On Oct. 5, Somali and African Union troops began their long-awaited push into Barawe, the last major seaport under the control of the Al Shabab militant group.
The insurgents offered little resistance, as evident in the official video. The A.U.’s AMISOM peacekeeping mission claims that Al Shabab fighters did ambush a government convoy—but that the convoy’s troops repelled the attackers.
The liberation of Barawe is part of a wider AMISOM-Somali offensive, code name Indian Ocean, aimed at dislodging Al Shabab from the Somali coast.
Barawe, 140 miles southwest of Mogadishu, is of strategic importance. It was the center of Al Shabab’s charcoal exports—one of the group’s main sources of income alongside taxes on residents of towns the militants control.
AMISOM described the liberation of Barawe as a “significant victory.” Besides depriving Al Shabab of an outlet for charcoal, the town’s capture is a major psychological win for the A.U. and the Somali government, which have struggled for years to stamp out the militants.
But the A.U. and the Somali regime have claimed major victories before … without actually winning the war. When the A.U.’s Kenyan forces liberated Somalia’s second-largest post Kismayo in 2012, the government hailed it as a decisive blow against Al Shabab.
Two years later, most experts agree that losing Kismayo didn’t hurt Al Shabab all that much, because the group was able to continue levying taxes on the charcoal trade in the Somali hinterland.
Meanwhile, Al Shabab has shifted its strategy. Instead of trying to hold onto large swathes of territory, the militants increasingly employ guerrilla and terror tactics, hitting government troops, peacekeepers and civilians where they least expect it.
For much of the last year, AMISOM has struggled to protect the parts of Somalia it has already liberated. Operation Indian Ocean might help the A.U. regain the initiative. But Al Shabab could survive as long as it maintains its bases and clan alliances in Somalia’s interior.
All the same, losing Barawe is a setback for the militants—and the second one in just the last two months. On Sept. 1, long-time Al Shabab leader Amir Ahmed Godane died when an American warplane struck the vehicle he was traveling in.
Godane had shaped Al Shabab into its current deadly form. His death could prove to be worse for the group than any incremental loss of territory.
But even if AMISOM succeeds in neutralizing Al Shabab as a conventional military force—a process that could take years—the group could continue to pose a threat as an insurgent and terror group.
The militants have already branched out across the region, regularly launching deadly attacks in Uganda and Kenya.
The true test for AMISOM will not be its battlefield victories, but the success of the political process in Somalia. Only a stable and effective government will be able to finally end more than two decades of civil war and strife.
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