Somalia, a country racked by violence and instability since the early 1990s, is set to experience a new wave of political disorder in the coming months.
The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a force of around 20,000 mostly Kenyan and Ethiopian soldiers, have been the main buttress holding Somalia’s together since their intervention into the country in 2007 to combat the al-Qaeda affiliated militant group, Al Shabaab.
But their mission is set to end and their responsibilities are being transferred to Somalia’s security forces, which have been unreliable and largely ineffectual. Experts are warning that AMISOM’s military withdrawal may create a political vacuum that neither Al Shabaab nor the Somalian state and its military can fill.
Al Shabaab has proven to be one of the most resilient and operationally flexible jihadi organizations operating in the world, fluidly shifting from quasi-state government to guerrilla and terror organization to survive. Their previous stints with wielding influence over part of Somalia has been devastating to the country.
In the past, Al Shabaab has exacerbated famines by restricting aid access to malnourished populations while taxing families and imports. AMISOM’s withdrawal gives Al Shabaab an opportunity to reform and challenge the fledgling Somali government, who finds itself increasingly isolated both domestically and internationally.
The Coming Power Vacuum
Al Shabaab fighters (AFP/FILE)
The impending power vacuum has been on the horizon for quite some time.
AMISOM’s entrance into Somalia came with a six-month mandate that has been extended continuously ever since, without a clear mission besides keeping the order in Somalia. They entered in 2007 after the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), the group Al Shabaab evolved from, almost captured Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu.
Since then, AMISOM have been primarily focused on pushing back Al Shabaab and they have been the only group operating in Somalia that has been relatively successful in this endeavour.
But now, over a decade into AMISOM’s intervention into Somalia, its funding is drying up and its donors are beginning to send their money to other emergent counterinsurgency missions in northern Africa.
Ethiopian troops abandoning the Somalian town of El-Ali (AFP/FILE)
One of AMISOM’s main backers has been the EU, who initially provided the group €700,000 a month. That amount eventually ballooned into almost €25 million a month as the AMISOM’s efforts to combat Al Shabaab gradually expanded. With this money, the EU was the sole provider of allowances for the roughly 22,000 AMISOM troops, though it also received millions of dollars from the U.S.
As new militant groups entered onto the world stage, the EU’s security focus shifted away from Somalia, imperiling the future of AMISOM in the process.
In Jan 2016, the EU capped its monthly contributions to AMISOM at €20 million, a 20 percent reduction. Shortly thereafter, in early 2017, the EU gave €50 million to help form the G5 Sahel mission, focused on combating insurgent groups and transnational crimes. It also gave a similar amount to the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to fight Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region.
The EU’s reluctance to fund AMISOM ad infinitum sparked the U.N. Security Council to pass a new resolution in 2017, which instructed AMISOM to reduce its personnel steadily starting in Oct 2018 with an eye to a total withdrawal by 2020.
2020 has since evolved not only to signify the withdraw deadline, but also a year feared to be one marked by political disorder and violence.
The initial plan to withdraw some troops in Oct was delayed, citing security reasons, but it is clear the money to keep AMISOM’s artificially imposed order on Somalia is drying up fast.
The Somali National Army is Still Crippled
Recently trained Somalia National Army soldiers (AFP/FILE)
International players have known the risk of AMISOM’s withdrawal for years, and have sought to prepare Somalia’s National Army (SNA) to eventually take over the role of national peacekeeper.
But the Somalia forces simply aren’t ready.
“I do not think they will fill the vacuum by AMISOM,” Patrick Mutahi, a research fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies and Somalia expert, told Al Bawaba.
“[The] Somali police and army, as it has been documented are also infiltrated by Al Shabaab sympathisers. Besides this, the troops are weak in capacity and Al Shabaab will take this advantage to continue their attacks,” he added.
An "Operational Readiness Assessment" conducted by Somalia’s government reported that about 30 percent of soldiers in bases did not have any weapons, and that local Somali clans provide a bulk of the weapons used by government soldiers.
