Sub Saharan Africa politics: Peacekeepers in Somalia: mission incomplete

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Country Data and Maps
Economist Intelligence Unit
No abstract is available.
Politics, News Analysis
Political Geography
Uganda, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Burundi

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has cost over US$1.5bn and suffered the deaths of more troops than almost all other global peacekeeping missions combined. Its commanders have now launched an exit strategy ahead of AMISOM's scheduled complete withdrawal in 2020. However, its mission to defeat Islamist insurgents in Somalia is far from complete, and the Somali National Army (SNA) remains woefully unprepared to assume responsibility for the country's fragile security. We think continued support from foreign militaries post-2020 will prevent a slide back into civil war, but, with Somalia set to remain highly unstable over the medium term, this instability will remain a regional security threat.

AMISOM was mandated in 2007 to liberate Somalia from al-Shabab, an Islamist insurgent group that then controlled almost the entire country. A decade later, AMISOM's exit strategy is now in motion, with the head of the mission confirming on November 7th that troops' realignment had begun ahead of the withdrawal of 1,000 troops by year-end, ahead of the complete withdrawal of some 22,000 forces by 2020. AMISOM can take credit for the significant security gains that have been made in Somalia since 2007, which have provided for a degree of political normalisation and economic recovery. But its mission is far from complete.

Assessing the threat level

AMISOM has not succeeded in flushing out al-Shabab. The mission has successfully liberated most major cities in Somalia, but the Islamist group retains considerable influence in rural areas and militants operate an effective model of guerrilla-style warfare. As a result, military convoys face recurrent attacks when travelling through Somalia's mostly rural territory and al-Shabab remains capable of launching targeted strikes on often-fortified targets in urban areas. Moreover, although AMISOM has dislodged militants from vast swathes of territory, it lacks the manpower to hold onto these gains. Ambush attacks on military bases take place periodically and, since they are usually under-resourced, peacekeepers often retreat. More commonly, al-Shabab temporarily reclaim territory when AMISOM troops move on, which allows militants to loot, recruit and stoke fear among local populations. With al-Shabab preferring to then retreat into rural safety, the game of cat and mouse has rumbled on for several years.

AMISOM's effectiveness is questionable

We doubt that AMISOM can succeed in militarily defeating al-Shabab. Its mandate is too broad, its resource too stretched and its operations too poorly co-ordinated. There is also waning political appetite for AMISOM. The Somali government has vowed to restore national sovereignty by assuming direct responsibility for its security and, amid accusations of illegal trading and human rights abuses, foreign troops have a dismal reputation among the local population. For countries that contribute troops to AMISOM-Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda-it was once a valued source of income for soldiers and for the public purse, and this was arguably worth withstanding the loss on soldiers' lives in Somalia and the threat of retaliatory attacks at home. However, with AMISOM's budget having been cut by some 20% in 2016, this trade-off has shifted. The mission's main financier, the EU, has seemingly lost patience with the mission, having initially agreed to back nine battalions of 850 troops for six months but having ended up funding up to 22,000 troops for more than a decade. Meanwhile, efforts by the AU to convince other donors (including the UN) to fund AMISOM have proved unsuccessful.

A post-AMISOM reality

Al-Shabab is not the threat that it was a decade ago. It is increasingly unco-ordinated, with only fluid chains of command in some regions and no centralised strategy. But disjointed operations are arguably harder to defeat and al-Shabab retains the ability to recruit from Somalia's mostly young, unemployed and disenfranchised population. Moreover, given the divisions within the senior ranks of al-Shabab, spin-off groups have appeared, the most notable of which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State and operates mostly in northern Puntland, outside of al-Shabab's southern strongholds. Meanwhile, another militant group, Ahlusuna, controls part of the central region and refuses to recognise the federal government's authority. Loosely organised clan militias also operate in most regions, with disputes over territorial boundaries and access to resources often sparking violent confrontations. The prevalence of small arms means business disputes in towns are also often resolved violently, which further undermines security.

Against this backdrop of myriad security threats, the SNA appears woefully unprepared to take over from AMISOM. The Somali government blames this on the partial arms embargo the UN has in place for Somalia and on donors' reluctance to provide resources directly to the troops. But clashes between Somali soldiers and other parts the security infrastructure are not uncommon, and donors' have lingering concerns that the supply of more arms would increase the risk of conflict. Moreover, the national army is essentially a conglomeration of regional armies. Amid tensions between the national administration and state-level governments, and, in some instances, tensions between neighbouring state-level governments, there remains a risk of the nominally national army splitting along clan-based fault lines. Meanwhile, citizens' trust in soldiers remains poor, with the SNA often accused of resorting to unnecessary aggression and soldiers thought to compensate for their unpaid salaries through extortion. The lack of trust among citizens will further undermine the SNA's effectiveness.

International partners' strategy

International partners have a two-pronged strategy to prepare Somalia for the withdrawal of AMISOM. The first is to bolster the SNA. Both Turkey and the US have significantly stepped up their military training operations over the past year, adding to the training programmes already carried out by the UAE and others. But training the SNA and recruiting enough troops to take over from the 22,000-strong AMISOM force within two years is ambitious. Moreover, the Somali government rightly argues that well-trained troops are only effective if they have adequate resources and a decent salary. The government cannot provide either, so it is turning to donors to finance its security services. However, the lack of transparency over the public finances is likely to sustain donors' reluctance to directly fund the government's budget. Resource constraints are therefore likely to remain a major impediment on the SNA's effectiveness.

The second, equally important priority for international partners ahead of AMISOM's withdrawal is to defeat the insurgents. The US in particular has stepped up its military campaign in recent months, with air strikes executed against al-Shabab and IS targets, and AMISOM has launched renewed offensives on restive parts of the central region. Weakening the militants could give the SNA a fighting chance of maintaining order when AMISOM is withdrawn, particularly if military aggression is coupled with further efforts to encourage defections. However, even if the senior command structures of al-Shabab, IS and Ahlusuna are all disbanded, insecurity will continue to flourish-amid a widespread mistrust of the central government, the prevalence of small arms and a lack of economic opportunities. Given the deep-rooted clan identities that continue to determine Somali politics, the SNA's ability to manage armed militias could prove to be an even harder task than defeating jihadis.

Insecurity in Somalia will remain a regional security threat

We doubt that Somalia's international partners will fully succeed in either objective-of training the national army or of defeating the militants-before AMISOM's scheduled exit in 2020. An extension of the peacekeeping mission seems fairly unlikely, given its waning usefulness and the lack of political appetite to fund it. However, we expect foreign militaries to continue to prop up the SNA, via bilateral agreements with the government to train local troops and tackle militancy. With international partners reluctant to see hard-won security gains reversed, this continued support should ensure that Somalia does not slip back into civil war. However, with the restoration of the rule of law likely to happen only slowly, land and sea borders will remain porous. Somalia is therefore likely to remain a potential gateway for both jihadis and illegal arms into the region. For the country's neighbours, this will sustain its reputation as a major regional security threat.

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