16 August 2011

Uganda: Al-Shabaab Propaganda Can't Change the Truth On the Ground


MOGADISHU, Somalia. An eerie silence has fallen on Bakaara Market. The shop doors are all bolted shut. The streets are empty except for a few stray dogs running around, scrounging for food.

Every once in a while, the silence is broken by a man driving a donkey that is hauling a cart full of the green qhaat or miira that men chew as stimulant.

The stillness in the air makes the clip clap sound of donkey hooves hitting the pavement much louder.

This is a ghost town. Yet a week ago, this busiest beehive of commerce in the whole of Somalia, which, like New York, never sleeps, was under the control of Al Shabaab militants. Millions of dollars worth of goods including the latest electronics, fridge, washing machine, radio, HDTV, quality garment and so forth were being sold here.

It is as if the thousands that daily thronged the bustling streets of Bakaara simply vanished into thin air during one night, leaving behind everything intact.

The dreamlike scene is almost unbelievable.

The silence of Bakaara is the surest sign yet that Al Shabaab has been defeated and driven out of Mogadishu centre by the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) made up of contingents from Uganda and Burundi.

Uganda has contributed the largest number of troops to date for the mission, numbering 4,700. Largely because of their persistent and focused effort, the once powerful and potent Al Shabaab militant group is now confined to a small section on the periphery of the city, near the Pasta Factory.

From there, their snipers constantly look through the sniper scopes, hoping to score a hit at AMISOM troops. No effort, however, is spared by the peacemakers to ensure that they do not succeed.

Meanwhile, the Al Shabaab propaganda has gone into high gear, telling the world that the militants' sudden withdrawal from Mogadishu was a strategic and tactical manoeuvre. The reality on the ground, however, tells a different story. The simple fact is that Al Shabaab could not match the deliberate but steady advance of the AMISOM forces.

Where in the past those who faced this wily enemy tended to make lightning strikes and raids before retreating to some small corner of town as the Americans did in 1993 which ended in disaster, AMISOM troops have devised a different and more effective low-tech strategy for foiling the militants. For every small piece of contested ground that AMISOM wrestles from Al Shabaab, it immediately begins the painstakingly difficult task of building defensive positions using hundreds of thousands of green sandbags.

These bags are everywhere-on rooftops, on street corners, behind alleyways, inside thickets of thorns, even in trenches once used by Al Shabaab.

These are further reinforced by larger bags that hold nearly a ton of sand each that are placed strategically to give the peacemakers protection and command over the landscape.

Indeed, through this push and secure strategy, the Al Shabaab has never been able to mount a successful counter-offensive and retaken positions occupied by AMISOM troops.

In fact, since its deployment four years ago, AMISOM has systematically dismantled Al Shabaab's stranglehold in Mogadishu, starting with the Aden Abdulle Airport, expanding to the presidential palace and seaport. Steadily, districts have been taken and consolidated. Waberi. Hamarjajab.

Hawalwadag. Hamaweyne. Hodan. Walwadag. Wardigley. And so it has continued at a steady pace. According to Uganda's contingent commander Col. Paul Lokech, rather than push hard into the heavily populated Bakaara Market area, AMISOM troops simply encircled it, leaving a corridor for the defeated militants to leave town.

"We knew the Al Shabaab would do anything to try to provoke us to hit this heavily populated area so that they could scream about civilian casualties and so forth, but we would not fall into that trap," he explained.

As it turned out, Al Shabaab may have also realized the folly of starting a fight in the Bakaara area. They had, after all, heavily invested in the district, constructing buildings, starting big businesses.

Feeling defeated, the militants shut the doors to their businesses, and quietly left town, many likely planning to return as civilians to reopen their shops once the situation has stabilised.

"That's just fine with us so long as they come as peaceful citizens ready to begin rebuilding this shattered nation", says the newly installed overall AMISOM Force Commander Maj, Gen. Fred Mugisha.

He is, however, mindful that he needs 3,000 more boots on the ground to consolidate, build defences, and fortify the captured areas. "Getting Al Shabaab out altogether is not our problem at all, it is always making sure that we can hold our ground properly so that there is absolutely zero percent of the militants returning to reoccupy positions we have taken earlier", he explains.

The Burundi contingent meanwhile is equally busy digging in at the former Ministry of Defence headquarters and the once beautiful African Village which hosted the African Union delegates in the mid 1970s. The Al Shabaab militants are licking their wounds for now- defeated and defanged.

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