Friday, January 20, 2012

VOA Interview on Al-Shabaab

VOA's Encounter program interviewed Peter Pham, Director of the Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, and me on Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia. The program aired on January 21. Dr. Pham covered Boko Haram while I discussed al-Shabaab. You can listen to the program here.

In response to questions from Carol Castiel, who moderates Encounter, I suggested that while al-Shabaab has been weakened, it still remains strong enough to withstand the combined opposition of African Union forces (AMISOM) in Mogadishu, Kenyan forces in the southern most part of Somalia, Ethiopian troops who recently returned to the area around Beletweyne in central Somalia near the Ethiopian border and Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces. Al-Shabaab is its own worst enemy and will eventually fail but has the capacity to hold substantial parts of south and central Somalia for several years. The TFG has not yet become a viable alternative.

The Kenyans have not articulated a coherent plan for countering al-Shabaab. Judging by public statements, their goals change from week to week. In any event, Kenyan forces cannot afford to remain indefinitely in Somalia. I doubt that Ethiopia plans to repeat its mistake of late 2006 by moving deeply into Somalia. It probably will secure the area around Beletweyne, turn it over to friendly Somali forces and then leave. AMISOM can hold Mogadishu but does not have and will not obtain the capacity to move much beyond Mogadishu. If this analysis is correct, the result is a stalemate although I believe al-Shabaab will continue to make serious tactical mistakes and become even weaker over time.

When asked about the role of American drones in the conflict, I noted that the United States operates drones from Arba Minch in Ethiopia, from the Seychelles where drones were established initially to counter Somali piracy and probably from Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa in Djibouti. Nearly all of the drone flights are used to collect intelligence, which is a perfectly legitimate use for them. They should not, however, become the default option for "removing people." While they are more precise than Cruise missiles, they also come with downsides and should only be used judiciously in Somalia.

I suggested there may be some lessons from Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco for those parts of Sub-Saharan Africa that are predominantly Muslim or have large Muslim minorities. While I do not believe organizations like Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are the wave of the future, political Islam (for lack of a better term) has reasserted itself in North Africa in free and fair elections and, if given the chance, would probably obtain a major following in certain other areas of Africa such as Somalia.

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