Small Wars Journal

An Opportunity in Somalia

It appears that al Shabaab, the al Qaeda affiliated militia that controlled large portions of Somalia, is withdrawing its fighters from the capital, Mogadishu, and that the Somali Army and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have succeeded in their months-long campaign to reclaim the capital.   al Shabaab’s withdrawal, whether a strategic choice or an act of necessity, provides an opportunity for the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), AMISOM, and the international community to reengage the Somali people, and in spite of significant odds, reverse the tide of chaos.

Sometimes described as an African Taliban, al Shabaab, “the youth” in Arabic, emerged from the ashes of the ruling Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2007 as a militia driven by Somali nationalism and Salafi ideology.  They initially brought welcome security, but with it, a strict interpretation of Islam, and enforced severe adherence with harsh punishments.  Its leaders declared support for al Qaeda, harbored and cooperated with its leadership, and accepted foreign fighters to execute jihad in the Horn of Africa.  The group has adopted the insurgent and terrorist tactics of jihadists worldwide, including assassinations, suicide bombings, and improvised explosive devices.  They are credited with the World Cup suicide bombing in neighboring Uganda, and may have trained Islamic fighters from neighboring Nigeria on suicide bombing techniques.[1]  American citizens have appeared in al Shabaab’s ranks, including a sizable contingent of Somali-American youths from Minnesota, but the group has not yet directed attacks in the United States (US). 

AMISOM fields 9,000 soldiers, with an additional 3,000 planned for deployment, and proposals for up to 20,000 troops in discussions.[2]  The African Union (AU) should be commended and encouraged for AMISOM and its aggressive and dangerous work.    The international community has called for humanitarian aid to combat the severe famine that imperils millions of Somalis, but the world should likewise support AMISOM and its mission.  The US deployed its forces to Somalia in late 1992 to force the delivery of aid, and the humanitarian action crept to combat which ended with the well-publicized Battle of the Black Sea in Mogadishu in 1993 that left 18 Americans dead.  In the fight’s aftermath, the US withdrew from Somalia, and within a few years, the rest of the world followed suit. 

In 2006, the US supported and encouraged an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to expel the ICU, but when Ethiopia withdrew its forces in 2009, American support shifted to the AU troops preventing another vacuum.  The US has targeted al Shabaab and al Qaeda leaders with airstrikes, but has understandably resisted deploying ground forces to aid the TFG.  Instead, the US has funded and trained AU and Somali Army forces in neighboring countries.  The US should not be expected to deploy forces now, but it can continue, and should increase, its support to the AU and the Somali Army.  The Somali people will likely not accept a long-term foreign presence, even from AU member states, so it is essential that the Somali Army and security forces are a priority.  Just as the US has built and mentored the Iraqi Army and Afghan National Army, the AU can shepherd and support the Somali forces as they grow and mature.  That said; this will be a long term mission and commitment. 

AMISOM lacks the intelligence, logistics, and firepower assets that American, NATO, or international forces could provide at this time of need.[3]  NATO forces are stretched by deployments to Afghanistan and Libya, and western economies suffer from debt and uncertainty, but the international community must prioritize its commitments and support Somalia.  Another opportunity cannot be missed.  The US intends to provide $105 million in aid for humanitarian assistance, and the international community should follow America’s lead and commit to recovery in Somalia.  This aid will likely focus on foods, supplies, medicine, and the like, but world leaders should consider focusing a portion of these funds on Somali security and capability.  Much like in the early 1990’s, aid delivery has already turned to violence, and there is no guarantee it will reach those in need without a fight. 

Al Shabaab appears to be in retreat, but it is not defeated, and will likely continue its campaign against the TFG and AMISOM with assassinations, terrorism, and suicide attacks.  It may even export the fight to the neighboring AU states to target their politicians and populace.  Somalia has not had a functioning and permanent national government in decades, and the effects of chaos and war will not recede overnight.  Recovery and rebuilding will take years, and will rely on unprecedented honesty, performance, and competence from the TFG and its politicians.  al Shabaab revealed its true face when it denied humanitarian aid to its people, and while some of its members do care for Somalia, others focus on jihad. 

AMISOM must seize this opportunity in Mogadishu and enable the nascent TFG and Somali Army to deliver aid to the Somali people.  The battle is not over, but the TFG has a real opportunity to act and establish legitimacy.  The world will support Somalia with humanitarian aid, but it should also support and expand AMISOM and TFG capability.  Security has been a pipe dream in Somalia, but the future for millions of suffering Somalis demands the world try again.        

[1] Fisher, Jonah.  “Are Nigeria’s Boko Haram getting foreign backing?”  BBC News.  21 June 2011.  Web.  07 August 2011.

[2] Diarra, Boubacar Gaoussou.  “We’re Winning in Somalia.”  Foreign Policy.  26 July 2011.  Web.  05 August 2011.

[3] Ibid.