Will Somalia's Elections Change the War on Al-Shabaab?

A soldier serving with AMISOM takes up a defensive position during a joint operation to seize and liberate territory from al-Shabaab. Flickr/AMISOM Public Information

Stabilization is long and difficult. Global partners need to be patient.

In counterinsurgency, military victories tend to be easier than political ones, and Somalia seems to be a case in point these days. On the one hand, al-Shabaab has retreated from much of the country and suffered heavy losses among both its leadership and its rank and file. On the other hand, this month’s legislative and presidential elections, originally touted as pivotal progress in the country’s long-term stabilization efforts, look set to fall well short of initial expectations. While the slow political progress is disheartening, it is not a death knell to the U.S.-supported counterinsurgency.

Despite their numerous flaws, the elections should at least provide moderate political stability by appeasing Somalia’s powerful clan leaders. This, in turn, will allow African Union forces (AMISOM) and the Somali National Army (SNA) to focus on ousting al-Shabaab from its remaining territories. A prudent U.S. strategy would therefore involve moderately expanding vital material, advisory and air support to AMISOM and SNA forces, while also utilizing tailored diplomatic means to assist the gradual development of Somali governance.

AMISOM and the Importance of Tailored Engagement

AMISOM first deployed to Mogadishu in February 2007, in an effort to protect the beleaguered Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which had just returned from exile with the support of Ethiopian forces. As al-Shabaab metastasized to control 55 percent of the country with twelve thousand fighters in 2010 (according to estimates from a recent RAND report), the African Union changed AMISOM’s mandate from peacekeeping to “peace enforcement,” a euphemism for aggressive counterinsurgency. AMISOM began a concerted push to recapture Mogadishu from al-Shabaab in early 2011, and that autumn the Kenya Defence Forces launched a separate assault with SNA troops that dislodged the insurgents from much of southern Somalia. Since 2011, AMISOM forces—which have grown to number roughly twenty-two thousand troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda—have significantly redrawn Somalia’s strategic landscape through several successful combined-force offensives.

Key to the success of AMISOM/SNA offensives has been the tailored engagement strategy that the United States has pursued since 2011. Conducted under the auspices of Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), tailored engagement involves extensive ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) efforts, training of AMISOM and SNA forces in conjunction with U.S. and EU advisers, limited direct action operations by U.S. special operations forces, and increasingly frequent airstrikes. Using both manned aircraft and UAVs, the United States has effectively targeted al-Shabaab leadership (Ahmed Abdi Godane, the group’s emir, perished in a U.S. strike) and provided crucial Tactical Air Support (TAS) for AMISOM/SNA offensives. For all the tactical benefits of tailored engagement, the strategy also poses minimal risk to U.S. personnel and equipment and does not catalyze blowback from local populations to the extent that a more robust intervention would.

The U.S.-AMISOM-SNA approach has produced laudable results. According to RAND estimates, al-Shabaab presently controls no more than 5 percent of the country and has lost roughly a third of its fighters and dozens of senior officials since 2011. Al-Shabaab still poses a very tangible threat to Somali security; as the group has retreated and lost institutional cohesion and revenue sources, it has increasingly employed simple but deadly terrorist tactics in both Somalia and throughout East Africa, killing more than four thousand people since 2011 according to data from START Global Terrorism Database. Indeed, al-Shabaab has ramped up its bombing campaign in an effort to spoil the upcoming elections. Importantly, however, the Somali government has gone from controlling merely a couple of Mogadishu neighborhoods in 2006 to administering broad swathes of the country, including the entirety of the capital and key ports.

Elections and Stabilization: A Long Road Ahead

Moving forward, strong state institutions will be necessary to mitigate the popular grievances that bolstered al-Shabaab in the insurgency’s early stages. Between 2007 and 2010, al-Shabaab deftly exploited Somalia’s insecurity and poor national governance, the nationalist backlash against the presence of Ethiopian forces, and dissatisfaction with the composition of the TFG—al-Shabaab drew strong support from the Habar Gidir subclan of the Hawiye, which felt it had lost its traditional political influence to the Rahanweyn-dominated TFG. AMISOM, in addition to providing security in much of the country, has helped allay popular fears of Ethiopian imperialism by subsuming the Ethiopian units into the multinational force, but AMISOM must eventually turn over its security mandate to the SNA. Similarly, building strong national governance to mitigate interclan conflict remains a long-term objective. Unfortunately, this year’s elections offer minimal progress in this regard.

Pages