As the African Union troops prepare to leave Somalia, the Al Shabaab militants will likely rebuild their capacities and intensify attacks. Already recent mass bombings in Mogadishu are a worrying sign. The Somali national security services, despite receiving some international support, remain weak. The extremist organization is still a serious threat in Somalia and the region.
If its current timetable isn’t revised, by December 2020, all African Union (AMISOM) combat troops are scheduled to withdraw from all of Somalia’s cities, towns and villages that they’ve liberated from Al Shabaab terrorist organization. The troops have been in Somalia for over a decade to support the Federal Government of Somalia against radical elements of Al Shabaab, who continue their insurgency against the government.
AMISOM is comprised of troops from Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and Burundi deployed in six sectors covering south and central Somalia through funding support by the EU and UN. The troops, alongside the Somali National Army, remain the main source of protection for the government as they patrol major roads connecting the Somali capital to the regions. They have managed to liberate significant cities such as Mogadishu, Kisimayo, Beletweyne and Baidoa.
Though it didn’t fully pacify the country as required and expected, the AU mission deserves applause for creating an enabling environment for the Somali government to re-organize and prioritize their resources and establish a national army to build on the current progress in liberating the remaining areas still controlled by Al Shabaab.
The planned AMISOM troop drawdown is already being felt in different parts of Somalia. The Special Representative of the African Union Chairperson for Somalia, Francisco Madeira, stated that transition must be gradual, conditions-based, responsible and done in a manner that will not compromise the safety and security of the Somali people.
SNA’s readiness for a takeover
Besides their military operations against Al Shabaab, the AMISOM troops have been training and equipping the Somali National Army (SNA) with the objective of gradually handing over security duties in liberated areas to the SNA. After close to 18 months of successful operations that uprooted Al-Shabaab’s control on major cities, by mid-2013 the offensives by AMISOM and SNA came to a halt. Neither AMISOM nor the Somali army had the capacity to push beyond areas already recovered. Their hold on the existing territory would be tenuous if the current status quo continued.
In recent years, a range of external actors have played a role in training the SNA. These foreign actors include the European Union, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the U.S. and a private security company, Bancroft Global. Although their help has been valuable, the lack of consistency and proper coordination in the different trainings was a challenge to the SNA. The Somali military significantly lacks proper equipment and coordinated training that will inculcate them with same military discipline, national ownership and patriotism to liberate their country from extremists. As currently constituted, the SNA is more a collection of regional clan militias than a unified national force that can take over security tasks from AMISOM.
Somalia’s stability primarily relies on its own military and police forces to secure their own territory. That prospect, however, seemed to be a long way off until recently when the Turkish government opened a $50 million military training facility in Mogadishu capable of accommodating 1,500 forces at the same time, with the presence of more than 200 Turkish military trainers. The facility is hoped to help in the reconstruction of a strong Somali national force that can tackle the threat of Al Shabaab after the withdrawal of AMISOM forces.
Somalia is still under a partial UN arms embargo that prevents the country from importing heavy weaponry, but allows it to import light weapons for its security forces. This embargo is a major setback for the government to be really ‘self-sufficient’ in terms of military offensives to confront Al Shabaab.
Al Shabaab’s capability to re-emerge
Though the troops majorly focused on liberating major cities and headquarters of regional administrations, the Al Shabaab extremists were took advantage of the relative freedom they had in the vast Somali countryside to regroup, plan and execute attacks against civilians in cities within the country and in the region. The group has recently demonstrated its ability to conduct numerous complex raids against hard AMISOM targets, causing significant casualties. Its ability to conduct mass casualty spectacular attacks in Mogadishu and sustained small arms attacks against the Somali government and security officials is yet to be contained. The recent bloody bombings in Mogadishu, which claimed the lives of more than 400 people, is an indicator that the extremist group is still active and capable of re-emerging in the event that a military vacuum arises in Somalia.
The failure of AMISOM and Somali National Army to pursue Al Shabaab into the hinterlands because of force size constraints or, probably, lack of political will, enabled Al Shabaab to maintain access to financial resources, recruitment and training of new foot soldiers and allowed them a space to operate relatively freely outside of major populated centers.
Al Shabaab has exploited shifts in the AMISOM force posture to prepare for its counteroffensives. When AMISOM (Ethiopian contingents) pulled back in early 2017, Al Shabaab militants immediately reentered the towns of Burduhule, Rabdhure, Garasweyne and Tiyeglow in the Bakool region; Eli Ali, Halgan, and Moqokori in the Hiraan region; Bud and Gal’ad in the Galgudud region; and Adan Yabal in the Middle Shabelle region. The ease with which al Shabaab flipped the towns shows that it had retained a presence nearby and that other territory could be as susceptible to re-conquest.
With the presence of AMISOM forces, Al Shabaab’s disastrous presence has not been isolated to Somalia only. The group has expanded its area of operations into northern and coastal Kenya and demonstrated its capability to hit targets outside Somalia, for example the 2010 Kampala bombings, devastating attacks on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and Garissa University in 2013 and 2015 respectively. It is poised to exploit the regional religious and security conditions.
Who knows what will happen over the next 25 months as AMISOM troops steadily withdraw lowering their profile to the vanishing point? Somalia might revisit its anarchic history, or President Farmajo might manage to clench and walk the talk on the offensives designed to wipe out Shabaab before the last batch of AMISOM troop withdraw from the country.
* ABDI ADAN TAWANE is a researcher, writer and analyst focusing on the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes regions.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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