FP Explainer

How Much Turf Does the Somali Government Really Control?

It's a bit more than just "a few square blocks." But it's bad news when insurgents control the majority of the capital.

Imagine if the U.S. government only controlled a few blocks on either side of the White House, or if French troops securing the Élysée Palace were afraid to march down the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It's a good bet your government is in trouble when it doesn't even control the district where the presidential palace is located. Welcome to Somalia. In the capital city of Mogadishu, the government is literally fighting for its life.

We all know the story: Somalia is the world's biggest no-go zone. The country's internationally supported government wouldn't last through the night were it not for a 7,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force that protects them, and civilian toll of the last two decades of conflict been catastrophic -- a quarter of the population has been uprooted by violence. In recent months, the story has gotten even worse thanks to two main Islamist militia groups, al-Shabab and Hizbul al-Islam, which control much of the country. Al Shabab professes allegiance to al Qaeda and should not be taken lightly: The group claimed responsibility for bombing two Ugandan restaurants packed with spectators watching the World Cup this summer.

The two main insurgent groups are intent on taking the capital (and as a second priority, each other). A Ramadan offensive by al-Shabab left 31 members of parliament dead. Then, on Sept. 20, a suicide bomber tried to attack the presidential palace, though he killed only himself. Three days later, street battles in the city's south (it's unclear where, exactly) left two dozen dead as insurgents attempted to gain control of strategic roads. No wonder every article about Somalia these days likes to trumpet the supposed fact that government forces control no more than a few blocks of the capital city.

In fact, the government controls a bit more than a few blocks -- 37.5 percent of Mogadishu, according to the United Nations. That's six city districts, or approximately 8 square miles (for comparison, Washington, D.C., is 61.4 square miles). Insurgents control another 31.25 percent, or five districts, and a final 31.25 percent of Mogadishu is considered "disputed" territory.

The Somali government's own figures of control, as of Sept. 22, offer an even more pessimistic view: they put the disputed districts at just four, one less than the U.N. says. The AMISOM map above, dated Aug. 26, shows seven disputed districts, highlighting just how fast things can go from bad to worse. Abdi Aziz, Shibis, and Daynille, areas indicated on the map as disputed, have now presumably fallen to insurgent control. Either way, there is some nuance here; several of these disputed zones are overrun with al-Shabab and Hizbul al-Islam fighters and merely host isolated enclaves of government-controlled buildings.

The Somali government says that most civilians live on its side of the battle lines (the green areas in the map above), though there is still free movement throughout the city. Regardless, no one is truly safe. The lines that demarcate the area of government "control" are, in fact, drawn between the locations of 11 positions that peacekeeping troops have managed to secure across the city. (These outposts are marked on the map with flags, either Ugandan or Burundian according to the peacekeepers' nationalities. There are three further positions that have been gained since the map was produced.) "Secure" areas are hardly cordoned off or safe; AMISOM troops are simply present there, usually holed up in an abandoned building, fenced off with barbed wire. In recent months, peacekeepers have been criticized for indiscriminate shelling while trying to secure or defend various positions. Al Jazeera reported, for example, that 70 people were injured in the popular Bakara Market (located in disputed territory) when the area was shelled by AMISOM on Sept. 23.

What's more important than how much land it controls, however, is what land the government controls. While the port and airport are in government hands, the presidential palace, Villa Somalia, is located in Wardhigley district -- an area in dispute. (Villa Somalia is indicated by a black triangle with a green dot inside it, near "K-2," on the map.) An entire peacekeeper battle group -- which includes about 100 men and several tanks -- is devoted to protecting the palace, making it unlikely that insurgents would be able to take it in a siege.

But what the government does worry about is the road that connects Villa Somalia to friendly turf. Toward the end of August, insurgents shelled the presidential palace and made a daring attempt to cut off that main artery. "What they wanted was a psychological victory by cutting off AU and Somali government supply routes and drastically curtailing the Somali government's movements," according to a Sept. 3 AMISOM briefing document. After a brief setback in fighting the insurgents, however, the AMISOM troops quickly recovered control of the road.

Where are the Somali government troops in all this? Around, here and there presumably, but the truth is that no one seems to know. Some 9,000 troops have been trained and armed to help fortify the government, but desertion rates are astronomical. Perhaps no more than 1,000 soldiers -- or fewer -- remain. AMISOM peacekeepers, by contrast, number about 7,000.

