Monday, July 27, 2015

Can the African Union Defeat Al-Shabaab?
July 27, 2015
Opinion & Analysis
Ty McCormick Correspondent
Foreign Policy

African Union troops are having their “worst year” in Somalia since 2011. Can they still mount a final offensive against the al Qaeda-linked group? Somalia has been without an effective central government since the collapse of Siad Barre’s dictatorial regime in 1991. Subsequent fighting between rival warlords plunged the country into a vicious cycle of clan warfare that paused only briefly, in 2006, when Mogadishu was under the sway of a federation of sharia courts known as the Islamic Courts Union.

But a US-backed Ethiopian invasion in December of that year aimed at toppling the Islamic Courts Union, which had ties to al Qaeda, tipped the country back into a violent conflagration from which it has yet to emerge.

The 2006 invasion had another devastating consequence: Instead of eliminating the extremist threat, it buoyed a radical faction of the Islamic Courts Union – al-Shabaab – which played off of anti-Ethiopian sentiments and soon became the most potent military force in the country.

In 2007, the Ethiopians were joined by AMISOM, a U.N.-backed African Union mission that was tasked initially with little more than protecting Somalia’s fledgling transitional government. But the early deployment of 1 500 Ugandan troops quickly grew into the African Union’s largest-ever peace-support mission, encompassing contingents from Burundi, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia, among others, and embracing an aggressive peace-enforcement mandate centred on taking the fight directly to al-Shabaab.

With the help of private military companies like Bancroft, a shadowy US firm that trained African Union troops and advised them on the front lines, AMISOM gradually began to turn the tide against the militant group – but at an incredible human cost. Nobody knows for sure how many AMISOM troops have died in Somalia, but in 2013 a top UN official put the number as high as 3 000: just shy of the total number of peacekeepers killed in all previous UN peacekeeping missions since 1948.

Despite the staggering body count, AMISOM proved to be the superior conventional military force. In 2011, al-Shabaab controlled a portion of south-central Somalia the size of Denmark and had pushed to within several hundred yards of the presidential palace. By 2012, however, the militant group had withdrawn or been expelled from most major urban areas. It had also lost a number of key operatives to drone strikes and other air-strikes by the United States, which was rapidly expanding its military presence in Somalia for the first time since the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, when 18 American servicemen were killed.

But progress against al-Shabaab has slowed in recent years. Forced from its urban strongholds, the militant group has, to great effect, shifted tactics.

Whereas it once squared off against African Union troops in a conventional manner, even fighting trench warfare in the capital, the group now simply abandons its strongholds when faced with AMISOM’s superior fire-power.

Then it harasses the local population from the surrounding areas and launches attacks on AMISOM’s supply lines, ambushing convoys and planting improvised explosive devices. Al-Shabab’s embrace of asymmetric warfare has also enabled it to regroup in between AMISOM offensives.

In an interview at the presidential palace in Mogadishu, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud lamented a troubling pattern: “We plan a campaign; the campaign moves; it goes on for three months, takes over a lot of territory. Then we stay; we give Al-Shabaab space to regroup, recruit, and then become again strong. This is one of our weaknesses that we have right now,” he said, adding that this has been taken as a “lesson learned” and that the current “victory plan” guiding joint AMISOM-Somali National Army operations will allow for more sustained pressure on al-Shabaab.

AMISOM’s biggest challenge may be stabilising the areas it already controls – and transferring them to Somali security forces – so that it can pursue al-Shabab in its remaining strongholds.

The standard counterinsurgency strategy of “clear, hold, transfer” falls down in Somalia because there is no national force capable of taking over for AMISOM. US contractors are in the process of training an elite battalion of the Somali National Army, and the CIA is thought to have worked with another commando unit that answers to Somalia’s intelligence agency, but the overall capacity of the country’s security forces remains low.

With the exception of the US-trained units, which together comprise fewer than 500 soldiers at this point, the Somali National Army is little more than a collection of clan militias whose members have received virtually no training. Most of those who have received training did so at a bare-bones facility run by the European Union outside Mogadishu, where trainers openly decry the lack of resources.

Somali politicians lay the blame for the abysmal state of the Somali National Army at the feet of international donors, which they say have not made a sufficient investment in Somalia’s domestic security services.

But many officials from donor countries point to rampant corruption within the Somali government as the reason for their cautious approach. The UN Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea, for example, has repeatedly accused the Somali government of selling arms and materiel provided by international donors on the black market or directly to al-Shabab. A leaked 2009 cable from the US Embassy in Nairobi, meanwhile, noted that AMISOM “strictly rations supplies of ammunition to (Somali) soldiers to try to prevent them from selling it.”

In newly liberated areas like Torotorow, before it was retaken by al-Shabab, weak domestic security forces are only part of the problem.

The Somali government has largely failed to fill the void created by al-Shabab’s ouster with anything approaching a functional government.

Torotorow has no hospital and no schools, and residents complained that roads leading to nearby commercial hubs were impassable due to insecurity. AMISOM brought with it a former member of the Somali parliament, Abdulkadir Sheikh Mohamed Nur, and declared him the governor of Lower Shabelle, the region where Torotorow is located. But Nur said he was working on a strictly volunteer basis and that he had no funds from either the Somali government or the international community to set up a caretaker administration.

