Book Club: Fighting for Peace in Somalia

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In the latest of our popular #BookClub feature, Paul Williams shares the key lessons of his important new book, and argues that fighting without talking is unlikely to generate a lasting peace in Somalia.

In March 2007, a Ugandan battlegroup of approximately 1,600 soldiers deployed to Mogadishu, the only troops to arrive out of the 8,000 authorized for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Since then, as I document in Fighting for Peace in Somalia, AMISOM has become the African Union’s longest, largest, most expensive, and most deadly peace support operation. Peaking at just over 22,000 personnel and approximately $1 billion per year, AMISOM has probably suffered over 1,800 fatalities.

Since December 2017, AMISOM has withdrawn 1,500 troops but it is currently struggling to implement its transition plan whereby the Mission would handover primary security responsibilities to local Somali forces. This is mainly because unlike most peace operations there is no peace deal in Somalia and the Somali National Army (SNA) remains in a dire state.

Successes and complications

The Mission has achieved some notable successes but it has also faced some major challenges that continue to expose its limitations. First, AMISOM is an example of what the UN Secretary-General called “partnership peacekeeping.” This is tough to do well at the best of times, but it’s especially tough in an ongoing war zone against a deadly, resilient and knowledgeable enemy like al-Shabaab. Second, peacekeepers can do little more than limit the war’s damage if Somalia’s political elites continue to squabble amongst themselves and don’t prioritize the fight against al-Shabaab. And, third, without an effective set of local security forces, the war against al-Shabaab will remain stalemated and AMISOM will not be able to deliver a clear path to military victory.

AMISOM is arguably the world’s most complicated example of “partnership peacekeeping,” in part because it’s been more about war-fighting than peace-keeping. Authorized by both the African Union Peace and Security Council and the United Nations Security Council, its troops and civilian personnel come from African countries. The six troop-contributing countries (Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia) have also received significant security assistance packages that delivered training and equipment, notably from the United States and United Kingdom. Allowances for the peacekeepers and other forms of indirect support have been provided by the European Union via its African Peace Facility. And since 2009, the United Nations has provided an unprecedented logistical support package, including everything from rations and fuel to medical support and accommodation. As if this wasn’t complicated enough, AMISOM had to operate alongside several parallel military forces that it did not control, including unilateral forces from Ethiopia, Kenya and the United States.

Transitional arrangements

When AMISOM arrived in Mogadishu there was no functioning government. Instead, there was a Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Established in Djibouti and Kenya, and then brought to Mogadishu in December 2006 on the back of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers, the TFG was a government in name only and remained confined to a few blocks of the city. It had no army or police force and was unable to deliver even rudimentary services to its people. Many locals saw it as illegitimate, corrupt and ineffective. Al-Shabaab used this to boost its own propaganda and rise from a small extremist faction to become the major Somali resistance movement.

The “transitional” labelled was dropped in late 2012 when Somalia formed its first Federal Government, still under AMISOM’s protection. Since then, AMISOM helped establish the building blocks of a new, federal system of government for south-central Somalia. Along with the Federal Government, these regional entities were initially known as “Interim Regional Administrations,” which formed in Jubaland, Southwest, Galmudug and Hirshabelle between 2013 and 2016. They are now known as Federal Member States, even though Somalia’s new constitution remains in draft form.

Best case scenario

AMISOM was mandated to help support and consolidate the Federal Government’s authority and to reduce the threat posed by al-Shabaab. But this proved impossible while the Federal Government and the Federal Member States engaged in persistent political—sometimes violent—infighting. These conflicts meant that the key political elites across south-central Somalia failed to genuinely operationalize the country’s new national security architecture, which was developed in 2017. Until these elites can reconcile, they will not be able to build an effective set of national security forces, nor mount an effective, coordinated campaign against al-Shabaab. Until then, the best AMISOM can do is limit the damage and provide a degree of security in the urban settlements it helped recover from al-Shabaab between 2012 and 2015.

Finally, as a result of these political conflicts, the dire state of the SNA, and al-Shabaab’s resilience, since 2016, the war has been effectively stalemated with relatively little change of territorial control for either side. It is therefore highly unlikely that either side will be able to achieve a military victory. In the interim, however, AMISOM remains overstretched, under-paid and rather unwilling to mount any major offensive operations. It is also regularly targeted by al-Shabaab, which uses hundreds of IED attacks each year, ambushes AMISOM and Somali convoys, and sometimes launches more conventional assaults on their forward operating bases. Al-Shabaab also continues to regularly terrorize Mogadishu’s residents.

In such circumstances, it would be sensible to initiate peace talks between the Somali authorities and al-Shabaab. This is the most plausible way that AMISOM could implement a successful exit strategy in the foreseeable future, and leave behind a more stable country.


Paul D. Williams is professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University where he is associate director of the Security Policy Studies MA program

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