“We have not seen the large-scale withdrawals of field formations from AMISOM yet,” notes Stig Jarle Hansen, an expert on insurgencies in the Horn of Africa and author of “Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group.”
“I think Shabaab will feel out the weakest links in its resistance first, [and] perhaps go for the weaker regional states.” Hansen was also quick to point out that AMISOM’s withdrawal with likely have a negative impact on the SNA’s morale and willingness to fight, which has been a problem even with AMISOM’s support.
The SNA is currently propped up by international players that have their own regional aims that often conflict with one another.
Turkey and Qatar both maintain their own bases training and housing SNA forces. The UAE too had one until it was shut down, though Egypt and Sudan are involved in training SNA troops.
“It's true that it would have been impossible for one party to take responsibility for training the entire SNA, but the divided training effort has caused problems of its own,” said Dr Eleanor Beevor, a Research Analyst focusing on East African conflict with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Each training party has its own systems, its own procedures, its own military culture, and indeed its own regional agenda. On top of that, the SNA is chronically short of resources—many of its soldiers are missing communications equipment, complete uniforms, weapons and more,” she added. Soldiers can also wait months to receive their salaries, which helps push some over the edge and desert their units entirely.
According to Dr. Beevor, “It's thus very unlikely that the SNA of 2021 is going to be the cohesive, well-equipped military that can stave off Al Shabaab over the long-term... it is safe to assume that Al Shabaab will dramatically expand its reach in the event of a political vacuum, or of an overly rapid withdrawal of AMISOM forces."
With the SNA’s chronic shortage of resources, and what few resources it does have being contingent on the regional agendas of players like Turkey and Qatar, Al Shabaab will have a wide opening to seizing power once AMISOM begins its withdrawal."
On top of all this, growing tensions between Somalia’s central government in Mogadishu and its regional states spread across the country is also destabilizing security coordination within the country. “the Council of Inter-State Cooperation - the body on which the Presidents of the Federal States sit - is now talking about creating a new inter-state security force and a new political party. It suggests that they have no plans to reconcile with Mogadishu anytime soon,” reports Dr. Beevor, who warns that if the federal states and central government cannot reconcile their differences, policy makers will have to entirely rethink their strategy for maintaining control of the country in the face of threats from Al Shabaab.
“To build up the police is important, and today, regional states and the government need to push in the same direction, and avoid taking steps to undermine each other,” Hansen told Al Bawaba.
None of this is helped by the fact that members of Somalia’s own government and even some in the international community reportedly hire Al Shabaab to kill or intimidate political rivals.
What’s Stopping Al Shabaab Now
AMISOM forces (AFP/FILE)
Apart from AMISOM, U.S. drone strikes and internal clan divisions have hampered Al Shabaab’s ability to gain and hold territory.
One of Donald Trump’s first foreign policy actions as president was laxing the constraints of the U.S. military's use of drones. In March 2017, he designated much of Somalia as an ‘area of active hostilities,’ giving the military more leeway in determining when to strike a target. His administration also re-wrote the playbook of when drone strikes could be used, releasing a revamped rule book called “Principles, Standards, and Procedures.”
The Pentagon took full advantage of Trump’s hawkish moves and dramatically escalated its air war on Al Shabaab. Since 2017, the Pentagon has authorized dozens of drone strikes on Al Shabaab targets, which in turn have forced Al Shabaab to carry out attacks with fewer fighters to avoid mass casualties. In early Oct, the Pentagon reported it had killed 60 Shabaab fighters in one single strike, although they often also kill tens of innocent civilians.
Internally, Al Shabaab is continually restricted by clan divisions.
Much of Somali society and politics is determined and defined by clans, and while Al Shabaab’s leadership initially intended the group to transcend clan differences an engage in a nationalist jihadi project, their vision soon collapsed as they recognized they could not survive in Somalia for long without integrating into its social dynamics.
As a result, clan influence seeped into Al Shabaab, many Somalis join the group to serve out the interests of their families and clans. In turn, Al Shabaab segregate many of their military units by clan, and play clan interests off one another.
