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Somalia: Why is Al-Shabaab Still A Potent Threat?
Somalia: Why is Al-Shabaab Still A Potent Threat?
Afghanistan’s Taliban Expand Their Interim Government
Afghanistan’s Taliban Expand Their Interim Government
Young fighters from Al-Shabab come together to count their bullets at a frontline section in Sinaya Neighborhood in Mogadishu, on 13 July 2009. AFP/Mohamed Dahir
Commentary / Africa

Somalia: Why is Al-Shabaab Still A Potent Threat?

This year, the armed Islamist extremist group Al-Shabaab has notched up a series of bloody successes against both Somali targets and the African Union peace-enforcement mission AMISOM. Meanwhile, the international community has been busy cajoling principals of the Somali federal and state governments into agreeing on the means by which to hold new elections due in August. Despite four years of “post-transitional” government and a level of international engagement and foreign military presence not seen since the early 1990s, Somali politics remain dysfunctional and prone to violent disagreement – exactly the conditions in which Al-Shabaab thrives.

Al-Shabaab’s recent string of high-profile attacks began on 15 January, when it overran an AMISOM forward operating base manned by a company-sized Kenyan contingent in El-Adde, in the Gedo region, inflicting heavy casualties (estimates upwards of 50 dead with additional hostages taken); the Kenyan military has not provided details. On 21 January, Al-Shabaab hit Mogadishu’s popular Lido beach area, a symbol of the city’s return to normalcy, killing at least twenty civilians. On 2 February, a bomb blew a hole in the side of a Somali-owned Daallo Airlines plane minutes after take-off. The attack killed only the suspected suicide bomber and the plane was able to land safely, however this was the first time Al-Shabaab – who have not yet claimed the attack – has attempted to bring down an aircraft with an on-board device. Lastly, from 5-8 February, the group temporarily re-occupied the centre of Marka, in the Lower Shabelle region, which it lost to AMISOM and Somali National Army forces in August 2012, after Somali troops withdrew due to lack of pay.

Somalis’s southern interim federal states and regions. CRISIS GROUP

In late January, following the Kenyan contingent’s losses at El-Adde, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta spoke at the African Union’s Peace and Security Council to call for a review of AMISOM’s mandate and put forward a five-point plan for its expansion. AMISOM troop-contributing countries met in Nairobi on 8 February, and another summit is planned for late February in Djibouti to agree a new approach.

AMISOM’s vulnerabilities ultimately stem from the lack of a political settlement in Somalia.

Whatever the failings and remedies to be identified, the mission’s vulnerabilities ultimately stem from the lack of a political settlement in Somalia. AMISOM is again being forced to up the military ante, in response to Al-Shabaab’s tactical switch to guerrilla-style attacks. Its rural insurgency has exposed AMISOM’s territorial overstretch after a previous expanded mandate allowed the large-scale Operation Eagle and Operation Indian Ocean, which both began in 2014. These offensives resulted in the “liberation” of much of south central Somalia, which in certain areas has looked more like “occupation” by outsiders. In addition to the longstanding problem of Somalia’s neighbours as troop contributing countries, the interim federal administrations and the Somali National Army that followed in AMISOM’s wake are still largely clan-based, and locally identified as such. The two recent AMISOM reversals took place in Gedo and Lower Shabelle, both of which were subsumed into the new Interim Juba Administration and Interim South West State of Somalia, respectively, and are still disputed by or between local populations.

A combination of factors accounts for the success of Al-Shabaab’s El-Adde attack: blunders and conspiracy can be applied in equal measure. But most importantly, Al-Shabaab has not been defeated politically and socially in the south-western region of Gedo. To simplify a many-layered context, local communities, belonging predominantly to the Marehan-Darod clan, are caught between an Interim Juba Administration which they did not fight for and which is led by a rival clan based in distant Kismayo; Kenyan and Ethiopian AMISOM contingents who have different priorities and local clients; and a federal government that can’t project beyond its mostly Hawiye-clan heartlands. The El-Adde communities have little reason to intercept Al-Shabaab sympathisers and fighters, let alone confront them militarily.

The situation in Lower Shabelle that allowed Al-Shabaab to take control of the centre of Marka has its own specific dynamics, but again local communities are caught between various conflicting forces. The Interim South West State of Somalia was disputed from the start in Marka and environs, and did not resolve the competition between the most powerful clans, namely Habr Gedir-Hawiye and Bimal-Dir, who at different times have found it politically advantageous to fight for and with Al-Shabaab, the Somali National Army and AMISOM.

The competition of interests provides space for Al-Shabaab…

These competing interests leave the ground clear for Al-Shabaab’s overarching narrative of one Islamic system that claims to put the Somali faithful first. The group often styles itself as a mediator in local conflicts, where international, regional and Somali forces are frequently seen as partisan. The competition also provides space for Al-Shabaab to deal with its own internal rivalries and appear resilient. In the past couple of years, the group suffered and survived not only territorial losses but also a bitter internal leadership battle in July 2013, a U.S. drone strike killing its long-term emir Ahmed Abdi Godane in September 2014, and most recently a challenge from factions who wanted to transfer official allegiance from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State.

As Crisis Group recommended in its June 2014 briefing, Al-Shabaab: It Will Be a Long War, more military pressure can only sustain progress within durable political settlements. To achieve this, more systematic efforts and support should be given to parallel national and local reconciliation processes at all levels of Somali society. The paramount focus should be on addressing local Somali political grievances, not on regional or international priorities. Tapping into the grievances of local communities is what enables Al-Shabaab to remain and rebuild in Somalia.

