In 2006, the Islamic Courts controlled Mogadishu and virtually all of south and central Somalia. While they enacted some highly controversial policies, they did reestablish authority in the regions under their control and many Somalis welcomed that stability. The Transitional National Government (TNG) of Somalia, operating out of Nairobi, and neighboring Ethiopia, which had troops inside the Somali border and especially in Baidoa, perceived the Islamic Courts as a threat. At the end of 2006, the Islamic Courts’ militia made the mistake of attacking the Ethiopian forces in Baidoa, suffering a major defeat. Ethiopian forces, encouraged by the Somali TNG, then marched to Mogadishu and forced the leaders of the Islamic Courts to flee to the southern end of Somalia.
The presence of Ethiopian forces in Mogadishu was deeply resented by Somalis; their presence gave Somali Islamist elements and especially the new organization known as al-Shabaab a rallying cry for removing the Ethiopians. This posed a dilemma for the TNG, which did not have a security force capable of confronting al-Shabaab, and the Ethiopians, who had a strong force but were disliked by Somalis. Normally, this would be an occasion for establishing a UN peacekeeping operation, but the UN refused to get involved. This left the problem with the African Union, which agreed to send a force that became known as AMISOM to Somalia in support of the TNG.
Development of AMISOM
AMISOM was slow to stand up. Initially only Ugandan troops volunteered for the operation. They were subsequently joined by a contingent from Burundi. The idea was to replace the much stronger Ethiopian force, which was drawing the ire of many Somalis. On the other hand, the Ethiopian force did the heavy lifting in combatting al-Shabaab in Mogadishu. In the meantime, al-Shabaab was consolidating power in the rest of south and central Somalia. The Ethiopian force finally pulled out of Somalia in January 2009, leaving AMISOM in control of about 40 percent of Mogadishu with al-Shabaab controlling the rest of the capital in addition to most of south and central Somalia.
AMISOM slowly increased its numbers, eventually adding troop contingents from Djibouti and Sierra Leone. There were also improvements in Somali government security forces. For its part, al-Shabaab alienated many Somalis with its strict implementation of Sharia and use of suicide bombings against innocent Somalis. By 2011, AMISOM and Somali government security forces pushed al-Shabaab out of the greater Mogadishu area.
Also in 2011, Kenyan military forces, following al-Shabaab attacks on foreign tourists and aid personnel in Kenya, entered Jubaland across the Kenyan border as an independent force to rid the area of al-Shabaab. This force struggled in the beginning but, aligned with the Ras Kamboni militia, eventually seized from al-Shabaab the key port city of Kismayo and most other key towns in Jubaland. In July 2012, AMISOM assumed formal command of the Kenyan forces in southern Somalia.
In 2012, Ethiopian forces, which had crossed back into Somalia the previous year, successfully handed over Baidoa to AMISOM’s Burundi forces and Belet Weyne to AMISOM’s Djiboutian contingent. From the beginning, Ethiopia wanted to maintain command and control over its forces and never put them under the authority of AMISOM.
Since these military successes by AMISOM and the Somali National Army, there has been a military stalemate with al-Shabaab, which continues to hold much of rural south and central Somalia and a couple of key towns. Today, AMISOM has just fewer than 18,000 uniformed personnel (including police) in Somalia. Troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Sierra Leone and Kenya are deployed in four sectors in south and central Somalia. Ugandan and Burundian troops are located in Banadir, Lower and Middle Shabelle, and parts of Bay and Bakool. Kenyan forces are in Gedo and Lower and Middle Juba. Troops from Sierra Leone are joining them. Djiboutian forces are in Hiraan. AMISOM also works closely with government-affiliated militias, instructing them when and where to report for military operations, but does so outside any formal organizational structure.
The AMISOM police force is training a Somali police force of 5,000. AMISOM has 363 police officers from Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Gambia. AMISOM conducts limited maritime operations to act as vessel security for supplying AMISOM and to ensure the security of the shoreline around Mogadishu. The European Union is training the small AMISOM naval unit. AMISOM does not directly take part in humanitarian operations but facilitates the efforts of international humanitarian agencies and NGOs by providing security for their operations. AMISOM field hospitals do treat the civilian population although their priority is deployed troops. AMISOM also has a civilian political, developmental and public information role. The political unit is responsible for the implementation of political decisions on Somalia taken by the African Union.
