On January 22, news began breaking of agreement between the Somali government and the African Union (AU) Commission on the future of the AU intervention mission in Somalia. After 15 years, an uncertain withdrawal process, and doubts surrounding both the federal government and the current stretched-out electoral process, the mission needed reassessment. A formal announcement confirming the new shape of the mission has not yet been made, nor has the agreement been negotiated by the AU Peace and Security Council and the United Nations (UN) Security Council, but the outlines have been widely reported. Unfortunately, the changes to be expected seem likely to have little real positive effect. The mission’s success and exit rely on the handover of military responsibilities to an effective Somali replacement. But the Somali National Army remains as politicized and clan-divided as it has ever been, and at the present, little improvement seems likely in the short to medium term.
AU and UN military intervention missions usually end up involved in intractable internal conflicts; the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mali, and South Sudan come to mind, and the United States (US)-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq show close parallels. No matter how effective the military operations are, they cannot magically resolve the underlying political problems. Thus they tend to elongate: the UN arrived in the DRC in 1999, and in South Sudan in 2005, but neither has departed. The US returned to Iraq, and only left Afghanistan after a very unusual president, Donald Trump, changed course, and even that only after a total of 20 years. Somalia is now in a similar position: this year the AU intervention mission is entering its fifteenth year.
There are two underlying and interconnected challenges facing southern Somalia today: the Al-Shabaab extremist Islamic insurgency, and the almost deliberately unsettled division of power and responsibilities between the federal government of Somalia in Mogadishu and the federal member states. Over the past five years, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohammed “Farmaajo”’s priority has not been to address these problems, but instead to subvert the regional federal member states to guarantee the votes that would see him reelected.
Repeated, long-lasting foreign efforts have been made to increase the capability of the Somali National Army (SNA) so that it might take over from the AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which has been fighting Al-Shabaab in Somalia, with some outside assistance, including from the US, since March 2007. Repeated iterations of the Somali Transition Plan fundamentally rely upon a revitalized, effective local army that AMISOM can hand over to in order to withdraw. In the words of the Transition Plan’s Progress Report for the first half of 2021, “the overall aim… is to achieve the progressive transfer of security responsibilities from AMISOM to the Somali Security Forces.”
The core of the challenge is that President Farmaajo would not necessarily gain power from such a strategy, instead, he might well see his influence reduced. African presidents historically have shown little interest in effective armies, which might end up threatening their power. The National Security Architecture of April 2017, which envisioned revitalized military forces drawn from both the center and the federal member states, in accordance with the Provisional Constitution, has been left by the wayside. The bulk of the SNA remains a collection of clan-animated militias with few effective military characteristics that Westerners recognize. Foreign military assistance has unfortunately become deeply entangled with vested interests, helping to aid various political players against each other. The result is foreign-supported, semi-detached parallel forces like the US-supported Danab (probably the most effective military force in southern Somalia), the Turkish-supported Gorgor, the police Haram’aad, the intelligence agency’s Gashan, and the newer Eritrean-trained forces.
While President Farmaajo was sending the parallel Haram’aad and Gorgor forces to back up his electoral subversion efforts in the federal member states, operations against Al-Shabaab took a somewhat secondary place. Of the three headline Transition Plan military objectives, only the Mogadishu stadium was successfully handed over, as a sustained Baidoa Road offensive and activities to secure Leego district never eventuated. Operation Badbaado in Lower Shabelle bogged down into holding an ill-supported and semi-isolated series of villages, with SNA brigades being badly battered in the process, and a follow-on planned Operation Badbaado II in Middle Shabelle never really gained any momentum. Al-Shabaab routinely exploited the lack of routine, systemic patrolling from either AMISOM or Somali forward positions.
During the first half of 2021, Al-Shabaab had “encountered little resistance in capturing several towns and villages in areas that had previously been hostile… [the] United States military withdrawal and the partial drawdown of AMISOM [had] left Somali special forces struggling to contain Al-Shabaab.” The infiltration of Mogadishu by Al-Shabaab—always a factor—was reaching new heights. It appeared that the city might fall relatively quickly if AMISOM was withdrawn. Thus when negotiations—and some political posturing—began over an extension for AMISOM in July 2021, the military situation had deteriorated. The federal government initially rejected AU proposals in their entirety, which now looks even more likely to have been only a tactic to seize more leverage in the following discussions.
