Through the first half of February, Somalia's central regions were quiet, as the parties to the conflicts in Hiiraan and Galgadud regrouped and mobilized for further confrontations.
The news from Somalia was dominated - to the exclusion of almost anything else - by preparations for and counter-measures against a possible all-out multi-front offensive by the country's internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) in loose alliance with the traditionalist Sufi Islamist movement Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama'a (A.S.W.J.) and regional clan and warlord militias, against the equally loose alliance of the transnationalist revolutionary Islamist Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen (H.S.M.) and the nationalist revolutionary Islamist Hizbul Islam (H.I.) movements, which hold at least eighty percent of southern and central Somalia.
The most important piece of intelligence to emerge during the preparatory period was provided by a United Press International report on February 9 that drew upon information from the political-analysis service Stratfor and independent reporting, and sketched the strategy of the anti-H.S.M. coalition.
According to the U.P.I. report, the anti-H.S.M. coalition was planning to move 3700 troops north from across Kenya's and Ethiopia's borders with Somalia to take the strategic port city of Kismayo; A. S.W.J. would simultaneously move east from its stronghold in Galgadud to roll H.S.M. back in the Middle Shabelle region; and T.F.G. forces, with the backing of African Union peacekeeping troops (AMISOM) would break through their isolation in a pocket of Somalia's capital Mogadishu and take control of the surrounding Banadir and northern Lower Shabelle regions. The aim of the offensive, according to the U.P.I. report, would be to sever the links between H.S.M.'s forces in Mogadishu and its forces in the southern and central regions.
The report noted most tellingly that Ethiopia, with financial support from the United States, was the "architect" of the strategy. It added that Addis Ababa had reportedly made a deal with A.S.W.J. on December 13, 2009 that the latter would be given a green light to form an autonomous administration for the central regions should it participate in the offensive.
If the U.P.I. report is an accurate reading, the strategy of the anti-H.S.M. coalition makes sense as a response to the encirclement strategy of H.S.M. that has been described by this writer in Garoweonline in a series of intelligence briefs and updates over the past two months. H.S.M.'s encirclement strategy seeks to choke off the T.F.G. in its Mogadishu enclave by tightening its grip on Somalia's southern regions and on Middle Shabelle, and displacing A.S.W.J. from Hiiraan and Galgadud, where A.S.W.J. has its stronghold. The anti-H.S.M. coalition's strategy is essentially one of counter-encirclement. Given the current balance of forces, it has, to say the least, a low probability of success unless Ethiopia intervenes with substantial military support. It appears, indeed, that the repeatedly announced and threatened offensive is the result of the anti-H.S.M. coalition's and Ethiopia's calculation that H.S.M.-H.I. had been gaining too much momentum in the conflict to allow their adversaries time to build a credible military force and a political organization with even a modicum of coherence. Should the offensive be initiated, it would be a confession that the anti-H.S.M. coalition had been constrained to jump the gun.
Although the success of all three phases of the counter-encirclement strategy would be essential to its overall success, the role of A.S.W.J. and the fate of the central regions are particularly important, because the latter are currently contested and A.S.W.J. has stubbornly insisted on and retained its organizational and strategic independence from the T.F.G. In order for the Ethiopian design to begin to be viable, A.S.W.J. has to be willing to play its role as a compliant partner, and the T.F.G. has to make concessions to A.S.W.J.
A.S.W.J. - The Wild Card
With a stronghold in Galgadud, despite H.S.M. pressure, and a presence in Hiiraan in collaboration with clan militias and regional T.F.G. politicians and former warlords, A.S.W.J. is the only member of the anti-H.S.M. coalition that can claim to hold or dominate significant territory in southern and central Somalia; its interests cannot be dismissed by Ethiopia or the T.F.G. A.S.W.J. officials repeatedly claim that they do not have "political objectives," yet they have set up an administration for the central regions that is independent of and has not been approved by the T.F.G., and they have insisted that Somalia's political formula be based on their interpretation and implementation of Shari'a law. Reportedly funded and given military support by Ethiopia (although both parties deny that), A.S.W.J. is partly a front for anti-H.S.M. clans, politicians and warlords, yet it also has its own religious interest (to defend Sufi practices and traditions from attacks by the Salafist H.S.M) and power interest (to serve as the religious arbiter in a future Somali state). Once a consultative group of Sufi clerics, A.S.W.J. has, under pressure from H.S.M., become a political actor in its own right.
During the second week of February, it became clear that persistent tensions between the T.F.G. and A.S.W.J. had become a significant obstacle to implementing the counter-encirclement strategy. Since the beginning of February, Ethiopia had been hosting closed talks between the two putative partners in order to reconcile their differences and get them to cooperate with the program - with only deadlock the result.
