On Sunday, the Ethiopians withdrew from El Buur in Galgaduud, central Somalia, after holding it for only a little more than two months.
This was the Shabab’s main base in central Somalia, and it was from there that the Shabab would attack places such as the Sufi ASWJ stronghold of Dhusamareb once every couple of weeks, loot the armoury there, and withdraw.
It was in the heels of such a raid on Dhusamareb in which the Shabab reportedly looted a large cache of weapons that the Ethiopians followed the Shabab to their base in El Buur.
At that time, I had warned that the Shabab would wage guerrilla attacks on the Ethiopians and the various proxy forces accompanying them, and simply reoccupy the area after the Ethiopian’s inevitable withdrawal.
That is exactly what happened: allied convoys were regularly ambushed, and their positions raided at night. Somali sites reported last week that up to two dozen ASWJ forces – who are from a non-local clan, by the way – were killed by the Shabab and their allied clan fighters.
The Shabab success in the area and their ability to melt into the countryside was helped mainly by the fact that the Shabab fighters operating in the area represent the local clans, unlike the Ethiopian proxy forces who are from clans living closer to the border and are rivals to the local clans.
This Ethiopian error is being repeated elsewhere – about a thousand kilometres to the south of El Buur, in the Kismayo area – by the Kenyans.
The Kenyans are doing the two mistakes the Ethiopians did in capturing El Buur: using as proxy an Islamist militia that doesn’t give the local population any sense of change, and not including all the relevant clans in the operation.
The Kenyans are using “local” clan militia from the Ogaden- Darod in their push towards Kismayo. If only that were the case: the Ogaden are divided between the Shabab and the pro-Kenyan groups (maybe tilting a little bit towards the latter). Also, Lower Jubba is among the few regions in Somalia with clan representation from almost every Somali major clan in the “4.5”.
Lower Jubba has other Darod clans such as the Marehan and Harti (both pro-Shabab vis-à-vis the Ogadeni Ras Kamboni Brigade); and also Hawiye, Dir, and Rahanweyn clans that are well represented within the Shabab and have given them pledges of allegiance.
Sure, elders can easily – and often do – change their allegiance to support whoever is in charge of the area. But given that the Ras Kamboni Brigade is clan-based and is on bad terms even with TFG members from other clans, it is very unlikely that the non-Ogaden clans would give them their allegiance.
The Ras Kamboni Brigade is almost as extreme as the Shabab, and their initial problem with the Shabab was the latter’s refusal to share power with them. Yes, they now say they regard them as heretics and so on, but this is posturing meant to get them support.
Imagine an Islamist group that is almost decimated by its brothers in arms, mercilessly killed and forced across the border into a non-Islamic country. Such a group would most certainly do whatever it can to survive, even if it means sucking up to the hated non-believers.
This is exactly what many members of the Ras Kamboni Brigade have done; others surrendered to the Shabab or joined them, sometimes grudgingly.
If the Kenyan army and its proxy militia, the Ras Kamboni Brigade, made a push for Kismayo today, the Shabab would put up little face-to-face resistance and concentrate on guerrilla attacks on the allied forces; Kismayo would fall without a major battle.
To get a picture of what may come next, look at eastern Galgaduud in central Somalia: the Shabab will retake all the towns and villages without foreign superior military presence, and harass allied supply convoys. The Kenyans may be forced to rely on the sea for resupplying their forces in Kismayo.
And one day, be it exactly 11 weeks later like the Ethiopians in El Buur or 104 weeks like the Ethiopians in Mogadishu, the Kenyans will withdraw.
When that happens, the Shabab will ride back into Kismayo as they rode back into El Buur yesterday, Mogadishu (in 2009), and Kismayo (in 2008).
Perhaps staying put and not charging into Kismayo now is not a bad idea after all.