In recent weeks the forces of the African Union AMISOM mission and the Transitional Federal Government have pushed out of Mogadishu for the first time and the towns of Baidoa, Beledwyne and Hudur have fallen to Kenyan and Ethiopian forces pushing from the West and South. The capture of the last strongholds around the port town of Kismayo seem likely and the collapse of Al Shabab's conventional military force would follow soon after. However, there is a longer game that must be considered. The tactic of falling back ahead of enemy forces has several clear strategic points behind it.
Firstly, through preserving their forces, Al Shabab are not throwing lives away needlessly against an enemy with superior air, land and intelligence support. Secondly, it shows that they understand both tactical and strategic considerations:
- Strategically they know that these forces will not be in theatre for ever and fighting them now is pointless and damaging. This is especially true with Ethiopia who have already announced a pull-out date. Once these forces have been withdrawn then it is a much simpler and equal contest between Al Shabab and AMISOM/TFG.
- Tactically, Al Shabab are demonstrating a combination of guerrilla and insurgency tactics in combating enemy conventional power. The use of ambushes pick away at the logistical capability and morale of the Ethiopian and Kenyan forces while IEDs and mortars are being used to damage AMISOM control of Mogadishu. These tactics are simple, cost-effective and endanger few if any members of the group.
- It would appear that Al Shabab's objectives have shifted from defending their territory to a much more manageable attempt to remove the threat of the enemy troops by forcing their withdrawal. By using these morale-sapping techniques they want to convince the government and public of Ethiopia, Kenya and the AMISOM countries that further military involvement is too costly and that a pull-out is necessary.
- By not fighting for the towns being taken they also avoid damage and civilian deaths being blamed on them, thus losing public support which they rely on. Instead, by maintaining clandestine operations within the population they boost such support and turn the population against the 'invading' troops. In a battle of 'hearts and minds' Al Shabab may have the upper hand when it comes to public support.