Almost a decade since the African Union military intervention in Somalia, the antagonists have fought to a standstill. Or maybe not. All things considered, explains Ben Rawlence, it could well be in East Africa's interest to keep al-Shabaab alive.
Why does al-Shabaab still exist? It is five years since Kenya invaded Somalia, declaring war on al-Shabaab. Five years since the African Union military mission (AMISOM) wrested territorial control of Mogadishu from the militia and a decade since the Ethiopian invasion to destroy the Islamic Courts Union--of which al-Shabaab was a major faction.
A small, mobile force of between two and three thousand permanent members is still capable of pushing AMISOM out of Somalia's Merca port, surprising --and massacring--up to 200 Kenyan soldiers ana striking at will in areas supposedly under the control of the government, in particular in the capital, Mogadishu.
The AMISOM contingent numbers over 22,000 soldiers, including over 3,000 Kenyan troops and many aircraft. Ethiopian units are present all across the border with Somalia and the Somali National Army has been funded, armed and trained by Western advisors for a decade. Unknown numbers of US and British special forces and drones are also frequently active against al-Shabaab, and yet the shadowy militia continues to operate with wide license.
To some extent, ideological militias like al-Shabaab are impossible to defeat, since ideologies cannot be defeated on the battlefield. But the reach and success of al-Shabaab has defied the resources deployed against it. Why can it not be better contained?
Numerous analysts predicting the demise of al-Shabaab have been proved wrong, time and again, while others have warned with equal regularity of the need to prepare for a long war. But such analyses focus on trying to read the runes of the caprice of al-Shabaab. In fact, the long war that is proving so intractable in the Horn of Africa is sustained by all parties through a mess of contradictory and counter-productive policies, many of which end up creating incentive structures that reinforce al-Shabaab's position.
Forces deployed to combat al-Shabaab have entered into a conflict economy that benefits the militia. Peacekeeping strategies have calcified into poorly funded garrison activities that present targets for al-Shabaab while posing little threat. Counter-terrorism policies aimed at restricting al-Shabaab's influence end up inflaming support. In snort, a political economy based on counter-terrorism needs a terror group in order to survive. Understanding the conflict dynamics of the war in the Horn of Africa is important for those that genuinely want to see an end to the fighting, and is essential for anyone interested in appreciating the whole field of regional politics. And lastly, the political economy of terrorism in the Horn...