Somalia’s African Union mission has a new exit strategy. But can troops actually leave?


After more than 10 years of operations, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has a new exit strategy to reduce the threat from al-Shabab, secure the political process and transfer security responsibilities to Somali forces. But political feuds between the national government and Somalia’s regional administrations, pervasive corruption and recent setbacks against al-Shabab threaten to derail AMISOM’s successful exit.

The London Security Pact of May 2017 and the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2372 on Aug. 30, 2017, determined that AMISOM and its partners will build “a capable, accountable, acceptable, and affordable Somali-led security sector” to enable the African Union mission to leave. On Dec. 4, international signatories of the London Security Pact will convene to take stock and chart the way forward.

Things currently aren’t going well. First, AMISOM has been underfunded since January 2016, when the European Union cut its payment of allowances to A.U. personnel by 20 percent. Additional cuts in E.U. assistance are scheduled for 2018 and the U.K.’s impending Brexit will further reduce AMISOM’s available funds.

Second, arguments have arisen over whose troops should withdraw. Under Resolution 2372, AMISOM should withdraw 1,000 troops by Dec. 31, 2017, but increase its police component by 500. More uniformed personnel are to withdraw by Oct. 30, 2018, although details will depend on conditions in Somalia.

Ideally, the initial 1,000 troops would be cut on the basis of an assessment of the threat from al-Shabab. But it now appears the cuts will come in equitable proportion from each of AMISOM’s troop-contributing countries (Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda). This smacks of a deal brokered to retain an equitable share of the reimbursement benefits, rather than a move to prioritize the fight against al-Shabab. Who will contribute the 500 additional police officers remains unclear.

And there’s a third problem: Al-Shabab has recently intensified its campaign. It has ambushed AMISOM and Somali National Army convoys and bases, including a particularly deadly July attack on Ugandan forces near Golweyn and on an SNA base near Bariire on Sept. 29. Al-Shabab also returned to several settlements following AMISOM and SNA withdrawals and stepped up suicide bombings and commando raids in and around Mogadishu, most notably the Oct. 14 attack that killed over 350 people.

In response, the United States has increased its troops in Somalia to more than 500 and conducted 30 airstrikes in 2017 — more than four times the average number over the previous seven years. In May the first U.S. soldier was killed in Somalia since the mid-1990s.

Dilemmas, and more dilemmas

My research suggests AMISOM now faces serious challenges to an effective exit, for a number of reasons:

1) The pace of withdrawal

If AMISOM adopts a predetermined timetable for exit, al-Shabab will likely wait out the A.U. forces while Somali authorities will probably fail to assume their agreed responsibilities on schedule. The result would be an over-optimistic assessment of al-Shabab’s threat in the interim, and the risk of an irresponsible AMISOM exit before the SNA is ready to take over.

2) Strategic communications

AMISOM’s exit is only possible because of its earlier achievements. It protected two transitional governments in Somalia and the electoral processes that produced new national governments in September 2012 and February 2017, respectively. These achievements came at considerable cost in terms of lives and money. But AMISOM’s reconfiguration and withdrawal will give al-Shabab an opportunity to portray it as a defeat or retreat. Al-Shabab has already started doing this in relation to AMISOM’s tactical withdrawals from various settlements.

3) Financing

Financial shortfalls have reduced morale among AMISOM personnel. AMISOM’s principal donors already have considerable costs invested in stabilizing Somalia, but fatigue and alternative priorities are pushing donors to cut funds quicker than conditions are improving on the ground. Most notable is French pressure to provide more E.U. funds for the Sahel and U.S. pressure to reduce the U.N.’s assessed peacekeeping contributions.

4) Federal politics in Somalia

AMISOM and its international partners also face a dilemma over how to implement Somalia’s new “national security architecture,” which the national government and regional administrations ostensibly agreed to in April 2017. But regional administrations later rejected some details of this new framework.

If AMISOM pushes to implement these terms, it risks further alienating the regional administrations, without whom it will be impossible to build an effective national security sector. There’s an added problem: Time spent building political consensus will further delay a coordinated offensive campaign against al-Shabab and risk unpicking aspects of the London Security Pact.

5) Building an army while fighting a war

Years of train-and-equip programs by multiple international actors haven’t delivered a professional, effective, sustainable or legitimate SNA. The Somali government, AMISOM and the United Nations will soon complete an Operational Readiness Assessment, which will reveal basic information, as well as just how far behind schedule the SNA really is. AMISOM’s partners thus face another dilemma: continue to wait for an effective SNA to materialize — or provide more direct support to existing regional, clan-based militias, which would likely result in increased human rights violations and empower clan leaders rather than the national government.

6) Transferring security responsibilities to the SNA

AMISOM also faces operational and tactical dilemmas about how, when and where to transfer security responsibilities to the SNA. AMISOM must reconfigure its forces accordingly, including sharing operating bases with the SNA in numerous areas. However, such reconfiguration means withdrawing from some settlements. This undermines trust with local populations, and runs the risk of allowing al-Shabab to return.

7) Dealing with corrupt local partners

Somalia has been ranked the world’s most corrupt country for a decade. How can AMISOM combat corruption while working in support of the existing, corrupt Somali politicians and security officials? This has been a particularly acute problem in the murky political economy of Mogadishu, where al-Shabab operates a mafia-style protection racket with local businesses. Senior Somali politicians and security officials profit from a state of insecurity, including by running private security firms.

These dilemmas suggest AMISOM has no quick or simple exit strategy, which means renewed pressure on getting the politics and governance of Somalia’s security sector right, so reforms can take place. This will require a genuine deal between Mogadishu and regional administrations on implementing the new national security architecture, stamping out corruption in the SNA and taking the fight to al-Shabab.


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