By Venda Felbab-Brown
The end-of-2017 U.S. decision to suspend military aid to the Somali national army until the federal government can demonstrate better accountability and performance of its forces is appropriate.
However, as I saw during my December research in Somalia, even combined with the significant increase in U.S. air strikes against the jihadi group Al Shabab, the U.S. policy is inadequate.
To mitigate terrorism threats and foster stability in the country, the United States must do what the Trump administration explicitly disavows: Focus on internal governance and state-building and insist on far broader accountability of Somalia’s federal and state governments and powerbrokers toward their citizens. Otherwise, the brutal Shabab or its mutation will remain entrenched.
In 2016, Somalia received about $250 million from the international community for its security sector, following years of similar contributions. Yet, its army is not able to engage even in joint patrolling with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, let alone hold territories nominally cleared of al Shabab.
The Somali National Army (SNA) rosters have some 29,000 individuals on its payroll, of which some 12,000 may actually be soldiers with some capacity to fight. The rest are ghost soldiers, widows and the elderly. Despite the massive international aid, the military’s training remains inadequate, and equipment is siphoned off to clans and al Shabab.
Because of theft and corruption, soldiers’ salaries are not paid regularly, though Somalia’s current president Mohamad Abdullaji “Farmajo” Mohamad managed to cut the salary arrears from six months to two. As with many aspects of Somalia’s social and political life, the soldiers’ primary loyalties are not to the state, but to fractious clans.
Somali national security forces do not take the fight to al Shabab; but neither, any longer, does the supposedly 22,000-strong AMISOM. For some two years, it has remained in static positions, often locked-in garrisons.
It too struggles with effectively holding territory, with various clan and warlord militias and semi-official police forces most frequently performing that function. Often they extort local populations, engage in retaliation against rival and minority clans or steal land and other economic resources.
Still, when AMISOM withdraws from territories, as happened in 2017 and with further “conditions-based” withdrawals slated by 2020, security tends to deteriorate significantly and al Shabab fills the void. Its return exacerbates insecurity as the group punishes collaborators with AMISOM and the government.
Although much weaker than in 2012, al Shabab still controls significant territory and regularly conducts attacks in much of the country, including in Mogadishu. The intensified U.S. air strikes on al Shabab’s massing forces and vehicles significantly complicate its operations.
But they mostly disperse the militants, including to Mogadishu, with the same security vacuum left behind. Reliance on flipped and washed-out Shabab commanders, such as Ahmed Madobe in Kismayo and recently Mukhtar Robow and their militias, may bring immediate tactical gains. But if the politics and governance this unleashes remains predatory, discriminatory and capricious, the gains are ephemeral.
Although only numbering between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters, and despite its brutal and unpopular backward version of Islam, al Shabab remains deeply entrenched. Systematically, it outperforms the national government and local powerbrokers in the provision of order and brutal, although not corrupt, justice.
Meanwhile, official Somali political processes and public institutions remain in the pockets of powerful clans, which discriminate against their rivals and advance narrow parochial interests. They are also pervaded by corruption and usurpation of public resources for private gain.
Thus, even Mogadishu residents often prefer to approach al Shabab for the resolution of land and other disputes: Its decisions are widely seen as swift and not corrupt. Using al Shabab-controlled roads is predictable and safe at least for those who don’t collaborate with the government. Buses, taxis and trucks are charged a flat fee upon arriving at a Shabab checkpoint and given a receipt. Their cargo is safe.
Roads controlled by Somali national forces or militias feature many unpredictable fees and robberies are frequent. Thus Somali businessmen, including those based in Mogadishu, often hire al Shabab for security provision for their businesses.
Al Shabab also adroitly exploits widespread clan discrimination, aligning itself with weaker clans and providing them with protection and resource access. Its domestically-oriented recruitment propaganda emphasizes very specific local grievances and cases of power abuse and resource theft, not ideology.
For the United States to robustly weaken al Shabab, it must induce the Somali government to be accountable to the citizens, to deliver public services and to minimize clan discrimination and the exclusion of minority clans.
Priority must be given to reducing corruption in the justice system and in public and commercial contracts and to expanding access to resources for less powerful clans and individuals.
At the end of the day, al Shabab will need to be integrated into Somali society through accountability and reconciliation processes to which the various clan militias and flipped powerbrokers will also need to be subjected.
Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.