This has given Al Shabaab the ability to persist in Somalia as it remains a vehicle for clans to dominate each other and claim power, but it also prevents their national project of a caliphate from being realized. Al Shabaab’s own inability to act on a cohesive national project due to clan differences largely mirrors Mogadishu’s own inability to corral divergent regional interests into its vision for a centralized Somalia.
The country, thanks to its localized socio-political scene, seems difficult to control by any kind of national power; jihadi or governmental.
Patrick Mutahi predicts Al Shabaab’s own internal divisions may spell its doom: “I think Al Shabaab will continue suffering implosion and divisions from within as has been reported in the last several years and this will weaken it. Defections will also increase as more fighters seek an exit. Ultimately, Al Shabaab will ‘eat’ itself from within and this I predict will be the end of the terrorist group,” he argues in an interview with Al Bawaba.
Currently, AMISOM and Al Shabaab trade territory back and forth, sometimes during the same day. “In cities where AMISOM is nominally in charge, al-Shabab often rules more than the night as AMISOM conducts little active patrolling or fresh anti-Shabab operations even during the day,” writes Vanda Felbab-Brown in a 2016 report for the Brookings Institute. Al Shabaab often enforces its control by projecting influence into local politics, even if it does not totally control the territory they are influencing.
With regards to the impending power vacuum, Al Shabaab’s steady gains may not come in the forms of direct territorial capture but rather consistent gains in its ability to influence local politics. This is especially true if continued U.S. drone strikes impede their ability to use conventional military formations, with large amounts of fighters, to forcibly capture and hold strategic cities and ports.
On the ground, towns in Somalia may be visited briefly in the day by SNA troops, while Al Shabaab determine its local political landscape and comes at night. Neither may be able to ‘hold’ contested towns in a direct sense, but that matters little if Al Shabaab can access the town to tax it and recruit or kidnap from it.
A Dire Humanitarian Situation
A Somalian mother holds her child during the 2011 famine (AFP/FILE)
Even with limited power, Al Shabaab has a brutal style of ruling that is responsible for the deaths of thousands.
They tax residents, seize their property and even kidnap them. Their hard-lined jihadi interpretation of Islam limits public life and includes brutally punitive policing like killing looters and cutting off the hands of people caught stealing.
Their own intelligence forces, the Amniyat, hold a tight grip on Shabaab’s members and regularly conduct bombings and assassinations around the country. Al Shabaab relies heavily on child soldiers, which has created a generation of traumatized and hyper-militarized youth, whose only real-world skills regard the utilization of violence.
Al Shabaab’s most telling example of how it rules is its handling of the 2011-2012 famine that hit Somalia.
A large scale drought hit eastern Africa, decimating Somalia’s farms and access to food. Al Shabaab tightly restricted humanitarian aid to affected areas, demanding a tax on some goods and aid, ordered aid agencies to pay ‘registration fees’ in the tens of thousands of dollars. Al Shabaab also banned 16 aid organizations from operating in Somalia, creating a massive gap in the amount of aid that was needed to stave off the famine and the amount that was actually able to reach vulnerable groups.
“Limiting humanitarian access was seen as part of its ‘propaganda campaign against the West,’” reads a report on the matter, “and reflected Al-Shabaab’s deeply held suspicion of aid agencies as spies or as the enemies’ conspirators.”
One Somalian explained in an interview that “it took time to mobilize people. It also took time to convince Al-Shabaab to let us help our people. All this contributed to the delay.”
258,000 people died from famine in Somalia. International aid agencies and experts blamed Al Shabaab’s obstruction for a large portion of those deaths.
Somalia is one of the world's poorest countries, with a fragile agricultural sector marking the difference between stable and famine-like conditions.
If another food crisis were to happen in the context of a future political vacuum, there will be little to stop Al Shabaab from exploiting it for political gain as it did in 2011, endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands.
© 2000 - 2019 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)