Challenges Facing AMISOM
AMISOM and the international community face some hard decisions. The military stalemate continues and time may work in favor of al-Shabaab if the Somali Federal Government (SFG) and the new Somali National Army (SNA) are unable to win the confidence of most Somalis and establish security in the country using Somali security forces. For the time being, the SFG remains dependent on AMISOM for its survival.
Al-Shabaab, according to the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia’s July 2013 report, has an estimated 5,000 persons, including at least 300 foreign jihadis, under arms. They are avoiding direct confrontation with AMISOM and SNA forces in order to minimize their own casualties. They conduct suicide bombings, IED attacks and occasional small ambushes against AMISOM. But they are avoiding major conflict and biding their time. In the meantime, they conducted the dramatic terrorist attack against innocent Kenyans at the unprotected Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.
Al-Shabaab has stockpiled arms throughout central and southern Somalia, waiting for AMISOM to leave when it will then attack the SNA and allied forces. AMISOM and the SFG need to use this period to break the current stalemate. While al-Shabaab cannot defeat AMISOM, it can wait out their presence in Somalia. It is critical for the SFG to build its own loyal security force and, equally important, begin providing normal services such as health care and education to the Somali population in those parts of Somalia controlled by AMISOM and the SFG.
While AMISOM has accomplished a great deal since 2011, it also presents challenges for defeating al-Shabaab and restoring a viable Somali government. Al-Shabaab uses the presence of non-Somali troops in Somalia to recruit disaffected Somalis. So long as AMISOM has a presence in Somalia, this will remain a problem. (Of course, al-Shabaab has a foreign jihadi contingent that it tries hard to keep out of public view.)
Since 2011, when AMISOM forced al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu and most key towns in south and central Somalia, challenges have continued. AMISOM’s relations with the SFG continue to be strained. Progress in building Somali security and intelligence services has been excruciatingly slow. AMISOM has received criticism for failing to protect Somali civilians.
The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia concluded that AMISOM control over the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) in Jubaland has been more theoretical than practical. The KDF commander in Kismayo reportedly has denied permission to some SFG officials to visit the city and flouted instructions from President Hassan Sheikh to halt the charcoal trade. Kenyan forces together with the Ras Kamboni militia have not only continued but expanded the illegal export of charcoal from Kismayo. Even worse, individuals linked to al-Shabaab have exported 32 percent of the charcoal consignments since November 2012. According to the UN Monitoring Group, al-Shabaab continues to earn estimated $25 million annually in exports from Kismayo, Baraawe (a port it controls) and from taxes it imposes on land transport of charcoal.
In 2013, when Ethiopian forces left Hudur town in Bakool region, Somali government forces and allied militias also left. Al-Shabaab immediately reoccupied Hudur. There was no plan for any AMISOM force to take over. An estimated 2,500 Somalis were displaced as al-Shabaab took control of Hudur.
AMISOM’s Future in Somalia?
So where does AMISOM go from here? At this point, there is no thought of transferring responsibility for peacekeeping in Somalia from the African Union to the UN. On 10 October 2013, the African Union endorsed a recommendation to increase the strength of AMISOM by 6,235 troops and police personnel for a period of 18 to 24 months. This would bring AMISOM’s authorized strength to just under 24,000 uniformed personnel.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon subsequently endorsed an increase of as many as 4,400 troops and support staff from the African Union for up to two years, and a limited package of nonlethal support—including transportation, food rations and fuel—for 10,000 front-line Somali troops. Ban Ki-moon added that a temporary buildup of forces “should ultimately pave the way for the exit of all international forces” and without this additional support “our joint investment is at risk of being derailed by the indefensible actions of the Al-Shabab insurgency.” He strongly endorsed a proposal to resume the military campaign against al-Shabaab.
For its part, the United States from FY 2007 through FY 2013 has obligated about $512 million in support of AMISOM, in addition to its assessed contributions for the United Nations logistics support package for AMISOM. During that same period, the United States obligated more than $170 million to support the Somali National Army.
The time has come when the emphasis must shift from increasing the size of AMISOM to a focus on building the Somali National Army, Police Force and intelligence service. This requires more training, proper equipment, and regular salaries for the security services. Most important, it means there must be more trust among the existing clan-based Somali militias that need to be integrated into a Somali National Army. Trust is currently an endangered commodity. It also means that the SFG must control corruption and begin delivering services such as education and health care to the Somali population so that it will conclude the SFG is a better option than al-Shabaab.
While all of this is difficult to accomplish, the fact remains that Somalia once had a proud national military force and an even more highly respected police force. If Somalia was able to accomplish this earlier in its independent history, it should be able to do so again.