Somalia has become an important, although under-reported theatre of operations in Washington’s efforts to combat international terrorism on the African continent. However, continued political instability and a change of military tactics by Al Shabaab threatens to undermine the recent successes of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the United States’ new found momentum in the region.
The increased political interest towards Somalia is at odds with the traditional lack of attention showed towards the country in the horn of Africa. Throughout most of the past quarter century, the political instability in Somalia which followed the fall of the Siad Barre regime has featured near the bottom of the international community’s agenda. Following the un-ceremonious withdrawal of US forces in 1994 shortly after the events commonly known as “Black Hawk Down” and the official end of UNOSOM II (United Nations Operations in Somalia), the plight of the Somali people was largely forgotten by international opinion. However, the attacks of 9/11 and the rapid success of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2006, whose radical youth wing formed the nucleus of Al Shabaab, forced the African Union and Western governments to re-engage the situation in the horn of Africa. Their support would initially take the shape of formally recognising the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) held up in Baidoa, while tacitly supporting the military intervention of Ethiopia into the country. The overthrow of the ICU and the emergence of Al-Shabaab, which swore allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012, has put Somalia firmly onto the map of the “Global War on Terror”.
The 2007 arrival of AMISOM, coupled with support from the United Nations Security Council and the establishment of a formal Federal government in Mogadishu, have led the United States and a select number of partners to pursue a much more assertive policy in the region. Indeed, Al-Shabaab has proved to be a growing source of regional instability with successive high-profile attacks in Kampala in 2010 and Nairobi in 2013, often conducted in retaliation to the presence of AMISOM. Since 2007, the United States has conducted drone strikes from its bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya in an effort to eliminate high ranking Al-Shabaab members. Recently, it has conducted covert Special Forces operations inside Somalia, and according to certain sources, elements from the Joint Special Operations Command and drones have been operating from bases inside Somalia itself. Moreover, the United States is providing financial and logistical support while training AMISOM and Somali government forces through controversial private security contractors. It is clear US involvement in Somalia closely follows a model of military operations that has been extensively developed by the Obama administration. The model advocates the use of specific Special Forces elements and drone strikes in a chosen theatre of operations, while the need for an important build-up in US military personnel is replaced by providing logistic and financial support to key regional allies.
In theory, this would avoid the necessity of direct US military intervention and thus reduce the chances of a political outcry against the intervention. This strategy, combined with the increasing military capabilities of AMISOM, has been somewhat successful. AMISOM operations have been able to achieve remarkable military successes, including securing Mogadishu, most of the Somali coastline and main urban centres such as Kismayo. The positive evolution in Somalia led President Obama to claim in 2014 that “this strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years”.
These successes, however, mask the fundamental difficulties that lay ahead for the Somali government and especially AMISOM. Early military success were dependent on Al-Shabaab believing it could match the African Union mission in terms of conventional warfare. Its recent defeats and its substantial losses in terms of personnel and high ranking members has forced it to adapt. The organisation has adopted more asymmetrical methods such as the use of IEDs, suicide bombers or sudden raids on highly visible targets. The change in strategy has led to higher casualties in the ranks of AMISOM, which is spread thin over large distances and lacks the equipment necessary to face a drawn out insurgency. Al Shabaab has also continued to launch operations against member states of AMISON, such as this year’s murderous attack on the university Campus at Garissa in Northern Kenya. AMISOM remains the only fully competent fighting force on the ground, with the Somali National Army plagued by desertion and low morale over un-paid wages.
Continued political in-fighting and the dominance of clan politics remains another major hurdle for the development of Somalia. This is best exemplified by the fact that on the eve of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York, efforts towards impeaching the Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud were finally dropped by the President of the Somali parliament. The news was especially welcomed by Western backers of the Somali Federal government unwilling to accept another power struggle in a country that has been without government for the last 25 years.
The current presidency has been continuously marred by allegations of corruption and the establishment of a democratic process, absent since 1967, also seems to be bogged down by the in-adequacies of the current administration. Having been elected by a parliament chosen by 135 clan leaders, the government had promised a transition towards full democracy by 2016. In July it was obliged into acknowledging that a full democratic election would not be feasible in 2016. Instead, an electorate consisting of a few million voters would participate in the election, and the task would be left to the succeeding government. This constant state of political instability has continuously undermined the efforts to create any semblance of a cohesive state.
A number of other issues have hampered international efforts to stabilise Somalia. The Kenyan government has been accused of using heavy handed methods against the Somali community in the country. It has also threatened to close the Dadaab refugee camp in the North of the country, fostering growing resentment towards one of the key military elements of the AMISOM mission. Western efforts to tackle the financing of international terrorism have also forced international banks to end the wiring of funds from the large Somalian diaspora towards their relations in Somalia. The closure of these vital financial channels has put the survival of large segments of the population at risk since they depend on the remittances coming from abroad. This has only fostered desperation and breed resentment, threatening to create another humanitarian crisis and another generation attracted by the ideas espoused by Al-Shabaab.
The situation in Somalia has slowly improved but major hurdles in terms of security, increasing public engagement and political stability remain. The security outlook remains mitigated. The recent announcements by the European Union offering financial assistance to AMISOM and Britain’s commitment to send advisers to Somalia highlights increased confidence in AMISOM and renewed political vigour for the stabilisation mission. However, recent changes in Al Shabaab’s strategy along with its continued terror campaigns in neighbouring countries indicate that the conflict has now developed into a prolonged counter-insurgency war. The continued support of Western donors and the willingness of AMISOM’s contributing nations to engage in the conflict will be key to the success of the mission. The prospect of continued insecurity does not bode well for the positive evolution of the political process. The pretext of continued insecurity will most probably be used to delay any fundamental changes, as elections will continue to be postponed and the government will remain unaccountable. The lack of political progress will make it difficult to invigorate domestic support for the country’s political process, which could impact the level of Western and African support for the Federal Government and easily undo the fragile successes accumulated since 2007. Consolidating AMISOM’s military successes and improving the military capability of the Somalian federal government will thus be essential to guaranty political progress and rally the support of the Somali people. This will however demand patience, time and funds, all elements that have been in short store in recent times.
About the Author
Alexandre Raymakers is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science holding a degree in International History and International Relations. He has extensive personal experience on the African continent having been born in Zimbabwe and lived in 4 different countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. He has previously worked for the Swiss Embassy in Kenya and has been working in Strategic Communications in London for the past year. His interests include International Security, African politics and European Affairs.
Cover image ‘Troops Advance during Anti-Shabaab Operation in Somalia‘ by United Nations Photo