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Al-Shabab’s Resilient Insurgency
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?
TOROTOROW, Somalia — African Union troops, draped in shimmering belts of ammunition and sweating under the weight of their body armor, kept an uneasy watch as their commander addressed a group of Somali elders in the half-shade of a baobab tree.
“We call on you to cooperate with our soldiers,” said Brig. Gen. Samuel Kavuma, who leads the Ugandan contingent of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the multination peace-enforcement mission that has battled the militant group al-Shabab here since 2007. “Don’t fear AMISOM soldiers. AMISOM soldiers are different from al-Shabab,” he told them. “We don’t kill people, so work close with them. Give them any information … so that we are able to fight the enemy together and defeat them.”
The elders sat cross-legged in silence, the dry, cracked earth baking around them. It was a sweltering afternoon in late June, and Kavuma was in Torotorow visiting residents of Somalia’s most recently liberated town. When AMISOM pushed al-Shabab out of Mogadishu in 2011, the al Qaeda-linked group came here to this arid and sparsely populated region southwest of the capital and established a new command center. The militants taxed the local population and implemented their strict version of Islamic law. They also trained foot soldiers before launching attacks on government and African Union targets in the capital.
“This was one of their main bases, their main hideouts,” Kavuma said in an interview on the helicopter flight from Mogadishu to Torotorow. “It was a big threat.”
Just weeks before the general’s visit, as part of a brief offensive, AMISOM forces took control of Torotorow and installed a new governor from Mogadishu who was charged with building a caretaker administration. Now Kavuma was exhorting the villagers to cooperate with his forces and share any information they might have about al-Shabab’s movements. Already during AMISOM’s brief stint in control, the militant group had attempted to kidnap the governor and had planted several improvised explosive devices on roads plied by AMISOM convoys, according to the commanding officer in Torotorow, Ugandan Col. Silvio Aguma. On the day before the general’s visit on June 22, al-Shabab militants had sneaked into town and killed two civilians.
“We know you have been in captivity for all these years. You have not had freedom, but time has come now for you to enjoy freedom,” Kavuma told the elders. The Ugandan general was in full campaign mode, waving his arms vigorously and shifting his considerable heft from side to side. “We have come here to protect you and save your lives, and we are not going anywhere. We are here for you.”
But a little more than a week after Kavuma departed Torotorow, AMISOM had vanished and al-Shabab was back in charge, according to Somali news reports. After militants overran a similar African Union base in Lego, located roughly 60 miles northwest of the capital, and killed dozens of soldiers, Kavuma’s troops made a hasty retreat from Torotorow and left its residents to fend for themselves. It wasn’t long before al-Shabab had swept back into town and announced its presence with a military parade.
AMISOM’s retreat from Torotorow, which came at the same time as similar withdrawals from several other newly liberated areas, highlights the degree to which recent territorial gains by AMISOM have stretched the 22,000-strong peace-enforcement mission thin and have left it vulnerable to asymmetric attacks. It also throws into sharp relief the difficulty of achieving one of AMISOM’s most important objectives: stabilizing the areas captured from al-Shabab so that the Somali government can present itself as a viable alternative to the militant group.
“With its forces stretched out over this huge area and without the support of an effective Somali National Army, most of AMISOM’s troops are tied up protecting the territory it has already captured and its main supply and logistics routes,” said Paul D. Williams, an associate professor of international affairs at George Washington University, who is writing a book about AMISOM.
“And then there is the issue of what you do with the territory once you take it. How do you stabilize it after and deliver a real peace dividend to the local population? Neither AMISOM nor the Somali government is really equipped to do this.”
When peacekeepers fight a war
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 U.S.-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-Shabab –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 centered on taking the fight directly to al-Shabab.
With the help of private military companies like Bancroft, a shadowy U.S. 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 U.N. official put the number as high as 3,000: just shy of the total number of peacekeepers killed in all previous U.N. peacekeeping missions since 1948.
Despite the staggering body count, AMISOM proved to be the superior conventional military force. In 2011, al-Shabab 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 airstrikes 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-Shabab 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 firepower. 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 Shabab 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-Shabab.
Clear, hold … wait
AMISOM’s biggest challenge may be stabilizing 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. U.S. 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 U.S.-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. “Given the conditions, the almost total lack of facilities, what we are doing here is a miracle,” said Capt. Roberto Gasparo, the public information officer for European Union Training Mission-Somalia. “In Afghanistan and Iraq it was totally different. You had real training facilities, totally equipped. Here we have no electricity. We have generators, but no AC and it’s  degrees in the summer.”
The task before the trainers — standing up a national army from a mostly illiterate pool of recruits who are paid poorly, if at all — is equally daunting. Because so many of the Somali soldiers cannot read, instructors must rely on hand-drawn illustrations rather than textbooks to explain military doctrine. They also have to contend with an astronomical attrition rate — as high as 20 percent, according to Gasparo — because unpaid recruits often return home to their families or simply wander off in search of work. “If you are not paid, you go and look for another job. It’s as simple as that,” said Gasparo.
