Center for Strategic Communication

This is the first in a series of blog posts from the American Security Project examining the challenges facing Somalia and how they should be met in the interests of U.S. national security.


Kenyan AU troops advancing on Kismayo – AU-UN IST Photo

These days good news is coming out of Somalia thick and fast. It has been more than three months since Associated Press removed the tag of “world’s most dangerous city” from its capital, Mogadishu. Last week, extremist insurgents were pushed out of the commercial hub of Kismayo, Somalia’s second city, which they had vowed to defend at all costs.

This progress is important to the United States. This summer the State Department affirmed that the Al Qaeda-linked Foreign Terrorist Organization, called “the youth” or Al Shabaab, resident within the thinly-governed territory of Somalia poses a direct threat to United States national security interests. Visible progress in Somalia is a much needed boost to the United States geopolitical standing at a time when the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are being used by some as a clarion call for a new phase of non-interventionism.

Drone strikes and kidnap rescues by special forces provides the most dramatic proof of the United States commitment to a stable Somalia. But more quietly the United States has been investing – through training, mentoring and equipping – in the African Union force to be the frontman for stabilizing Somalia. One report puts United States assistance to the African force at $656 million since 2006, though that hardly encompasses multilateral aid to the United Nations or military assistance to critical non-AMISOM countries, like Ethiopia.

Either way it may well be “a bargain by the standards of international troop deployments”, as Time Magazine claims. This regional approach appears more effective too when compared to other recent western-led counter-insurgency campaigns. Some call this approach, which significantly boosts an African peace-building institution and also works through the United Nations, a new model for international peacebuilding though it is hardly without its faults. Yet, the next phase is likely to be the toughest and stakes are high for the United States and her allies active in the region.

Some progress on the political front has meant that Somalia’s transitional government has now ended, producing a new constitution, Prime Minister and President. There are signs that international expectations are growing, as is a work agenda to rapidly drive progress around the country, ambitiously leading to popular elections by 2016. Yet the African force, mandated to support the government, is spread thinner than ever before. Together they have to transition from a war-fighting stance to a peacekeeping stance and nurture a growing sense of stability.

Yet, serious gaps are evident, which would not necessarily be filled by lots more troops and money. Despite much agreement about devolving power and the need for a bottom up peace-building approach there has been little real action, or understanding, of what needs to be done in the Somali context. Somalia’s infrastructure is so thin and its society so decentralized that power, resources and the responsibility to deliver basic services can only happen at the most local level. Working principally through the center risks the same patterns of instability created in Afghanistan. The security situation remains fragile as the agreements that brought peace to Somaliland have not yet been seen in south central Somalia. Nor is there much impetus to the establishment of regional states to complete the federal structure of Somalia, and provide a check on what is often seen as corrupting federal power in Mogadishu.

International actors must be cautious too of muddying the waters in southern Somalia. Since Siyad Barre’s regime collapsed in 1990, the clan system has been the only vehicle available to deliver social welfare, political decision making, justice and some dispute resolution, and security to communities. At all costs international intervention must navigate and maintain the delicate balance of power between the rival clans of Somalia. Remembering that Al Shabaab was once an attractive refuge for nationalists opposing the Ethiopian invasion, in politically-complex towns like Kismayo, progress rests on preventing a violent nationalist backlash. Afghanistan provides a worrying precedent for how an insurgency, once thought to be defeated, can regrow as a result of a flawed international intervention that expects quick results.

Kenyan AU troops after the capture of the airport at Kismayo – AU-UN IST Photo

The military front in Somalia has expanded more quickly than anyone hoped, or really planned for. Thinly spread, the 17,700 African Union force, together with Ethiopian and Somali troops, will be hard pressed to keep at bay the attacks that the United Nations Special Representative warns of and mop up the significant but dwindling remnants of Al Shabaab with virtually no air support and 100,000 square miles of sparsely populated territory to oversee. Expert capacity or effective implementing partners able to deliver a better alternative to Al Shabaab rule on the ground, even in the capital, is still markedly absent.

A regular renewal of the mandate for the African Union force is on the cards this month and the United Nations is conducting a strategic review of its operations in Somalia. Together, these forums provide an opportunity to get Somalia right, and keep the international intervention on track. Twelve months ago the force had just expelled insurgents from the capital and international partners of Somalia were starting to think about ambitions outside Mogadishu. Now the triumvirate of the Somali government, the United Nations and the African Union force faces a vast and complex array of challenges in urban centers all around south central Somalia.

What stabilization will mean in today’s Somalia is transparently a work in progress. More than twelve months after the extremist Islamists vacated the capital, there is little evidence of donor-generated recovery nor is there a process to harness the network of clans into institutions of governance. The new President has identified six pillars of activity but the devil will be in the detail. As many lessons from stabilization practice have shown, it is through knowledge of local realities, working within the realms of the achievable and delivering tangible benefits that counts, at the same time as avoiding strategically-destructive corruption.

For the African Union, there is now an opportunity to take the lead in bringing stability to the continent’s most chronic ailing state. It is the African Union that has troops throughout Somalia, a growing hands-on understanding of Somali socio-political dynamics, the mechanism to coordinate East African players with a stake in a peaceful Somalia and a courageous ability to deliver results, on behalf of its international supporters. African troops have the opportunity to do what the might of western military forces have been unable to do in Afghanistan. But the risks for the continent’s peace building organization are great. The United States needs to act swiftly and with determination, taking honest lessons from Afghanistan and other interventions, to keep the progress in Somalia on course.