Will ATMIS withdrawal from Somalia turn it into an Afghanistan

Somalia occupies a crucial position along the Red Sea, where approximately 10 percent of global trade traverses—and that is a big deal.

In the current landscape of global geopolitics, a power struggle off the coast of Mogadishu for control of Somalia is set to determine the authority over one of the most geostrategically important areas for global trade, encompassing Africa’s longest coastline.

The withdrawal of African Union troops due to dwindling mission funding has raised concerns among analysts, who fear that Somalia may succumb to extremism, akin to Afghanistan. Others, however, state that with the right support, Somalia is ready to assume responsibility for its own borders.

ATMIS withdrawal from Somalia

The African Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), formerly known as the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), was initially deployed to Mogadishu in March 2007. Comprising troops from six contributing countries—Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia—the mission’s primary objective was to counter terrorist groups and establish peace in Somalia following decades of instability.

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At the moment, the mission is in its final phase, and troops are set to complete their withdrawal from the country by the end of 2024. In accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolutions 2628, 2670, and 2687, the mission is required to continue reducing its troop levels from the current 17,626 to 14,626 by September 30 of this year, ultimately concluding the drawdown by December 31, 2024.

In principle, the mission was built on the concept of “African Solutions to African Problems.” However, in practice, the primary source of funding for the mission came from external donors, particularly the US and the European Union. These donors justified their financial support by aligning with their own security interests, which revolved around counterterrorism and managing immigration.

Liberation of cities

Due to significant geopolitical changes in the West, the focus of the mission’s major donors is shifting from the war on terror to the realm of major power competition. Consequently, the Western donors can no longer bear the financial burden required to sustain the ATMIS mission in Somalia.

Consequently, facing opposition from the troop-contributing nations, the UN Security Council is actively advocating for the withdrawal of ATMIS from Somalia and the complete transfer of security responsibilities to the Somali Government.

On the whole, the mission has achieved considerable success in driving non-state actors challenging the government out of Mogadishu and other significant cities throughout the country. The liberation of these cities represented a pivotal step in the establishment of the federal member states, which form a critical part of the federal governance system adopted by Somalia.

Moreover, the mission played a fundamental role in providing a security shield for essential state institutions, enabling the Somali government to rebuild these institutions and deliver services to its citizens after decades of their absence.

However, the mission has not been without its critics. Firstly, it recently shifted towards a defensive posture, implying that the mission was largely uninvolved in offensive operations to reclaim new territories from Al Shabaab. Their primary role has been to provide support to offensives led by Somali troops.

Territorial disputes

Additionally, the deployment of frontline countries, particularly Ethiopia and Kenya, has raised suspicions among the Somali population, and these concerns are not unfounded. Both Ethiopia and Kenya have significant populations of Somali nationals and harbour longstanding territorial disputes dating back to their independence eras. Furthermore, both countries have economic interests in their relationship with Somalia, with an ongoing legal dispute between Kenya and Somalia over offshore oil blocks serving as an example.

These vested interests have had an impact on operations, as Ethiopia and Kenya have attempted to exert their influence by taking sides in the local politics of Somalia. An illustrative case is the recent dispute during the presidential election in Jubbaland state, where Kenya supported the regime of Ahmed Madobe, and Ethiopia collaborated with the federal government to sideline Ahmed Madobe’s regime and hold elections to install a new president of their choosing.

What’s more, the mission faces allegations of human rights violations, including the killing of civilians and involvement in sexual violence. Due to the immunities enjoyed by mission troops, victims of such violence rarely attain justice, except in a few instances where reparations are provided to the families of the deceased. These actions have significantly undermined the mission’s legitimacy as a peacekeeping force tasked with promoting peace and stability in the country.

While the mission hesitates, the Somali people have rallied against Al Shabaab, an armed political group occupying territory that, like such groups, finds itself siphoning resources from the very community it claims to protect. This offensive began as a grassroots rebellion against Al Shabaab, as local residents grew disenchanted with the group’s oppressive behavior and exploitative taxation.

Hybrid warfare strategy

Capitalizing on this shift, the government has initiated a hybrid warfare strategy, leveraging a combination of local militias and its own military to swiftly dislodge Al Shabaab from its strongholds. The Somali government is currently executing a nationwide offensive to liberate the country from Al Shabaab and other terrorist groups. The second phase of this operation, known as the Black Lion Operation, commenced in August of this year. It is expected that this effort will result in the government regaining control over substantial territories currently under Al Shabaab’s administration.

At this crucial moment, the government is also slated to assume full responsibility for national security from ATMIS by the close of 2024. While the Somali government has made progress in institution-building, particularly in the development of its security forces, there is an ongoing debate over whether it is prepared to shoulder this responsibility effectively.

Critics of this move argue that the Somali government is not yet adequately prepared for it. To support their stance, they draw a parallel with Afghanistan, where the sudden NATO withdrawal led to the swift takeover of the country by the Taliban. According to this argument, a similar scenario is highly likely in Somalia, eventually resulting in Al Shabaab taking control. This, they contend, would render all the years of investment in terms of lives and resources futile.

Al-Shabab fighters perform military drills at a village about 25km outside Mogadishu in 2011. A grassroots rebellion against Al Shabaab is underway in Somalia as local residents grow disenchanted with the group’s oppressive behavior and exploitative taxation. [Photo / AFP]

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Civilians suffering the most

In contrast, proponents of troop withdrawal from Somalia, including the Somali Government, maintain that what occurred in Afghanistan is not an inevitable outcome for Somalia. They cite differing contextual realities between the two countries and point out that Al Shabaab’s limited support among the local population is due to their brutal and lethal attacks, with civilians suffering the most.

Both arguments have merit. However, certain critical benchmarks are indispensable for the Somali Government to assume full responsibility for its national security.

First and foremost, the Federal Government and Member States must reach a consensus on the national security framework, establishing a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities concerning national security matters within the federal structure.

This is significantly important and according to the Somali Dialogue Platform of the Rift Valley Institute “unless a sustainable security settlement can be established, the departure of African Union forces would likely contribute to a significant deterioration in security throughout much of the country.”

Furthermore, an agreement should also encompass resource sharing between the two tiers of the federal government. This agreement should specifically address a revenue-sharing formula that encompasses income derived from natural resources and tax revenue.

These measures are crucial in forging a unified front against Al Shabaab, allowing the national and federal member states to achieve more collectively than they could individually.

Waiver on arms and equipment

Secondly, the arms embargo on the government should be lifted. Presently, the government and Al Shabaab are on an even footing in terms of firepower, which hinders the government’s ability to reclaim additional territories and maintain control.

At the very least, the UN Security Council should consider granting a waiver that permits the government to export specified arms and equipment. This would equip the government to effectively counter Al Shabaab and ensure comprehensive national security.

Finally, as ATMIS troops draw down, a greater allocation of resources from international partners should be directed toward the Somali Government to fund the ongoing campaign against Al Shabaab. This could encompass the provision of troop salary stipends, logistical support, and military equipment, among other forms of assistance.

Overall, the withdrawal of ATMIS from Somalia must be underpinned by the achievement of well-defined benchmarks to avert an Afghanistan-like scenario unfolding in Somalia. Given Somalia’s strategic geopolitical position, the success of this mission holds paramount significance for regional and global peace and prosperity.

The author, Dek Farah, is a commentator on politics and security in the Horn of Africa and holds a Master of Arts in International Relations from the University of Nairobi. Email: [email protected]

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