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Al Shabaab is not resurgent, Amisom is weak

Thursday February 4, 2016

Soldiers of the Kenyan Contingent serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia sit on a flat-bed truck as a convoy makes its way between the port of Kismayo and the city's airport on October 2, 2012.

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In his speech to the African Union Peace and Security Council on Saturday, President Uhuru Kenyatta said Amisom had failed in its objective of helping the Federal Government of Somalia recover the entire territory of Somalia in time for this year’s elections. He stated that there was need to vary the mission’s mandate and presented a five-point proposal which he said would help Amisom root out al Shabaab.

The Star's Patrick Gathara spoke to Paul D. Williams, associate professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and author of War and Conflict in Africa, about this new development.

Do you agree that Amisom has failed to deliver on its mandate?

Of course, Amisom has not completed all of its mandated tasks. But it has made significant progress since it first deployed to Mogadishu in March 2007. The current priorities for Amisom are reducing the threat posed by al Shabaab and assisting the Federal Government to consolidate and expand its control across Somalia, in part by helping to develop an effective set of Somali security forces. On both these issues, Amisom has struggled. While Amisom and Somali forces have recovered over two dozen towns in their offensive operations during 2014 and 2015, they have had problems destroying al Shabaab’s main combat forces rather than simply displacing them. Al Shabaab therefore remains able to conduct various forms of attacks, including overrunning some of Amisom’s forward operating bases in Leego, Janaale and El Adde.

Amisom has also not been able to make much progress on its broader stabilisation agenda in these recovered settlements because the Federal Government has lacked the capacity to deliver basic services and legitimate stable governance to them. Finally, Amisom alone is not able to create a set of capable, legitimate and inclusive Somali security forces until Somalia’s own political elites agree on a settlement that clarifies how the Somali National Army and Police Force will be formed out of the existing forces held by the Interim Regional Administrations, Puntland, and some clan militias.

You tweeted that President Uhuru Kenyatta’s proposals “suggest his leadership has been entirely absent for the last few years”. What did you mean by this?

I meant several things. First, President Kenyatta’s proposals demonstrate a fundamental ignorance of Amisom’s mandate and rules of engagement, both of which permit the troop-contributing countries to use lethal force in offensive operations against al Shabaab. They have done so for several years. Second, from December 2014 until December 2015 it’s important to recall that Amisom’s force commander was a Kenyan general.

If President Kenyatta had exercised effective leadership earlier he should have worked hard when one of his own generals was in charge of Amisom to rectify any problems. Third, Kenya has been part of Amisom since mid-2012. President Kenyatta has had three and a half years to strongly support Amisom. But until the battle at El Adde on January 15, 2016, he has not ensured that Amisom has the resources it needs to take the fight effectively to al Shabaab. He is now scrambling to respond after Kenyan forces took a serious blow yet he made no similar calls when Burundian and Ugandan troops were killed when their bases were overrun by al Shabaab in June and September 2015.

You also tweeted that it is wrong for President Kenyatta to blame the Amisom mandate and rules of engagement for the al Shabaab attack on the Amisom base in El Adde which appears to have resulted in numerous KDF casualties. Why is this?

Amisom’s mandate and rules of engagement both permit soldiers from troop-contributing countries to use lethal force in offensive operations against al Shabaab. They have done so for several years. It is therefore completely false to suggest that a different Amisom mandate and rules of engagement would have prevented an attack like the one on El Adde.
Acting Force Commander, Maj. Gen. Nakibus Lakara, addresses AMISOM KDF soldiers at El-Adde town in the southwestern Gedo region of Somalia on January 23, 2016.

The El Adde attack was the third time al Shabaab have overrun an Amisom base in the last seven months with the mission suffering numerous casualties. Is this a sign of a resurgent al Shabaab or of a weak Amisom?

I think the attacks on Amisom’s three forward operating bases at Leego (June 2015), Janaale (September 2015), and El Adde (January 2016) are more reflective of Amisom’s current vulnerabilities than al Shabaab’s growing strength. In order to successfully conduct these attacks, al Shabaab had to muster and organise probably no more than 300 fighters in each case; support them with VBIEDs to breach the main perimeter of these bases; and wait for an opportune moment to launch the attacks. This highlights Amisom’s vulnerabilities and does not necessarily mean al Shabaab has become a lot stronger. In more than one case, Amisom’s bases were attacked shortly after a rotation or arrival of a new contingent of troops.

