When I worked in Somalia from 2016 to 2018 supporting provision of military assistance to forces combating al-Shabaab, most discussions with international partners acknowledged that our efforts could not ultimately defeat the jihadist group. As part of the plan for transitioning security responsibilities, the job of defeating al-Shabaab fell to the fledgling Somali government, although we never clearly defined how the government would achieve that end.
As we completed planning for the security transition, al-Shabaab conducted more attacks in 2018 than the previous year – even after confronting an international coalition for over a decade. This basic fact should cause concern in spite of the dramatic increase in U.S. drone strikes and tentative signals of reform from Somalia’s federal government. Even after punishing strikes, al-Shabaab has been able to execute major operations in Kenya and Mogadishu in recent months. The eventual departure of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and continued weakness of the Somali National Army leave grim prospects for a decisive government victory over al-Shabaab. In light of diminishing returns from an escalated military campaign, the United States needs to rethink its approach.
The U.S. intervention in Somalia has focused on the tactics of the conflict – insurgency and terrorism – at the expense of viewing the political violence in Somalia holistically. Faced with a weak Somali army and overstretched partner in AMISOM, U.S. policymakers turned to the counter-terrorism toolkit to arrest al-Shabaab’s gains in the past two years. But this approach fails to see the conflict in Somalia for what it is: another chapter in a civil war fought at varying intensities since the end of the 1980s. As in many civil wars, rebel groups will resort to terrorism based on a clear, if cruel, strategic logic.
If we accept that al-Shabaab’s terrorist tactics are a symptom of the broader Somali civil war, the most important security question for Somalia is not how to defeat al-Shabaab, but rather, how to end a civil war. Through this lens, the most appropriate policy for the U.S. government is to pursue a negotiated settlement ending the civil war driving al-Shabaab’s terrorist activities. To support negotiations, the United States should reduce its military footprint in Somalia and overall levels of military assistance as a signal that a counter-terrorism campaign cannot end the conflict. An amended approach that recognizes the importance of political settlement between the federal government and al-Shabaab should condition security assistance on political accommodations by the Somali government, increase U.S. diplomatic presence to facilitate negotiation, and ensure a sustainable presence of international forces to provide credible security guarantees in a negotiated settlement.
Stalemate on the Battlefield
Since 2011, the combination of a surge to 22,000 AMISOM troops, U.S. drone strikes, and hundreds of millions of dollars invested into the Somali National Army has successfully ejected al-Shabaab from most major population centers. Yet these forces have been unable to recover the group’s remaining strongholds in the south and central regions of Somalia, as outlined in the Somali Transition Plan. The Trump administration’s escalation of drone strikes has done little to alter the basic stalemate that has existed since the last major AMISOM victories in Operation Indian Ocean and recovery of the towns of Dinsoor and Badheere in 2015. Since then, al-Shabaab has recaptured a number of towns abandoned during the withdrawal of Ethiopian bilateral forces and severed the road connecting Mogadishu to the major inland city of Baidoa. The group retains control of the town of Leego, which AMISOM and the Somali government identified for recapture as part of the initial phase of transition almost a year ago.
AMISOM’s transition of security responsibilities to the Somali government has largely stalled. Prominent troop-contributing countries are threatening to leave the mission in the face of reductions of E.U. funding. Despite the mission’s recent declarations that it had completed plans to initiate targeted offensive operations to support the transition process, the long drought of offensive action does not spur confidence. Part of the decline in offensive operations can be attributed to stinging battlefield defeats of key troop-contributing countries at Kolbiyow, El Adde, Golweyn, and Burhakaaba. Additional casualties carry domestic political costs as Kenyan politicians have called for bringing their troops home, while the Ugandan government swiftly investigated its operations in Somalia in the aftermath of their losses. In light of these realities, caution will likely to continue to carry the day, despite public statements to the contrary.
The Somali National Army remains a long way from presenting a long-term security solution in Somalia. Efforts to build the national army offer a litany of cautionary tales about international efforts to shape effective, responsible security institutions. Endemic corruption in Somalia is most salient in the security sector, leading the U.S. State Department to suspend military assistance to non-mentored Somali forces in December 2017. The army has proven incapable of holding positions vacated by AMISOM, allowing al-Shabaab to recapture abandoned AMISOM bases, as it did recently following Kenyan withdrawals.