The problem of unpaid wages is widespread at the EU facility, according to soldiers and trainers. Ibrahim Mohamed Ahmed, a recent college graduate who was enrolled in a platoon commander’s course, said he had been paid only once since he joined the Somali National Army in August 2014. “I came here and I received $100 last month,” he said. “But that was the first payment.”
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. “The needs of [the] Somalia National Army has been addressed at a maximum of 2 or 3 percent only,” said Mohamud, the Somali president. “Ninety-six, 97 percent of the SNA needs are not addressed at all.”
But many officials from donor countries point to rampant corruption within the Somali government as the reason for their cautious approach. The U.N. 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 U.S. 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.
“I am using my own resources. I get some money from my family,” he said, adding that he sometimes sells his own cattle and goats to pay for local projects. “Really it is a kind of strangling. Without salary, I cannot help my people.”
Nor is lack of funds the governor’s biggest problem. Within days of his arrival, Nur narrowly escaped being abducted by al-Shabab. He was preparing to retire for the evening when his security detail alerted him to suspicious movements on the west side of his home. “I said don’t open fire because I’m going to confirm with AMISOM to see [if] there is a patrol or [if] there is enemy. When I started to phone to AMISOM, they opened fire,” he said. “They wanted to catch me. You know, sell me.”
Al-Shabab’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 stabilization 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.
“One of the difficulties is that not all these places are as secure as they should be,” said Lazzarini. “Al-Shabab are not very far off of these places, and most of the time they have the capacity to undermine the access or the mobility of the people, which is not really conducive to the best impact when it comes to stabilization activities in these places.”
So caretaker administrations have been slow to materialize 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-Shabab could once again make inroads in these communities.
“Up to now there are districts that were liberated nine, eight months before, and we haven’t set up those facilities yet,” said Somali Internal Security Minister Abdirizak Omar Mohamed. “So of course there is a worry that you could see Shabab moving back in.”
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. “AMISOM is a 95 percent military operation,” said Williams, of George Washington University. “So it’s not well suited to this task.”
Against this backdrop, Williams continued, a final push to eliminate al-Shabab is unlikely to succeed. “What is the point of a big offensive if you’re just going to move Shabab around? If you’re just displacing — not degrading — Shabab, then what is the point?” he asked. “They are not fighting; they are just retreating.”
For Operation Juba Corridor to succeed where previous offensives have failed, Williams said, AMISOM would need the backing of military enablers that, according to the African Union documents obtained by FP, it clearly lacks.
“AMISOM would need its missing military enablers, especially the 12 military helicopters authorized by the U.N. Security Council but never delivered, and better logistics and medical support,” he said, adding that AMISOM would also need to improve coordination among sectors manned by troops from different countries. In the past, he said, such coordination has been hampered by “lack of centralized command and control across troop contributing countries.”
“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.
The U.N. official further cautioned that using medevac data to estimate the number of casualties “gives us an incomplete picture” because not all human remains are recovered or evacuated. After the base in Lego was overrun in June, for example, the United Nations evacuated the remains of 32 fatalities, but a spokesman for Burundi’s AMISOM contingent later acknowledged that more than 50 of its troops had been killed. In general, however, the U.N. official confirmed that the number of fatalities recorded internally by the United Nations exceeds the number acknowledged by AMISOM.
“We don’t track AMISOM casualties because that’s their job,” said the official. “But we do get a possible lower bound for the number of wounded and dead because we provide medevac. And that number, which is still incomplete, is always higher than what AMISOM acknowledges.”
Out on forward operating bases like the one at Torotorow, where improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and ambushes were a daily occurrence before AMISOM withdrew, lack of reliable information about casualties has had the perverse effect of fueling rumors of staggering losses.
Several days before Brigadier General Kavuma’s visit to Torotorow, Wilson Agaba, a Ugandan first lieutenant, got a call on his mobile phone from a friend already stationed there. “They hit an IED,” Agaba said, shaking his head as he hung up the phone. “At least one dead and two injured.”
Agaba then delivered a disturbing account of what he believed to be happening in a neighboring sector manned by Burundian troops. “The Burundians are getting massacred,” he said. “They are getting hit almost every day.” The young lieutenant mentioned having watched a YouTube video, which has since been taken down, showing al-Shabab fighters slaughtering dozens of captured Burundian soldiers, in his words, “like goats.”
“They were just throwing the bodies — the dead bodies — off of the lorries,” he said in disbelief. In Agaba’s mind, al-Shabab had so decimated the Burundian contingent that the militant group no longer considered the Burundian soldiers legitimate targets — and so wasn’t even bothering to fight or kill them anymore. “Shabab has said, ‘We have had enough of the Burundians.’ They see them now and they let them go.”
Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images