x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Military gains in Somalia are only the groundwork

A major battlefield victory over Al Shabaab will soon be meaningless if the government cannot consolidate power from Mogadishu.

The Islamists of Al Shabaab may have left their southern stronghold of Kismayo, but "the youth" still cast a long shadow across Somalia and the region.

On Friday, an African Union seaborne assault pushed Al Shabaab - which held most of the capital Mogadishu last year - out of its last major stronghold. The port city of Kismayo has been a primary lifeline of revenues and weapons for the militant group.

This is welcome news. Al Shabaab has been a deeply destabilising force for the entire Horn of Africa and, until relatively recently, seemed clearly on the ascendant. But for more than a year, the African Union force in Somalia (Amisom) has made steady military gains on the ground, while the newly formed Somali government is - painfully slowly - getting organised in Mogadishu.

The military campaign only tells part of the story. The loss of Kismayo revenues is a serious blow - if AU forces can keep Al Shabaab out of the city. Regardless, the extremist militia will continue to trouble the country, and the region, for years if not decades. Proof of that came yesterday after a grenade attack, blamed on Al Shabaab supporters, at a Sunday school in Nairobi killed two children and injured several others.

The best-case scenario is that battlefield victories have transformed a war for territory into a counterinsurgency campaign. There are plenty of examples of other Al Qaeda-related groups, in Afghanistan or in Yemen, that demonstrate how difficult it can be to eradicate loosely organised militia forces that have support within communities.

It is an open question how much support Al Shabaab still enjoys. Certainly past military campaigns by Somalia's neighbours, in particular the 2006 invasion by Ethiopian forces, have generated considerable anti-foreigner sentiment. Amisom forces have cleared a vital window of opportunity, but they must eventually leave.

The weak government is woefully unprepared for that day, controlling only a small area in Somalia's centre. Building the national army is crucial, but so too is consolidating governance. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who took office last month, still has not named a prime minister, which reflects the tribal bickering that still sets the tone in Mogadishu.

The only solutions to Somalia's decades-old crisis are political and developmental. Somalia's friends, even as far afield as the Arabian Peninsula, have a crucial interest in the country's stability, but Mogadishu finally has its opportunity to lead. The country needs a stronger government, swiftly, or the gains at Kismayo could too easily be rolled back.