When Ending a Civil War is More Effective than Counter-Terror
Civil wars leave policymakers with three potential outcomes – decisive victory, negotiated settlement, or ongoing violence. Since Sept. 11, the prevalence of negotiated settlements has decreased over an unwillingness to negotiate with organizations designated as terrorists. The expansive language and vision of the War on Terror led the U.S. government to perceive any insurgent group that used terrorist tactics as a terrorist organization equivalent to al-Qaeda. This dynamic was exacerbated as groups like al-Shabaab, which had only conducted attacks inside Somalia prior to its designation as a terrorist group, sought alliance with the trans-national terrorist organization.
This has placed the United States in the difficult position of attempting to reverse battlefield victories won by Islamist insurgencies like al-Shabaab and its predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union. These groups have been successful not only because of greater military prowess than government forces and warlord militias, but also because of their more predictable and legitimate forms of justice. Having lost large swaths of territory, al-Shabaab stitched itself within the fabric of Somali society, often lending the organization far more legitimacy and credibility than the alternative presented by the Somali government.
Al-Shabaab is well situated to continue fighting in Somalia indefinitely. It enjoys robust and sustainable domestic financing through effective taxation. Further, my own research shows that rebel organizations capable of employing conventional and irregular forms of warfare decisively win civil wars far more often than they lose. Al-Shabaab is a remarkably resilient organization that has sustained worse losses than those it is incurring as a result of escalated U.S. drone strikes. Indeed, leading experts see little evidence of the group’s imminent defeat. The inability to decisively defeat al-Shabaab leaves only negotiated settlement or prolonged fighting and the certainty of continued terrorist activity as plausible near-term outcomes to the ongoing conflict.
Correcting Course to Align Means with Realistic Ends
I am hardly the first to propose negotiation with al-Shabaab. Limited research has found support for such an approach among the Somali populace and the idea has been discussed within political circles in Mogadishu and by scholars. What has been missing from these discussions is a pathway to bring al-Shabaab and the government to the negotiating table. Al-Shabaab maintains a position of some strength and may be willing to bet that its opponents will eventually tire of the conflict, offering it an opportunity to achieve a decisive victory. Although the organization has experienced some notable defections, it has not openly sought negotiations and may entirely refuse a negotiated approach. However, a credible long-term AMISOM presence along with select U.S. military pressure could change al-Shabaab’s calculus if it becomes clear it cannot wait out international support to the Somali government. Al-Shabaab has never been offered an off-ramp from the conflict granting it a role in government. If faced with an ongoing stalemate and continued loss of senior leaders, the group could be receptive to negotiation as the best available outcome.
The Somali government, which has aggressively asserted its sovereignty, must take the lead in a negotiated settlement with the United States and international community playing a supporting role. To encourage negotiations, the United States must be clear that it will not support the Somali government in the unattainable goal of decisively defeating al-Shabaab. Negotiations would require a multi-step process of initial talks guided by clan elders between the government and al-Shabaab, followed by broader negotiations including the international community with U.N. facilitation. The United States would need to take the lead in conducting regional diplomacy and in the Security Council to build international support for a negotiated settlement. The transnational nature of al-Shabaab’s threat will require African Union and regional participation in final negotiations to assure that a negotiated settlement provides security to Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia.
The Somali government and Somali society must decide how to reconcile with al-Shabaab’s past atrocities. An end to the conflict will need to be settled through negotiation by equal parties that gives al-Shabaab a future role in governance. This approach must not repeat the experience of previous high-level al-Shabaab defectors. The Somali government arrested popular former al-Shabaab spokesman Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow last December for violating the conditions of his surrender after he entered a regional election. This reaction offered a poor precedent for future accommodations with al-Shabaab: Following Robow’s arrest, al-Shabaab leaders considering disarming now have every reason to distrust the Somali government, while the government has signaled that former al-Shabaab leaders will not be allowed a role in politics. The Somali government could reverse this misstep by releasing Robow and offering a clear path for his reintegration into society.
From America’s perspective, a strategic approach to pursue a negotiated settlement would tie diplomatic, military, and programmatic means to an achievable strategic end. Initially, the U.S. government should rethink how it engages with insurgent organizations that use terrorist tactics and have been defined as foreign terrorist organizations. Current legal restrictions could prevent effective negotiation with the group and would certainly limit programming available to incentivize negotiation. Until de-listed, leaders of al-Shabaab would remain sanctioned by the United States if elected to office and would be ineligible to receive U.S. government support if they integrated into security institutions like the army or police. Former al-Shabaab commander Ahmed Madobe currently occupies a regional government post, signifying that the United States has been willing to overlook al-Shabaab affiliations in the past. Obviously, any U.S. action to remove al-Shabaab’s listing as a foreign terrorist organization should only follow the group’s unconditioned agreement to a negotiated settlement and pledge to reject terrorism.