On February 13, Addis Ababa felt constrained to go public about the talks with a report from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressing the urgency of cooperation between the T.F.G. and A.S.W.J., because H.S.M. would take advantage of any delay. Alluding to splits within A.S.W.J., the report stressed that "resolving internal differences must be of central importance" to the movement. (In January, one of the A.S.W.J. factions had accused the T.F.G. of trying to divide the movement.) In turn, the report warned that the T.F.G. had to accept that "real cooperation with a strong and unified A.S.W.J. is in its interest," and concluded that "meaningful accommodation" between the two actors "should be given complete priority in this critical moment," noting that A.S.W.J. had suffered "setbacks" in Hiiraan in January and February.
Following the release of Addis Ababa's report, Garoweonline and AllPuntland published revealing and consistent supplementary background articles on the talks. Both news organizations reported that the T.F.G. delegation included finance minister and central power figure allied to President Sh. Sharif Sh. Ahmad, Sharif Hasan Sh. Adan; post and telecommunications minister and ally of Prime Minister Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, Abdirizak Usman Hasan; and member of parliament and Sh. Sharif adviser, Mustafa Dhuholow. The A.S.W.J. delegation was headed by Sh. Ma'alin Mahmud Sh. Hasan.
According to Garoweonline, A.S.W.J. persisted in refusing to merge with the T.F.G., but agreed to fight on its side in the planned offensive. AllPuntland reported that Ethiopian mediation had been unable to overcome the mutual suspicions of the two parties, with A.S.W.J. convinced that Sh. Sharif was dedicated to undermining it, and Sh. Sharif afraid that A.S.W.J. would gain the upper hand in central Somalia if the planned offensive was successful. Garoweonline alluded to a "struggle over leadership" in A.S.W.J. and complaints from A.S.W.J. dissidents that the talks were not "inclusive." In the February, 2010 issue of the Somali Research Report, Liban Ahmad reports that the split in A.S.W.J. can be traced to Mogadishu based Sufi sects that are "wary of supporting the Galgadud based Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama'a groups." AllPuntland noted that beyond the direct power struggle, the T.F.G. and A.S.W.J. were competing with one another for external support (presumably from Ethiopia). Neither site expected Addis Ababa to be able to resolve the differences. Indeed, it appears that Addis Ababa's traditional strategy of playing all the sides acceptable to itself in Somalia's conflicts against one another is ineffective when it has an interest in uniting them in a common cause. If the U.P.I. report is correct that Addis Ababa offered A.S.W.J. its blessing for an A.S.W.J. governed autonomous administration in the central regions, then it is intelligible that Sh.Sharif would be more than suspicious of A.S.W.J.; and that the latter would expect the T.F.G. to try to divide it. It is not at all surprising that Addis Ababa's efforts to mediate have not borne fruit.
At present, A.S.W.J. is the stumbling block in the way of implementing the Ethiopian-orchestrated counter-encirclement strategy. Although it strains credibility that the T.F.G. could currently break out of its enclave and take the Banadir region, it has become clear that this is what Sh. Sharif desires - a military "solution." He also appeared to have the African Union's backing, as well as Addis Ababa's; on February 14, Afrique en Ligne reported that the chair of the A.U. Commission, Jean Ping, said that the T.F.G. is "gearing up for a major offensive" and that AMISOM has requested that its mandate be enhanced to allow it to attack H.S.M.
On February 15, however, the A.U.'s Peace and Security Council decided not to broaden AMISOM's mandate to peace enforcement, diminishing the probability of a major action by the T.F.G. in Mogadishu.. The collection of clan-warlord-politician militias on Somalia's southern borders have been mobilizing and threatening, and Ethiopian forces have been reported to have made incursions in the south, but major fighting has not yet begun. The forces in the south do not pose a direct threat to the T.F.G., because, if they took control in their localities, they would be likely to recognize the T.F.G. formally and run their own affairs de facto. In contrast, A.S.W.J. presents a political, military, and ideological challenge to the T.F.G., and has traction on the ground that gives it a bargaining chip.
Although the eyes of Somalia's domestic and external political actors, and journalists and analysts are focused on Mogadishu, it may be more important to pay attention to the central regions. The H.S.M.-H.I. encirclement strategy is still in play, although the two groups are currently funneling forces into Mogadishu; and A.S.W.J. appears to be divided and uncompromising. A.S.W.J. is the wild card in the deck, the potential spoiler of Ethiopia's improbable design.
Dr. Michael A. Weinstein is Professor of Political Science, Purdue University Chicago