Despite the ominous recent news, AMISOM says that the story is actually getting better, not worse, for the Somali government. And indeed, the August map above looks less bleak than the July map, which had far less area under government control. Since then, the African Union troops have gained control of a few strategic posts, including a former Coca-Cola factory and the parliament building. "AU forces have broadened their reach in multiple Mogadishu districts by establishing a series of new forward positions, effectively pushing insurgents back," the Sept. 3 AMISOM briefing notes. "Unlike recent claims of success by insurgents, these gains are real and will continue as we fight to restore order in Mogadishu and eventually across the whole of Somalia."

That's the hope, at least -- one that will surely depend on far more firepower for the peacekeepers. Another battalion of troops was promised to AMISOM this summer, but when they'll be deployed is unclear. In the meantime, the current force will have to keep fighting. One block at a time.

Thanks to Somali Minister of Information Abdirahman Omar Osman; AMISOM; and the United Nations Political Office for Somalia.


FP Explainer

Can Soldiers Be Sentenced to Death for Killing Civilians?

Yes, but they probably won't be executed.

View a slide show of Afghan civilians caught in the crossfire.

The Washington Post reported on Sunday that five U.S. service members have been charged with the premeditated murder of three Afghan civilians earlier this year. In addition to the coldblooded murders, the five allegedly kept photos and grisly souvenirs of the bodies and intimidated a fellow soldier who threatened to report them. Preliminary hearings in military court for the accused -- who deny the charges -- will begin in a few weeks. If convicted, could they be sentenced to death?

Yes, but it could take a long time for the sentence to be carried out. The Uniform Code of Military Justice, which applies to all U.S. military service members worldwide, allows for both the death penalty and life imprisonment in cases of murder, no matter the nationality of the victim. The mandated method of execution is lethal injection.

An estimated 465 U.S. soldiers have been executed since the Civil War -- most for desertion or mutiny -- though no death sentences have been carried out since 1961. The practice was found unconstitutional by a military appeals court in 1983, but reinstated one year later by President Ronald Reagan with much stricter sentencing guidelines. Technically, there are 15 offenses for which service members can be executed, but some of these, like desertion and disobeying orders, apply only during wartime.

Six men currently sit on the U.S. military death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kansan, all convicted of premeditated murder. The last person killed by U.S. military execution was Pvt. John Arthur Bennett, who was convicted of the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old Austrian girl and hanged on April 13, 1961.

Part of the reason why the military so rarely executes anyone may be political. Regulations require that the president himself issue an affirmative confirmation of the death sentence before the execution can proceed -- unlike in civilian cases where the president can overturn a death sentence but is not required to order it. Since Bennett's execution, ordered by President Dwight Eisenhower, most commanders in chief have been reluctant to carry out this particular duty. No death sentences were approved until 2008, when President George W. Bush ordered the execution of Pvt. Ronald Gray, who was charged with four murders and eight rapes while serving in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in the late 1980s. Gray was granted a stay of execution several months later and his case is still pending.

President Barack Obama has been skeptical of the death penalty's effectiveness in the past, but says he supports it for "the most egregious of crimes."

Other residents of Fort Leavenworth's death row include Army Sgt. Hasan K. Akbar, sentenced in 2005 for a grenade attack on his fellow soldiers in Iraq; Kenneth Parker, a Marine lance corporal who murdered two fellow officers with a shotgun in 1992; and Andrew Witt, an Air Force airman who was convicted in 2005 of stabbing a fellow airman and his wife to death. While Fort Leavenworth hosts death row inmates from all branches of the military, it doesn't actually have facilities for executing people. Had Gray's sentence been carried out, he would have been executed at the federal correctional complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Before trial, military officers are entitled to an "Article 32 hearing" -- similar to a civilian grand jury -- in which an investigating officer reviews the evidence, decides whether the death penalty should be sought, and assigns 12 fellow service members to serve as a jury. This panel decides a sentence and must agree unanimously in the case of a death sentence. Like its civilian counterpart, critics have charged that the military death penalty is racially biased. Four of the six men currently sitting on death row are African-American.

The Army might be breaking new ground if it chooses to seek the death penalty in the Afghanistan murders. None of those currently sentenced to die were charged with killing civilians during wartime. Of course, murder can be hard to define in an environment where soldiers are expected to kill the enemy and civilian casualties are inevitable, but the premeditated nature of these killings certainly seems to fit the bill. In the infamous Mahmudiyah case -- the gang rape and murder of an Iraqi teenager and the killing of her family by U.S. soldiers in 2006 -- the most severe sentence issued was 110 years in prison.

Thanks to Eugene Fidell, professor of military law at Yale Law School and director of the National Institute of Military Justice.