9 May 2018

The Strategic Situation in Somalia and the Upcoming Withdrawal

Christopher Griffin

The Strategic Situation in Somalia and the Upcoming Withdrawal of International Forces

Last year, on March 6, 2017, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) marked its tenth year of combat operations against Al-Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-affiliated insurgent group. Six African countries provide the soldiers for AMISOM: Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Sierra Leone.[1] The current size of the force was set out in UN Security Council Resolution 2124 (12 November 2013), which requested the African Union (AU) to increase the number of soldiers from 17,731 to 22,126.

AMISOM’s official purpose can be found in the Status of Mission Agreement with the Transitional Government in Somalia in 2007, which reads that AMISOM will:

“support the Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs) [the Somali Government] in their efforts toward the stabilization of the situation in Somalia and the furtherance of dialogue and reconciliation; to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance; and create conducive conditions for long-term stabilization, reconstruction and development in Somalia.” (Chapter II, Article IV)

Readers familiar with counterinsurgency theory as developed in Afghanistan and Iraq will note the emphasis on the mission of stabilization and the deliberate lack of any direct reference to combat operations. In fact, however, most of AMISOM’s real mission up to September 2017 was to degrade the military capacity of Al-Shabaab and allow the Somalia government to exercise authority over the whole of the country. UN Security Council Resolution 2297 (7 July 2016) gave AMISOM a mandate to continue to “conduct offensive operations against Al-Shabaab.” AMISOM was not really intended to undertake peacekeeping operations, despite its label as a peacekeeping force. The African Union force is specifically authorized to take the fight to the adversary and to defeat them. It is relatively unusual that an international organization authorizes and directly supports the use of offensive military operations to retake a country. Al-Shabaab was seen by both the AU and the UN as a major danger that had to be dealt with decisive military force.

The current issue, however, is that the UN has instructed AMISOM to begin its withdrawal from Somalia in October 2018, with international troops completely out of the country by 2020. The following sections of this essay will look at two related questions having to do with AMISOM’s withdrawal from Somalia. First, why was the decision made to end the mission? Second, is the strategic situation in Somalia stable enough to be able to send the AU troops home?

AMISOM’s Withdrawal in 2018: A Question of Funding

The largest single contributor to the funding of the AMISOM intervention has been the European Union (EU). As early as March 2016, however, Neven Mimica, the EU’s Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, indicated that the EU would begin to cut back funds for the AMISOM force. The Commissioner said that the EU would reduce the pay for soldiers in AMISOM by 20% of 2016 levels. He expected the AU and the countries sending troops to AMISOM to make up the difference. Mimica claimed that the EU was shouldering too much of the burden, and that “AMISOM can count on the EU’s continued support. But we need other partners to contribute.”

It appears that the pay for soldiers in AMISOM was covered completely by the EU prior to 2016. According to a number of sources, the reduction in monthly pay for each soldier in 2016 was from US$1028/month to US$822/month. Following the announcement by the EU, Ethiopia withdrew a significant number of troops from Somalia, which undermined the efficiency of the mission. Ethiopia, however, claimed that the troop drawdown concerned forces that did not make up part of AMISOM. The shortfall in pay seems to have not been made up in 2017, as the AU was reportedly considering raising the level from US$822/month to the standard UN peacekeeper pay of US$1400/month. Other accounting problems led to non-payment of soldiers’ salaries for six months in 2016. In March 2018, an agreement was signed between the EU and the AU for what looks to be an emergency fund of US$197 million to make up nine months of back pay.

The lack of funding, rather than the political will of the Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) seem to be behind the decision to withdraw AMISOM and transition to the Somali National Army (SNA). Uganda even proposed sending 5,000 more soldiers in September 2017 providing adequate funding was provided, but the country’s proposal was not approved by the UN Security Council, which instead requested, via Resolution 2372, that the withdrawal of AMISOM begin. The loss of interest by donor organizations and countries in funding AMISOM has led to funding shortfalls that the UN is not willing to make up, and that it appears the AU and the TCCs cannot pay for. At the same time, the situation on the ground in Somalia is not yet conducive to a withdrawal of international troops.

The Strategic Situation in Somalia

On April 23, 2018, the Ugandan Chief of the Defence Forces, General David Muhoozi, claimed that not only are his troops unable to effectively carry out combat operations, but that there is not enough money available to start the scheduled troop drawdown. General Muhoozi said forward operating bases were being closed down, and that “we cannot defend what we already have and neither can we effectively offend the enemy to degrade [its] capacity.” Given that the Ugandan Army represents the largest single contingent in AMISOM, Muhoozi’s comments indicate that the situation in Somalia is extremely difficult. General Muhoozi placed the blame squarely on the UN Security Council’s decision to withdraw the force. He also claimed that AMISOM troops were not provided with adequate equipment to defend against the biggest threat from Al-Shabaab, the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

UN Security Council Resolution 2372 (30 August 2017), states that the “long term objective for Somalia … is that Somali Security Forces assume full responsibility for Somalia’s security.” AMISOM’s main purpose became to build up the SNA’s capacities during a transition period, rather than to pursue the defeat of Al-Shabaab. A UN-led peacekeeping mission was ruled out completely.  What is curious here is that the UN Security Council appears to be making strategic decisions about the AMISOM deployment, including force size and withdrawal timetables, with little input from the elements fighting on the ground. Uganda’s proposal to send more soldiers was rejected, which demonstrates that the TCCs themselves are not calling the shots in terms of strategy. The AU’s willingness to let the Security Council decide likely is due to a significant dependence on the UN for the continuation of the mission.