Contributors

Former Project Director, Horn of Africa
Former Research Assistant, Horn of Africa
A vendor (2R) selling Taliban flags waits for customers next to a large Taliban flag in Kabul on 24 September 2021. Hoshang Hashimi / AFP
Q&A / Asia

Afghanistan’s Taliban Expand Their Interim Government

The Taliban have made additional appointments to their cabinet. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Ibraheem Bahiss discusses what the moves may mean for Afghan politics and international reactions to the new government.

What do the new appointments signify?

On 22 September, the Taliban published several new appointments, including at ministerial levels. The announcement came a day after the Chinese, Russian and Pakistani envoys met with the head of the Taliban government, Mullah Hassan Akhund, calling for more inclusive governance. The list of new appointees very slightly broadens the new government’s makeup, as the interim administration is no longer composed entirely of Taliban stalwarts. Most of the new appointees either have no prior affiliation with the group or are not prominent members of it. Key appointees such as the ministers for trade and public health, and their deputies, do not appear to have past affiliations with the Taliban. Others with no formal connection with the movement include Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, head of the National Olympic Committee, and Najeebullah, head of atomic energy. Still, many of these outsiders are considered sympathetic to the Taliban.

Has the interim government now become inclusive?

The [interim] government is still dominated by the Taliban's clergy.

Yes, slightly. With these additions, the new government now counts four Tajiks, two Uzbeks, one Turkmen, one Hazara, one Nuristani (an ethnic group native to Nuristan province) and one Khwaja (claiming Arabic lineage, Khwajas generally speak Dari as their native tongue). With a total of 53 members, this expanded cabinet is a small gesture toward including ethnic minorities, though it is still dominated by Pashtuns. Several of the new names appear to have been selected, in part, because of their ethnic backgrounds or professional experience. Noorudin Azizi, the new trade minister, is from Panjshir province, where the Taliban have been fighting the remnants of the Northern Resistance Front (NRF). Azizi and his two deputies are businessmen from the north, with no known affiliation with the Taliban. The new health minister, Qalandar Ebad, and his two deputies, all three of whom are medical doctors, also do not appear to be Taliban members. While the government is still dominated by the Taliban’s clergy, there are now a number of technocrats in less prominent ministries. The current list has at least three appointees with degrees in engineering, four with medical training and one with a doctorate. By contrast, there are at least fourteen maulawis or qualified clerics in the interim government. Some appointments, such as the new chancellor of Kabul University, have generated widespread debates, even among Taliban figures, on whether the leadership made the appointments sufficiently based on merit.

Do the appointments include women or former establishment figures?

Despite continued international pressure, the Taliban have so far failed to appoint any women in their cabinet. Their failure to do so exacerbates concerns about significant deterioration in women’s rights under the new regime, especially after the new government announced that secondary school would resume for male students only, while claiming that female students will be able to return in the near future. No public explanation has been provided for why girls have been prevented from resuming their education. In addition, the majority of women in the public sector have not yet been allowed to return to work.

Similarly, the Taliban have resisted calls from regional and Western governments to include figures from the previous Western-backed political establishment. Taliban interlocutors claim to Crisis Group that despite an internal push by some members to include figures associated with the former system in the new government, most of the top Taliban leadership has so far opposed such a move due to the perception that former politicians were corrupt and discredited. Perhaps more importantly, there were also concerns among the Taliban that if they moved to bring in either women or former politicians, they could risk backlash from the rank and file, who might view the leadership as betraying their ideals. The resurgence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province, which has sought to portray the Taliban as compromising their Islamist credentials, is likely to further diminish prospects for inclusion.

Do the appointments signal any significant shift in Taliban policy?

Although the inclusion of more officials from minority groups is something Western and regional governments have been pushing for, these nominations do not indicate that the Taliban are yet willing to make any significant concessions for the sake of international recognition, sanctions relief or the resumption of aid flows from Western governments. Many of the new appointments seem designed largely to strike an internal balance by accommodating various Taliban factions that felt neglected following the first round of nominations. For example, Sadr Ibrahim and Qayyum Zakir, two prominent commanders from Helmand province, have been appointed as deputy ministers for interior and defence, respectively. Gul Mohammad, another important figure within the faction associated with former Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, has been appointed as deputy minister of borders and tribal affairs. Maulawi Abdul Rahman Rashid, an ethnic Uzbek from current Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar’s faction, is now the minister of agriculture. These appointments are likely to reduce tensions that appear to have resulted from the first round of nominations. They reaffirm the notion that as the Taliban continue to expand their cabinet and administration, they will likely prioritise the movement’s internal cohesion over external considerations.

The Taliban’s decision not to offer any ministerial positions to women ... deals yet another blow to hopes that the movement will be susceptible to external leverage.

The Taliban’s decision not to offer any ministerial positions to women or former establishment politicians deals yet another blow to hopes that the movement will be susceptible to external leverage. The group’s latest appointments appear to have been designed to make the government ever so slightly more inclusive, perhaps indicating a certain degree of pragmatism. But the Taliban’s rhetoric on sanctions is becoming increasingly uncompromising. The paucity of Taliban concessions is bad news for foreign powers concerned about finding counterparts in the new government for the work ahead on mitigating the humanitarian catastrophe already under way, Afghanistan’s impending economic collapse and the prospect of large-scale forced migration. Without any clear signs that the Taliban are willing to work toward a more inclusive governance model, donors remain understandably wary of empowering a regime at the early stages of what remains an uncertain transition from militancy to government.