AnalysisWhen African Union troops leave, al-Shabaab will take their chances

When African Union troops leave, al-Shabaab will take their chances

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By Paul D. Williams

The African Union (AU) has gradually reduced its troop numbers in Somalia since late 2017, from a peak of over 22,000 to about 14,000 today. Another 4,000 AU peacekeepers are scheduled to withdraw by the end of September and the entire AU Transition Mission in Somalia is scheduled to leave by 31 December 2024.

African Union peacekeepers were first deployed to Mogadishu in March 2007. Their mandate was to protect the then Transitional Federal Government and support dialogue and reconciliation in Somalia.

Since then, the AU mission has played a vital role in the fight against the Islamist militant group, al-Shabaab. They pushed al-Shabaab forces out of Mogadishu in 2011, recovered dozens of settlements across south-central Somalia between 2012 and 2014, and helped to establish and secure four new federal member sates in Somalia between 2013 and 2017. Nevertheless, al-Shabaab was not defeated and remains one of Africa’s most deadly insurgencies.

The AU transition mission is leaving because the federal government of Somalia is confident. It no longer needs the mission. But it’s also, in part, because external partners have baulked at the cost of financing it.

Without the AU there, would the Somali National Army or al-Shabaab be stronger militarily? This was the question I posed in an assessment of the two forces published recently.

I have researched the effectiveness of peace operations and the dynamics of warfare in Africa for more than two decades. I have published numerous articles and books, including Fighting for Peace in Somalia – a history and analysis of the African Union Mission in Somalia.

My assessment considered seven factors: size, material resources (finance and technology), external support, force employment, cohesion, psychological operations, and morale.

I concluded that the Somali National Army would retain an advantage in terms of size, material resources and external support, but performs poorly on the non-material dimensions. It would remain dependent upon external finance and security assistance. Overall, al-Shabaab would be militarily stronger because of its advantages across the non-material dimensions related to force employment, cohesion and psychological operations, as well as the sustainability of its forces. What follows briefly summarises that longer study.

Comparing the Somali army and al-Shabaab

Size: At around 20,000 troops, the Somali army is probably already over twice the size of al-Shabaab. If its current recruiting plan succeeds, it will be well over three times as large. However, measuring each side’s mobile forces – the number of troops with vehicles able to conduct operations over large distances – reveals much greater parity. Moreover, while al-Shabaab’s true strength remains unknown, the militants have consistently replenished their losses through forcible recruitment and attracting new supporters.

Assessment: Somali army advantage, but rough parity of mobile forces.

Material resources: Al-Shabaab has a much leaner and less technically sophisticated fighting force than the Somali army. It is therefore cheaper to maintain. The militants also maintain diverse revenue streams. The army has the technological edge, but its greater numbers, administrative and support elements require more funding, currently more than the federal government can afford alone. It is an open question how long Somalia’s external partners will continue to pay for assistance for the army. Assessment: The army has a financial advantage in absolute terms, but is dependent on external partners. Al-Shabaab advantage in terms of sustainability. Army has a slight and growing technical advantage.

External support: Even without the African Transition Mission in Somalia, the Somali army would likely retain considerable security assistance from about ten external partners. But it can also create unhelpful dependencies, fragment the force, and generate coordination and capacity challenges. Al-Shabaab receives only limited funding and technical expertise from al-Qaeda. Assessment: Army advantage, but al-Shabaab has few external dependencies.

Force employment: Al-Shabaab is waging a war of destabilisation using guerrilla tactics, which are cheap and effective. The army, in contrast, is spread over many operating bases and trying to control territory, urban settlements and supply routes. An African Mission withdrawal would take pressure off al-Shabaab, enabling them to focus more attacks on the army. Assessment: Al-Shabaab advantage.

Cohesion: The army remains fragmented for two principal reasons. First, Somalia’s bickering political leaders have failed to clarify force structures and the relationship between the federal government and the country’s federal member states. Second, the army has been built by multiple security partners who have used different doctrines, techniques and equipment. Al-Shabaab’s fighting force is more cohesive, despite some clan-related tensions.

Assessment: Al-Shabaab advantage.

Psychological operations: Al-Shabaab continues to send out its strategic messages about endurance, inevitability and invincibility. Those themes resonate with a variety of local audiences in Somalia. The federal government has been reactive and fixated on casualty counts and “recovered” territory while struggling to undermine al-Shabaab’s legitimacy and its strategic narratives. Assessment: Al-Shabaab advantage.

Morale: Overall, al-Shabaab’s leadership and much of the rank-and-file appear to have maintained consistently higher levels of confidence than most of the army. Al-Shabaab’s superior morale stems from the belief that they can withstand army offensives and exploit army weaknesses. In comparison, the army’s morale has deflated after the initial progress made during the 2022 offensive. Moreover, the recent positive news about lifting the UN arms embargo, increasing funds and fresh recruits is largely offset by concerns that its international partners may grow weary.  Assessment: Slight al-Shabaab advantage.


My analysis has implications for how to tilt the military balance in Somalia in the federal government’s favour.

First, even without an AU force, the policy challenge for Somalia’s remaining external partners remains the same: how to provide assistance without creating military dependency.

Second, although the army’s material advantages over al-Shabaab are important, they have depended on external support that is no longer guaranteed. After the AU Transition Mission, the army will become even more reliant on its other external partners, especially the United States, Turkey, the UAE and Qatar. Those partners must coordinate and align their political agendas for Somalia.

Third, given the importance of non-material factors in the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, this assessment should serve as a warning that reforms are needed. The federal government of Somalia should focus on improving the central non-material issues. It is also risky to put too much emphasis on what can be achieved by rapidly trained new recruits.

Finally, without the AU Transition Mission, the Somali army should prepare to face several hundred additional attacks each year. Most of these attacks would have previously targeted AU forces. Since al-Shabaab’s weapon of choice remains improvised explosive devices, the army should prioritise improving capabilities against this threat.

This article was first published by the Conversation:

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