Resolution 2372, however, does not reflect the situation on the ground in Somalia. It is true that AMISOM has made significant gains against Al-Shabaab in its 11 years of operations. The ability of Al-Shabaab to strike outside of Somalia seems to have been degraded to a certain degree, as there has not been a major international terrorist attack from the group since the Garissa University attack in Kenya in April 2015. As mentioned below, however, this may also be due to a strategic decision to focus large attacks on Mogadishu in the last three years. There are regular, smaller incidents in Kenya, however, but the expected large attacks during the unstable period of Kenya’s elections last year did not materialize. Kenya’s northeastern coastal areas did suffer limited incursions from Al-Shabaab in the run-up to the elections, however, which were overlooked by most major media sources at the time. Kenyan newspapers began discussing a “resurgence” of attacks in Lamu County in northeastern Kenya as early as May 2017. An Al-Shabaab cell called Jaysh al-Ayman, whose commanders may have participated in the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in 2013, may currently be present in the forests of northeastern Kenya, and carrying out local attacks.

The other major success of AMISOM, which has proved more durable, was driving Al-Shabaab out of the major cities of Somalia. After a year-long battle, AMISOM defeated Al-Shabaab fighters in Mogadishu in August 2011, retaking the city after five years of occupation. In October 2012, AMISOM pushed Al-Shabaab out of the southern city of Kismayo, which was its last large urban base. Finally, the city of Barawe and its port were taken in October 2014.

All of these battles were rightly hailed as major victories for AMISOM but were followed by an extension of the terrorist campaign to Kenya and continued violence in Somalia. 2016 and 2017 were particularly bad years for AMISOM in Somalia. Despite the hold of the international forces over the cities of Somalia, and the elections of a new president, neither AMISOM nor the SNA has been able to hold the countryside against Al-Shabaab. A series of Al-Shabaab assaults on AMISOM bases and major terrorist attacks within Somalia has led to a precarious strategic situation in the country.

On January 15, 2016, Al-Shabaab attacked the Kenyan base at El Adde. CNN called the attack “Kenya’s largest military defeat since independence.” The Kenyan Government, according to many sources, tried to keep the assault secret, and there is still controversy today over the number of casualties. CNN estimated that 141 Kenyan soldiers died in the Al-Shabaab attack. In previous, similar attacks in 2015, AMISOM criticized the lack of air support from the UN against massed Al-Shabaab assaults. In summer 2017, news sources announced that the Ugandan and Kenyan armies were in the process of acquiring attack helicopters from the U.S. company Bell to make up the airpower shortfall.

Al-Shabaab’s main tactic to fight ANISOM since 2015 has been to cut off and assault relatively small and isolated AMISOM bases. A typical attack involves a first assault with suicide car bombs to open the way into the base and then Al-Shabaab fighters engage the soldiers on the base in combat. AMISOM does not appear to have found a solution to this problem, as the latest major assault as of writing dates to 1 April 2018, when Al-Shabaab attacked a Ugandan base southwest of Mogadishu using similar tactics. The AMISOM website heralded the operation as a success, with 4 AU soldiers killed and 30 Al-Shabaab militants killed. Al-Shabaab, however, claimed to have killed 59 AMISOM soldiers. There are no official total casualty figures for AMISOM since its deployment, but a Kenyan newspaper in January 2018 estimated the death toll to be well over 4000 since 2007.

As mentioned above, Al-Shabaab also employs terrorist attacks in Kenya as part of its overall strategy. While its major terrorist attacks abroad slowed down in 2015, Al-Shabaab reoriented its attacks toward Somalia itself. Al-Shabaab began 2016 with a failed attempt to destroy a Daallo Airlines passenger plane in Somalia. Targeting civilian aircraft has been a strategy of both Al Qaeda and Daesh in the past and may have been in part an attempt by Al-Shabaab to demonstrate its credentials as an Al Qaeda affiliate. Subsequent terrorist attacks primarily targeted Mogadishu, with attacks on government officials and institutions, schools, and hotels.

Somalia’s worst terrorist attack in its history, however, occurred on 14 October 2017, when a truck bomb exploded in Mogadishu. The original target was the airport, but the bomb was set off when security forces stopped the truck in the street. Some Somalis have called the attack “Somalia’s 9/11,” as 512 people died, which makes it one of the deadliest terrorist attacks worldwide in the last 20 years. Attacks continue regularly in Somalia, which include multiple car bombings in the capital on 6 April 2018.

All of the above indicates that on the eve of the AMISOM withdrawal, it appears that Al-Shabaab has gained in strength since 2015. Al-Shabaab has demonstrated both its capacity to use coordinated military force to reduce AMISOM bases and to threaten the Somali Government and population with large terrorist attacks on Mogadishu. AMISOM is a long way from defeating a resurgent Al-Shabaab, and thus withdrawal is likely premature at best, and at worst will open the door for the terrorist group to retake the urban areas of Somalia.


While the situation is bleak, and the upcoming AMISOM withdrawal highly problematic, there are some positive developments in Somalia.  The USA has stepped up military involvement in Somalia, particularly airstrikes against Al-Shabaab. The American military has also expanded to target Daesh fighters in Somalia. Despite concerns about increasing civilian casualties due to U.S. airstrikes, the increased American involvement, which also includes up to 500 ground troops and advisors, has been welcomed by the Somali Government.  Within Somalia there is growing stability in the political institutions, both in the Federal Member States and with the Federal Government, with peaceful transition of power in February 2017.  While still minimal, these factors, including some evidence of economic progress, point to improvements that contribute to the development of longer term stability in the region.


[1] Both Kenya and Ethiopia were extensively involved in combat operations against insurgents in Somalia prior to the integration of some of their forces into AMISOM in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Six countries also provide police for the mission: Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zambia.

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