Al-Shabaab’s ability to strike inside areas controlled by AMISOM, in turn, has kept international donors from playing a bigger role in the construction of caretaker administrations. Philippe Lazzarini, the recently departed resident humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations, said there is a stabilisation plan in place for 13 of the areas that have recently been liberated, including measures to deploy police officers, provide urgent medical care, and mend damaged infrastructure. But in reality, he said, many of these areas are “dots” or “garrisons” that remain difficult if not impossible to access.

So caretaker administrations have been slow to materialise in the areas recovered from al-Shabab. And because lawlessness was one of the forces that strengthened the militant group in the first place — its harsh version of justice was seen by many as preferable to the rampant criminal activity that dominated other periods of Somali history — some officials fret that al-Shabaab could once again make inroads in these communities.

Operation Juba Corridor

Even as AMISOM struggles to stabilize the areas currently under its control, it has announced a new joint offensive with SNA forces aimed at routing al-Shabab from the Juba Valley, one of the militant group’s last remaining strongholds in the country’s south. Dubbed “Operation Juba Corridor,” the long-awaited offensive “will ensure that all the remaining areas in Somalia will be liberated and peace restored,” according to a July 19 AMISOM press statement. AMISOM and SNA troops have since captured several key towns, including Bardere, an important al-Shabab outpost since 2008.

Restricted African Union documents obtained by Foreign Policy outline how “Operation Juba Corridor” will be conducted in five sequential phases, with “limited offensive operations” beginning in July and August of this year and “decisive offensive operations” taking place between September of this year and January 2016. The plan calls for synchronized action by Kenyan, Ugandan, and Ethiopian forces during this “decisive” phase. Additional offensive operations will continue throughout the first half of 2016, according to the documents, with the target handover date to Somali security forces being December of that year. (AMISOM’s current mandate expires in November 2015, so execution of Operation Juba Corridor would require at least a one-year reauthorization.)

But a full review of the documents provided to FP raises doubts about AMISOM’s ability to mount a successful operation in the Juba Valley without additional manpower or force multipliers. In an annex to the document outlining “Operation Juba Corridor” titled “Constraints/ Concerns/ Assumptions,” AMISOM planners make a startling admission: “No additional assets [are] available to support increased activity including combat operations.” The document goes on to suggest revising the current routine logistics plan in order to free up assets to support the planned offensive, but notes that helicopters “are currently operating at 120 percent of their hours to support only routine supply requirements” and that “only limited air support will be available to support the mission.”

Those helicopters that are available for medevac, meanwhile, are “civilian” and capable of using only landing zones that have been “prepared and secured.” (Uganda has since announced that it plans to deploy transport and attack helicopters to support AMISOM, but its military spokesman did not say how many air assets will be sent or when they will arrive.)

The annex also notes as potential pitfalls “limited radio communication between [AMISOM] contingents” and “no common language across sectors in order to facilitate inter-operability.” Of additional concern are the main supply routes into the Juba Valley, which “will be very difficult to secure and time consuming operations that may not be meet [sic] the current operational timeline.”

Such limitations speak to a broader mismatch between AMISOM’s mission and its operational capacity that experts say diminishes its long-term prospects for success. The more territory it controls, the more acutely its manpower, mechanization, and logistics shortcomings are felt. Meanwhile, al-Shabab’s increased reliance on guerrilla and terrorist tactics has made intelligence and police work in newly liberated areas at least as important as conventional military forces.

For Operation Juba Corridor to succeed where previous offensives have failed, AMISOM would need the backing of military enablers that, according to the African Union documents obtained by FP, it clearly lacks.

“The worst year since 2011?

Because AMISOM is unable to defeat al-Shabab militarily or hand off operations to the Somali National Army, some within the Somali government fear the mission could drag on indefinitely. Ali Omar, the Somali president’s chief of staff, likened AMISOM to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, which has lasted for more than 30 years. “Our objective is to replace them,” he said of AMISOM. “But it may be their objective to stay.”

The fear that AMISOM troop-contributing countries may prefer to remain in Somalia is fed in part by the fact that their militaries receive valuable training and equipment in exchange for their participation. Their status as proxies for Western administrations that lack the stomach to confront al-Shabab head-on also enhances their sway over donor nations.

As long as AMISOM remains mired in the Somali conflict, however, it will continue to add to the casualty count that has made this the deadliest U.N.-authorized peace-support mission in history. In an email dated July 13, AMISOM spokesman Eloi Yao said that he is “not in a position to confirm” the number of casualties suffered this year. Casualty figures, he said, are usually obtained directly from troop-contributing countries, some of which are thought to dramatically underreport such losses.

But a U.N. official with knowledge of medevac operations, which include the evacuation of remains, said that at least 100 AMISOM soldiers have been killed so far in 2015. According to the U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, that body count makes this “the worst year since 2011,” when AMISOM was fighting trench warfare against al-Shabab in Mogadishu.

– Foreign Policy

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