By Anastasia Voronkova, Editor, Armed Conflict Survey; Research Fellow for Armed Conflict and Armed Conflict Database
In March 2017 the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) confirmed that it will move forward with the plan to begin withdrawing its troops from Somalia in October 2018, with the withdrawal scheduled to be completed by the end of 2020. Exercises have been carried out to train and assess the capabilities of the Somali National Army (SNA) and police. This move came as US President Donald Trump declared parts of Somalia an ‘area of active hostilities’, which eases the restrictions on counter-terrorism airstrikes in Somalia intended to prevent civilian casualties. War-zone targeting rules will apply in offensive operations for at least 180 days, bringing to the fore long-standing and persistent problems with the capacity of the SNA to provide security guarantees. As AMISOM prepares to leave, such problems raise concerns about security in Somalia following the departure of the peacekeeping force.
2017 marked the tenth anniversary of the deployment of AMISOM, created by the African Union Peace and Security Council in January 2007. The mission has achieved considerable success in putting military pressure on militant group al-Shabaab in the past decade, leading to serious territorial setbacks for the insurgency, but it has not yet managed to build up and train Somalia’s legitimate security forces to be fully capable of withstanding the threat from a resilient al-Shabaab.
Many challenges remain in terms of generating a united Somali national security force. Command and control that would ensure top-down coordination and coherence of the force are currently lacking. The 2015 Guulwade (‘Victory’) Plan of the Somali federal government aimed at revitalising the army acknowledged that the SNA was little more than a loose collection of clan-based militias without a centralised structure or attachment to any national idea. Given the historical weakness of the Somali state and national identity, it remains uncertain whether the planned training of the approximately 20,000 additional troops will actually result in the creation of a national structure under which members would be loyal to the state rather than clan leaders or individual commanders. Military preparation alone is highly unlikely to achieve this goal, with lengthy economic development and ideational work with the local population also required.
Somalia’s federal structure and the existence of autonomous regions also complicate cooperation in the security sphere, the distribution of loyalties and perhaps most importantly, the legitimation of the SNA beyond the capital Mogadishu. Without progress towards a political solution addressing the concerns of the autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland while strengthening the economy and infrastructure, it is difficult to envisage how the security and legitimation issues can be adequately resolved within the three-year timeframe.
Meanwhile, the need to fight al-Shabaab has hardly diminished. The organisation has survived leadership decapitation, territorial losses and internal splits, and continues to carry out frequent and deadly attacks involving both peacekeeper and civilian targets. Commentators have warned that al-Shabaab might gain new recruits joining primarily for defence or revenge as a result of Trump’s directive that gives the US greater latitude in attacking suspected militants.
In any case, the wider population’s lack of trust towards the already-weak security structures and state institutions may be compounded in the current climate, given both potentially heightened US involvement and the frequency of al-Shabaab attacks, leading to increased influence of alternative actors, be they clans at the local level or pirates in coastal areas. (It is worth noting that the first piracy incidents after a period of calm took place in March and early April 2017.) Thus, a weakened al-Shabaab could continue to exploit the local population’s deep dissatisfaction with economic opportunities and political governance, which has traditionally been very pronounced in Somalia. Under such circumstances an exit strategy for external peacekeeping forces, even if their effectiveness and resource base on the ground is not comprehensive, seems premature. They will likely need to continue working with the Somali authorities, local and international partners for much longer, or risk a significant escalation of the conflict and destabilisation of the entire country.