Assessing Challenges to AMISOM’s Exit

Senior military officers of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and other international partners attend the closing session of the AMISOM Sector Commanders Conference in Mogadishu, Somalia, Feb. 15, 2019. Photo Credit: O. Abdisalan/AMISOM.

By: Iakovos Balassi, Columnist

While the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has made progress towards weakening al-Shabaab, the force must expand their efforts to proactively strengthen Somalia’s security architecture before their planned withdrawal in 2021. On February 16, AMISOM announced a change in strategy at the end of a five-day summit between military commanders. The new strategy seeks to be more offensive, by launching targeted operations intended to draw al-Shabaab terrorists from their hideouts in preparation for AMISOM’s forthcoming disengagement.[i] This shift came alongside the decision to swiftly withdraw 1000 Burundian troops, a move that Burundi opposes out of concern for the mission’s overall security.[ii] [iii] AMISOM’s exit and transition plan faces serious, long-term challenges as it fails to properly address Somalia’s lacking security apparatus and its capacity to control a potential resurgence of al-Shabaab.

AMISOM was established in 2007 with the aim of supporting national reconciliation and protecting Somali civilians, government officials, and institutions from al-Shabaab.[iv] The force is comprised of soldiers from Burundi, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda, and assisted by support from international partners, including the United States. AMISOM’s initial charter manifested in a defensive peacekeeping strategy, but the mission became increasingly offensive as al-Shabaab gained strength. Today, its primary goals remain unchanged: to degrade al-Shabaab and protect Somalia’s political process. However, what began as a six-month mandate has worn on into an 11-year fight. As a result AMISOM is facing pressure to withdraw causing the final, perhaps most challenging component of their strategy to garner increased attention: preparing Somali security forces for AMISOM’s eventual departure.[v]

In order to ensure the Somali Federal Government (SFG) is capable of providing security, AMISOM has outlined a phased, conditions-based approach to its withdrawal. Given its severe lack of preparedness, there is much work to be done before the SFG has the capacity to effectively take control of its own security. While AMISOM faces increasing pressure to prepare for disengagement, the institution must balance their short-term priorities with the longterm responsibility of building a lasting security. This will require the procurement of sustainable military funding, rebuilding Somalia’s security architecture, and in-depth training and recruitment of Somali security forces. While much improvement is needed to prepare the Somali National Army, critical gaps also remain in developing police forces, other law enforcement mechanisms, the intelligence sector, and maritime security. These are all vital components of a Somali state that is capable of managing its own security.

In his book Fighting for Peace in Somalia, Paul Williams argues, “while al-Shabaab remains a transnational insurgency utilizing asymmetric tactics, degrading the group will rely more on policing, law enforcement, and intelligence capabilities than military operations.”[vi] Currently, the Danab, a small group of US-trained special forces, is arguably the most competent counterterrorism force in Somalia’s security architecture. However, the Danab is ill-equipped to carry the weight of a successful fight against al-Shabaab due to its small size and the minimal intelligence capabilities of the state. The rest of the Somali National Army (SNA) lacks readiness. Corruption concerns led the United States to cut military aid to the SNA in December 2017.[vii] In short, an able, but minimal special forces unit is no substitute for the national army, police force, and intelligence service required to defeat the complex terrorist threat posed by al-Shabaab. In communities where plausible, AMISOM should prioritize the training of local police forces to support their immediate goal of withdrawal as well as their longterm goals of stabilizing Somalia. Before this can happen, the roles and duties of a police force must be clarified at the local level and integrated across the national security architecture. Building these institutions is imperative, but will remain a challenge for years to come.

The reality of the situation is that Somalia’s security apparatus is making progress; it is slow, but it is progress. Shifts in AMISOM’s military strategies and operations can only degrade al-Shabaab in the short-term, while buying more time for Somalia to prepare for the long-term challenges that lay ahead. That is a significant step, and one that should not be devalued, however, a more proactive approach must be taken to ensure Somalia is prepared for the transition. The international community must continue to work with the African Union and regional powers to professionalize the Somali security sector and ensure AMISOM’s transition heeds warnings against a hasty withdrawal. This will require a great deal of patience and empathy.

There are a vast array of actors working in Somalia to provide security and train personnel. Aside from East African partners, the United States, Britain, Turkey, European Union, and Gulf countries are supporting military training and other activities alongside private contractors.[viii] However, as evidenced by al-Shabaab’s continued violence, it is in the interest of these international partners to bolster their contributions. As two key supporters of AMISOM’s mission, the U.S. and Britain must continue their critical role in strengthening the institution’s intelligence and communications capabilities, while cautioning AU troops against a premature exit. As vital partners, the U.S. and UK must ensure that AMISOM remains committed to the conditions-based withdrawal they’ve laid forth and enforce consequences for evading this responsibility.

While the longterm challenges in Somalia are daunting, this should not discourage the international community from their continued commitment. Somalia’s path forward should be decided by Somalis and this will only be possible if a robust security apparatus and stable government is in place before AMISOM’s withdrawal. These challenges are not insurmountable, but they require persistence and collaboration from regional and broader international actors. With the proper amount of cooperation, patience, and practicality, invested actors can support AMISOM’s transition and build a capable security sector and bright future for Somalia.


 [i] Mohamed Olad Hassan, “AMISOM Unveils Plan to Flush al-Shabab From Somalia Hideouts,” Voice of America, February 16, 2019,

[ii] “Somalia’s HirShabelle State President holds crucial meeting with AMISOM on planned troops cut back,” AMISOM News, February 03, 2019,

[iii] See “Burundi military opposes Somali withdrawal plan,” The East African, December 23, 2018,; and “Burundi calls for urgent summit over Amisom troops pullout,” The East African, February 19, 2019,

[iv] S/RES/1774, 20 February 2007, ¶ 4.

[v] “AMISOM Mandate,” AMISOM, (accessed February 20, 2019).

[vi] Ibid, 352.

[vii] Katharine Houreld, “Exclusive: U.S. suspends aid to Somalia’s battered military over graft,” Reuters, December 14, 2017,

[viii] Amanda Sperber, “Somalia Is a Country Without an Army,” Foreign Policy, August 7, 2018,

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