Ultimately, if the United States is serious about reducing military commitments left as vestiges from the War on Terror, it will need to accept that political accommodations in civil wars involving al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations that do not pose significant threats to the homeland can be an effective means of reducing terrorism. To be sure, Al-Shabaab has conducted regional attacks, but those attacks targeted troop-contributing countries participating in combat operations in Somalia. Moreover, they occurred as al-Shabaab lost territory, which is often associated with a resort to terrorist attacks. Given the clear connection between al-Shabaab’s regional terrorist activity and the civil war in Somalia, it is not unreasonable to think such attacks would end through a negotiated settlement.
Rather than an increased military presence, the United States must present an overt diplomatic presence in Somalia, which can help facilitate negotiations between al-Shabaab and the government. Increasing diplomatic security spending for the U.S. Mission to Somalia and allowing the ambassador and diplomatic staff to travel off their compound on Mogadishu International Airport, as every other major diplomatic mission currently does, is an important first step.
Denying al-Shabaab the ability to decisively defeat the Somali government is critical to bringing the group to the table. Military support to Somalia must be scaled in such a manner that incentivizes al-Shabaab to negotiate by credibly demonstrating it cannot wait out external intervention. This support includes external funding for AMISOM, conditional security-sector assistance to the Somali government, and limited U.S. military support.
AMISOM requires sustainable funding for a force of at least 10,000 troops to secure key population centers and potentially provide troops in a peace-keeping role to support localized negotiated settlements. This number would be a dramatic reduction from the current authorized force level of 20,626, but offers a middle ground of providing sufficient force to guarantee the security of the federal government and maintaining low enough numbers to ensure sustainable funding. The European Union’s appetite for bearing the ongoing costs of maintaining AMISOM has diminished, presenting a challenge to funding. But asking European allies to continue bearing this security cost is precisely the type of burden-sharing the Trump administration should be pursuing, rather than demanding payment for U.S. bases in Europe. Setting a significantly lower troop level meets E.U. requests for reduced funding and provides predictability to troop-contributing countries and European funders. If necessary, the U.S. government should deploy points of leverage where it currently supports European priorities in Africa, such as assistance to European forces in the Sahel, as a tool to incentivize the European Union to continue this mutually beneficial burden-sharing agreement.
Although Somalia undoubtedly requires security assistance, the United States should reduce spending that helps drive the war economy and instead find a balance that moves away from the typical largesse of U.S. military assistance while meeting the minimum requirements to forestall al-Shabaab victory. Bloated security assistance spending perpetuates conflict in Somalia as political-military elites traffic insecurity for personal enrichment. The U.S. government alone has spent over $2 billion combatting al-Shabaab in the past decade through security assistance. The December 2017 pause in assistance to large portions of the Somali army was an important step toward adopting a responsible approach to security assistance. Resumption of large-scale U.S. military assistance should be tied to strict conditions based on the federal government achieving key political accommodations with its member states and between major clans, while reducing corruption levels. Conditioning assistance on reduced corruption levels and maintaining lower levels of assistance to prevent future corruption also gets at one of the primary factors that de-legitimizes the government.
U.S. drone strikes have been extremely effective in supporting the Somali government and AMISOM and preventing al-Shabaab from massing to overrun key bases. During a recent review of AMISOM bases that I participated in, multiple officers attributed the survival and security of their bases to the presence of American drones. But while it is important to provide a military backstop for the government, the United States should reduce external military support to the fight against al-Shabaab. To support a sustainable force posture and demilitarize the American approach to Somalia, the U.S. military presence should be limited only to the ability to strike massing al-Shabaab forces and senior leaders. This approach would make strikes rare occurrences rather than the norm and would entirely remove advise and accompany missions.
Reduced military commitments privileges an approach to the conflict that respects the primacy of politics in ending Somalia’s civil war. Reduced military support to Somalia forces the issue of mobilizing the country to secure itself, while removing an enabler of political elites pursing internecine political warfare as foreign militaries guarantee their security.
Ultimately, the decision to pursue a negotiated outcome to the civil war in Somalia rests with its Somali belligerents. Nonetheless, the United States and its partners can offer a firm nudge by removing some of the implements of war and adopting a strategic framework that recognizes politics as the arbiter of peace in Somalia.
Jason Hartwig is a security sector reform professional. Most recently, he worked for the U.S. Mission to Somalia as a military assistance coordinator. Jason previously served in the U.S. Army as an armor officer, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.