government officials and their buildings has been noticeably reduced.”

This week, Somali Prime Minister Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed has an op-ed in Foreign Policy that continues to advance the idea that the AU troops, in combination with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) are gaining ground against Al Shabab.

Earlier this year, our government controlled about a third of the capital, Mogadishu, to the insurgents’ equal share. In recent months, however, our troops, in partnership with AU peacekeepers, have established control over territory that is home to more than 80 percent of the capital’s population. Our forces have gone from fending off attacks against the presidential compound to actively taking ground from insurgents deep in their former strongholds, sending Islamist rebel-group Al-Shabab and their foreign leaders into retreat and disarray.

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Restoring peace throughout Somalia is unlikely before August next year, but we will achieve it in Mogadishu.

In a further boost to the TFG’s fortunes, the UN Security Council has “called on the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to increase troops from 8,000 to 12,000.” Uganda is set to provide most or even all of these troops; 1,800 are already ready to go. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni stated yesterday that Ugandan forces will remain in Somalia despite threats of more terrorist attacks inside Uganda.

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Finally, the TFG hopes to capitalize on reported schisms within Al Shabab that have worsened since the group suffered heavy losses during its Ramadan offensive.

Is Al Shabab facing defeat in Mogadishu, then? It’s hard to say. News reports from elsewhere in southern Somalia show Al Shabab making territorial and political gains, including cooperation from their (former?) rivals, Hizbul Islam. If Al Shabab consolidates its control of other parts of the region, that won’t necessarily strengthen their position in the capital, but it won’t hurt either.

James Gundun also makes the critical point that the TFG’s success has come just as much in the press as it has on the battlefield. That doesn’t mean, Gundun continues, that the TFG is lying when it says it controls half of Mogadishu – but it’s important to recognize that the current constellation of events pointing to an advantage for the TFG might not stay in alignment forever. The TFG’s success has coincided with Al Shabab’s weakness. Even if things continue to go in the TFG’s favor, Gundun concludes, “the TFG and AU still have a long, hard fight before planting their flag over the entire capital.”

Optimism may be warranted then. Overconfidence is certainly not.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University who blogs at Sahel Blog.

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