This is because, as the news that broke on January 22, 2022 suggests, a new agreement on the future of the AU mission had been reached in Addis Ababa. The name will change, from AMISOM to the new African Union Transitional Mission in Somalia (ATMIS). The name change evokes strong similarities with a similar name change to the UN’s Congo mission in 2010. Lack of progress despite the passage of time had led to a clamor for something to change, but the fundamentals of the challenge did not. It is possible, though unlikely, that the details discussed below might change before a formal announcement is made.
Troop-contributing countries to AMISOM have to some extent been fighting their own separate wars for their own reasons under the AMISOM banner. In a probably ineffective attempt to address this problem, contributor countries have now reportedly declared (again) that “their troops will come under the full operational command of the force commander.” Another change will be that the force commander will stop being a rotational position, but instead be drawn from the largest troop-contributing country (historically Uganda).
But the greatest reason for expecting little change is that ATMIS is to “support the objectives and priorities of the Somali Transition Plan.” That means creating revitalized military forces that could take over from the AU mission. But a change of name for the mission, or even the significant political changes that might result from the current revitalized electoral process, will not achieve this.
The SNA’s clan brigades, forming the vast majority, remain intrinsically at the beck and call of their parent clans—which has been the situation since 2009. That seems only likely to change if and when those parent clans feel much safer, in which case the militiamen forming those brigades might disperse by themselves, dissolving the units in the process. Since clan militias have been the backbone of armed forces across Somalia since the late 1980s, such dispersal and dissolution seem very unlikely. Real progress against Al-Shabaab seems much more likely if the clans in the hinterland are harnessed against Al-Shabaab, together with formed armies. This would reflect customary Somali modes of fighting to a much greater degree.
The agreement also states that the current contributing countries will form the basis of the new mission, with some possibility for expansion. All current contributors are almost certainly looking to stay in the mission; some of the new potential contributors under discussion inspire confidence, some do not. It appears that Tunisia, Rwanda, and especially Egypt are being considered with varying degrees of seriousness. Tunisia gave an impressive performance under very difficult conditions during the fraught UNAMIR II mission amid the genocide in Rwanda. But that operation, while horrific, was short; ATMIS will stretch off into the uncertain future. It is not clear how long potentially excellent Tunisian performance might last. Rwanda has attracted many accolades for its UN and AU deployments. The real risk is the “genuine interest” of Egypt. Egyptian military performance has been uniformly awful, and there are real questions as to whether Egyptian troops can handle more than the most static cease-fire supervision type missions of the Cold War. The Egyptian military government is more likely to be looking, it appears, for money to maintain a bloated army, as well as intelligence.
One small positive move, long overdue, is the adoption of the same unit boundaries as the SNA. Since the November 2017 change of SNA sector (division) boundaries to match the new federal member states, AMISOM sectors and SNA divisions have supervised overlapping areas. This has complicated the command chain, worst in places like Lower Shabelle. The new agreement announced the boundaries will now be the same. Careful liaison across sector boundaries will be necessary to avoid Al-Shabaab exploiting the “seams” between differing countries’ forces, however.
Finally, the announced length of the mission has been extended, which is realistic, but also symptomatic of the quagmires these missions end up in. The new ATMIS is supposed to hand over security responsibilities to the Somali National Army by December 31, 2023. Earlier, an extension for another full five years or more, to 2027, was actually under discussion. Separate academic analysis late last year predicted Somalia in 2026 overall might appear much like today, with little change. It is not at all clear whether the military situation might have improved by that time either.
Overall, the signs are not particularly positive. However, one can hope that the current electoral process now underway in southern Somalia will first, produce a stable administration that is ready to govern in partnership with the federal member states, in accordance with the Provisional Constitution; and second, work together with the federal member states and other partners to defeat Al-Shabaab. Renewed political agreement and Somali willingness to work together could change everything.
Dr. Colin D. Robinson is a Research Fellow with the African Research Institute at Óbuda University in Budapest. He spent 2018-2020 on European Union contract analyzing and reporting on military forces in southern Somalia.