Intervening in Somalia: risky business with no end in sight – By Marco Jowell
Military intervention in Somalia, whether unilateral, multilateral or under the auspices of some supranational body, has never achieved its aims nor led to long term peace let alone political and social harmony. In fact such interventions have achieved the opposite of their intentions – leading to civil strife, warlordism and further state collapse.
Current operations conducted by the African Union, Kenya and Ethiopia are the latest in a line of foreign military actions in Somalia. So far international partners and the UN have hailed the interventions as successful. However, long term prospects are far from clear, no exit strategy exists for current operations and complacency will undo current gains.
History Tells Us No!
In the early nineties UN peacekeeping missions and a US-led task force entered Somalia after the fall of the dictator Siad Barre. Rebel leaders manipulating clan dynamics and international humanitarian relief efforts were given a seat at the negotiating table, which only served to further encourage their tactics. After 18 US servicemen were killed during “˜the Battle for Mogadishu’ international forces pulled out without completing their mission leaving Mogadishu and Somalia in a state of civil strife.
With almost no formal government and a plethora of non-state armed groups dominating the political landscape an Islamic organisation, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), emerged as a leading force. Although deemed a radical group by the west and the newly installed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) the ICU controlled most of Somalia, was broadly popular (in the challenging context of state decay), and administered its zones with some authority and legitimacy. With US support the Ethiopian government authorised an invasion of Somalia in 2006 to disperse the ICU and consolidate the TFG in power. The ICU split into moderate and hardline factions, with the latter eventually coalescing to form Al-Shabaab, the hard line nationalist Islamic group which controls large parts of Somalia today. The Ethiopians pulled out in 2009 with a trail of destruction and human suffering in their wake having dislodged a moderate but conservative Islamic group, allowing a hard line militant force to fill the power vacuum.
Current Military Initiatives
Current military operations in Somalia seem to be faring better than their predecessors but it is unclear what plans exist for long-term interaction with the country. In the meantime, short-term gains must be built upon and longer term planning is essential.
AMISOM has been in Somalia since 2007 and has done little more than protect a few TFG installations and the airport in Mogadishu. The mission has only recently secured the city after several years of operations, and acts of terror and insurgency still occur in parts of the capital. The rest of the country is dominated by Al-Shabaab. That’s not to say that the AU force is incompetent or at fault however. Ugandan and Burundian forces have managed to provide some form of security and civilian protection in their limited area of control. The mission has taken heavy losses and it is fair to say that on past experience any western state would have pulled out long ago. What is at fault though is the political imperative behind the mission. AMISOM is underfunded and heavily undermanned. Out of an authorized number of around 17,000 troops only 10,000 are deployed, and only to Mogadishu. Vast swathes of Somalia have no AMISOM presence. The mandate is geared towards protecting the TFG, supporting a vague “˜stabilisation strategy’, promoting reconciliation and supporting the delivery of humanitarian aid. However, the mission is politically compromised given the questionable legitimacy of the TFG, and its tasks are near impossible for a force located in the capital city with limited resources and legal tools. AMISOM is war fighting not peacekeeping, and should therefore be resourced as such.
In 2011 and early this year both Kenya and Ethiopia sent military forces into Somalia in support of AU efforts. The Kenyan intervention has created a buffer zone in Southern Somalia in the Jubaland area. Kenyan forces have managed to secure a significant area of territory but lack a clear exit strategy. Without international support they cannot leave nor progress further inland. Warnings are emerging of imminent terrorist attacks in Kenya if the army doesn’t pull out of Somalia. The Ethiopians have joined the fray with a quick intervention as well as supporting local militias in Somalia’s peripheral western region. The Ethiopians are looking to exit fast and are the only ones with such a strategy (learnt from bitter experience.)
These operations are beginning to provide a more coordinated approach but serious challenges remain. The strategy seems to be to consolidate AMISOM’s limited gains in Mogadishu through two flanked interventions from the west. Calls for Kenyan forces to be “˜re-hatted’ as AMISOM, and for AU troops to take over from the Ethiopians could forge greater coherence in the mission’s planning, command, control and communications. More troops are greatly needed if a stabilisation plan is to succeed. Longer term an exit strategy must be catered for.
Current military initiatives have made some small gains in Somalia. These gains must be consolidated and regional cooperation is a step in the right direction. Issues remain, such as the lack of troops and resources, rivalries between regional militaries, the poor status and lack of legitimacy of the TFG and the fact that even now Al-Shabaab controls most of Somalia. If terrorist attacks increase in East Africa the will of neighboring states to intervene may subside if others don’t rally support, both within Africa and from further afield.
In periods of conflict in Somalia external interventions have, in the past, waded in without examining potential consequences or exit strategies. These military endeavors have tended to exacerbate a deteriorating situation. If current initiatives and policy makers are to learn lessons from previous interventions then understanding what works on the ground from a Somali perspective must be taken into account as well as planning for a clear exit. Shock and awe tactics simply don’t work.
Marco Jowell is a former Senior Research Analyst at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.