Second, Amisom was not able to quickly support the bases once they were attacked because it lacks a rapid response force and possesses zero military attack helicopters. Third, the individual bases did not have effective defenses, in part because Amisom lacks sufficient capabilities in the area of military engineering units. Fourth, it remains unclear how much information local populations around each of these bases had about the impending al Shabaab attacks. Regardless, Amisom’s forces must maintain good relationships with the local populations if they want to be successful.

You wrote in an article for the Washington Post that 'Amisom’s Kenyan forces have failed to build strong relationships with the Gedo region’s local population or SNA forces stationed nearby'. A debate is now raging in Kenya regarding whether the country should withdraw its troops from Amisom. Do you think Kenya should
withdraw? What is Kenya doing wrong? How can it do better?

It’s not my place to say whether Kenya should withdraw its troops from Somalia. I do not have access to all the information I would like in order to make such a judgment. But clearly, the KDF forces must learn from their mistakes at El Adde. It would be wise to ensure that an independent evaluation of the KDF’s mission in Somalia is conducted, which should include both Operation Linda Nchi and the time Kenya has been part of Amisom. The factors that contributed to the El Adde attack must be thoroughly scrutinised and lessons learned so as not to allow a similar attack to succeed in the future.

In my opinion, Amisom has had its best successes when it has worked hand-in-hand with the local population to identify, isolate, and confront al Shabaab’s forces. The initial information coming out of the El Adde attack suggests that KDF forces did not have a good relationship with the local population in the area. If they did, this might have helped them be better aware of al Shabaab’s movements and plans. Finally, the KDF and Amisom need to assess the value of these forward operating bases and whether they deliver important political or military effects that are worth the risks and vulnerabilities I identified above.
Kenyan Defence Forces serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) man their position at El-Adde in the southwestern Gedo region of Somalia on January 22, 2016.

You also wrote that 'Al Shabaab no longer poses the existential threat to Somalia’s governing authorities in Mogadishu that it once did' and that the group now has regional ambitions of establishing a caliphate. If this is the case, is the world fighting the wrong fight in Somalia? Is stabilising Somalia, though undoubtedly important, still the same thing as fighting al Shabaab? Does the region, the continent and the world need to change its approach to dealing with the threat?

Until late 2010, al Shabaab posed an existential
threat to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu. If it wasn’t for Amisom peacekeepers, the TFG would probably have been overrun. That is not the situation today and, politically, al Shabaab is not a major voice in the debates about establishing a Somali federal state. Today, stabilising Somalia is not synonymous with fighting al Shabaab. Al Shabaab is only one security threat among many facing Somalia, including clan conflicts, violent struggles over resources, especially land, and violent criminality.

However, we must remember that there are no purely military solutions to any of these problems. Somalia’s security challenges are all connected to the fundamental issue of governance: how and by whom should Somalia be governed? Stabilisation can only occur once Somalia’s own political elites, especially those in the Federal Government, the Interim Regional Administrations, and Puntland agree on a way forward and put efforts to build a Somali state institutions above their partisan bickering and personal profit-seeking. It is only once such a consensus emerges that Somalia can build a genuinely national army and police force.

And it is only after Somalia has a genuinely national army and police force that the threat from al Shabaab can be fundamentally reduced. It should therefore be the priority for Amisom and all its international partners including Igad, the UN and EU and others to engineer a political settlement on Somalia’s governing structures.

Finally, do you think that Amisom, as currently constituted, can achieve its mandate? If not, what are the reasons for this and what do you think should be done about them?

Amisom is principally a military force. As such, it can, at best, deal a military blow to al Shabaab’s combat forces. But without sufficient military enablers, such as attack helicopters and military engineers, it cannot strike a decisive blow against al Shabaab’s forces because it has difficulty catching them and defending all its
new bases. So Amisom should be more effective if it acquired these types of capabilities.

However, as I mentioned above, most of Somalia’s security challenges stem from problems related to governance. This Amisom cannot fix. So as long as Somalia’s political elites cannot agree on how to build a genuinely national set of security forces or deliver basic services to populations in the newly recovered areas, Amisom will struggle to complete its mandated tasks.



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