African Union troops in Somalia are slowly tightening the noose around the nerve-centre of rebel operations in the capital, but seizing control of Mogadishu will not bring peace to the Horn of Africa nation.
A two-week offensive has seen the peacekeepers advance close to the southern and western edges of Bakara market, the capital’s economic hub that has served as a human shield for the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist insurgents.
Controlling Bakara is a crucial step towards expelling al Shabaab militants from Mogadishu, depriving them of a key source of funding and a base from which they can strike key government positions with mortars, Reuters reports.
The 9,000-strong peacekeeping force, known as AMISOM, has designated Bakara a “no fire zone”, which means it will avoid using heavy weapons in the dense, heavily populated area.
It is reluctant to fight its way through the market’s labyrinth of alleyways, instead hoping to pressure the militants — who are reportedly digging trenches to bolster their defences — to surrender the bazaar.
“My appeal to the extremist forces is that they come to their senses,” AMISOM’s force commander General Nathan Mugisha told reporters in neighbouring Kenya. “Fighting is not going to be very fruitful for them.”
However, engaging the rebels in Bakara’s warren of pathways also carries risks for AMISOM, which is acutely aware of the likelihood of casualties among civilians and its own troops.
“HARD AND MESSY” FIGHT
Most Horn of Africa experts predict the government and peacekeepers will have little choice but to draw on their superior fire power.
“It will be hard and messy to take control of Bakara market,” said David Shinn, adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University and a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia.
“(This) would, inevitably, render the peacekeepers and the regime they prop up even less popular than they already are, strengthening al Shabaab in the process,” said J. Peter Pham with U.S. think-tank the Atlantic Council.
Failure, though, to flush the rebels out would be tantamount to conceding control of the market, Pham said, at a time the government is desperate to show donors bankrolling the country that it can quash the insurgency.
Seizing Bakara market would deal a major psychological blow to al Shabaab, but it would not be a mortal blow to the four-year insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
The militants hold sway over much of central and southern Somalia and can lean on other sources of revenue, including taxes from ports under their control and a cut of some ransoms paid to pirate gangs.
“After a short period of euphoria, all that really changes is the area that AMISOM forces must secure has just grown that much larger and the number of peacekeepers required just jumped as well,” said Pham.
The AMISOM forces are all that prevent al Shabaab from toppling an administration plagued by infighting and corruption. Central power has effectively only stretched as far as the territory held by AMISOM since 2007.
Winning Mogadishu might expand the government’s capital prison a little, but it is unlikely to bring any tangible peace to the rest of the nation.
“Has enough emphasis been put on a political strategy of holding that territory and putting in a civilian administration which is acceptable, legitimate and can provide minimal services that help win hearts and minds?” said Rashid Abdi, Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group.
For now, the answer appears to be no.
The United Nations’ patience is running out with Somalia’s bickering leaders who are locked in acrimonious feud about what should happen when the government’s mandate runs out in August.
Some donor aid, the Somali government’s life support machine, could be pulled if the president and speaker of parliament, who covets the top job, fail to overcome their differences, Security Council members have said.
AMISOM also says the political row is undermining military gains in the capital. The aim is to capture the capital and install a government that can at least make progress and demonstrate to the rest of the country that peace is viable.
Analysts, however, are sceptical that military gains alone will end more than two decades of conflict in Somalia.
“The Somalis themselves need to turn on al Shabaab to end the crisis and put Somalia in a position to create a broad-based government,” said Shinn.