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Is Somalia ready to shoulder security burden after African Union exit?


Mohammed Dhaysane
Wednesday October 11, 2023

Since earlier this year, the African Union (AU) has been in the process of drawing down its 22,000-strong peacekeeping force in Somalia, even as the country faces the continued threat of the al-Shabaab terror group.

As of September, the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) had withdrawn a total of 2,000 troops — less than the planned 5,000 — but this was enough to spark panic among the country’s security leadership, which, in the face of military setbacks and a hasty retreat from newly liberated areas, requested a “tactical” three-month delay to the drawdown.

Officials have expressed concern that al-Shabaab could overrun the country unless the UN Security Council extends the AU mandate past its December 2024 expiration date or a decades-long arms embargo is lifted.

One region under particular risk is Gedo, near the country’s southern tip.

According to Ali Yussuf Abdullahi, the regional administration’s spokesman, it will face dramatic security challenges if the Ethiopian forces hosted there are pulled out.

Little resources and manpower are left for outlying regions like Gedo to organize locals and mobilize regular forces, as most have been moved to the Horn of Africa nation’s heartlands.

“If AU forces withdraw today, we will not be able to hold more than two weeks due to lack of resources and a capable force in the region,” Abdullahi told Anadolu over the phone.

Unlike in central areas, where the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents faced uprisings as it besieged towns and burned food supplies, they opted in Gedo for political pragmatism.

“What we are dealing with here feels like another al-Shabaab,” said Abdullahi.

But this has not eased concerns.

Mohamed Abdi Tool, governor of neighboring Bakool, told Anadolu that Somalia lacks enough troops to fend off the threat on its own, just like in 2007 when AU troops got their mandate in the first place.

Experts think now would be an especially challenging time for Somalia to take over from the peacekeepers, given the wide range of jobs they currently shoulder.

“They (Somalia) are building their army, they’re fighting al-Shabaab, they’re holding areas, they’re also looking to expand the areas of which they do all of these activities,” said Omar Mahmood, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Eastern Africa.

Now, he told Anadolu, Mogadishu is trying to buy time by asking to delay the drawdown by three months.

“If Somalia needs that time to sort out this aspect, that might be enough. But it’s not necessarily to say that everything will be fine after that, there will still be challenges,” he cautioned.

This will also mark the legacy of the peacekeeping force, he said, stressing that while the AU mission had achieved a lot in Somalia over the past 16 years, the current dynamics will paint the way it is remembered.

Complex endeavor

Since 2007, Somalia has made considerable progress strengthening its security forces to eventually replace the AU mission.

But the task is complex and ongoing, according to Mohamed Husein Gaas, director of the Raad Peace Research Institute in Mogadishu.

“Large-scale international support is crucial, including capacity building, training, and equipping. Removing the arms embargo on Somalia would also facilitate this process,” Gaas told Anadolu.

Besides growing the Somali forces’ size and capabilities, a full takeover from the AU mission will require continued support for the national army, meticulous planning to ensure smooth transfer of responsibilities, and, until then, a reinvigoration of the peacekeeping force, he said.

While the AU force initially made significant strides in combating al-Shabaab, including by pushing them out of major urban areas, recent years have seen limited offensive actions, he noted.

Another crucial point, according to Gaas, will be maintaining “a balanced approach, where Somalia takes ownership of its security while benefiting from international assistance and capacity-building efforts directly.”

To effectively combat the terror threat and achieve lasting peace and security, a “renewed, proactive approach is essential,” he said.

Epic failure

A withdrawal now would mean an “epic failure” for AU peacekeeping efforts in Africa, neglecting the sacrifices thousands of soldiers, according to Abdirisak Aden, executive director of Farsight Africa Research and Policy Studies.

Speaking to Anadolu, Aden said that while the mission and the African peace and security leadership had already decided to halt the withdrawal, it would ultimately be up to the AU and other countries to provide Somalia the needed financial support.

“Somalia needs a fraction of US and EU funding to Ukraine to defeat al-Shabaab,” he said, underlining that the UN Security Council needed to understand that Somalia is fighting a global terror organization on the world’s behalf.

Aden argued that to sustain the winning tide of the war against al-Shabaab, the arms embargo on Somalia must be gradually lifted to allow the federal government “the necessary military capabilities” to defeat al-Shabaab.

Complete defeat of al-Shabaab

For Gaas, complete defeat of al-Shabaab during the current term of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is ambitious but achievable.

The country is at the cusp of a critical opportunity toward fully eliminating the group, he said, pointing to recent “unprecedented” territorial gains against it.

Final victory, Gaas added, would demand a “comprehensive, well-coordinated, long-term approach, encompassing stabilization, service delivery, rebuilding, and reconciliation.”

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