Security officers assess the stand at the scene after a suicide car explosion in front of Doorbin hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: Of late, rumours have done the rounds that the UN-backed African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) may withdraw from the country in a year or two. This, despite the fact that the threat from the Al Qaida-aligned Al Shabab militant group remains grave, as indicated by the horrific bombing in the capital Mogadishu in October last year that left at least 512 people dead and hundreds more injured.

“AMISOM has been in Somalia for over a decade now. Overall, its performance is a mixed bag,” said Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa Project Director for the International Crisis Group, an influential Brussels-based think-tank. Speaking to Gulf News by phone from Nairobi, Abdi noted: “AMISOM has managed to push out Al Shabab from Mogadishu, and from many towns in south-central Somalia, especially in the past five years. But Al Shabab still exists in rural areas. And it’s not possible to control the towns and cities [fully] unless the rural areas are also under control.”

Abdi said AMISOM countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, and Djibouti – are caught in a difficult situation. “Eleven years on, progress has been slow. AMISOM is operating on only 80 per cent of its budget. Resources remain a challenge, especially equipment promised by Western countries. The West has talked about increasing training and equipment but they have not delivered 12 helicopter gunships as promised, for instance.”

 Al Shabab still exists in rural areas. And it’s not possible to control the towns and cities [fully] unless the rural areas are also under control.”

 - Rashid Abdi | Horn of Africa Project Director, International Crisis Group

For a majority of Somalis, their country has been in a state of war ever since they can remember. Full-blown warlordism became the norm in Somalia following the toppling of the military dictatorship of Siad Barre in 1991 by clan-based militias. The warlords carved out fiefdoms across the country.

A unity government formed in 2000, which had international backing, was never able to establish full control, and the two comparatively peaceful northern regions – Somaliland and Puntland – broke away, becoming de facto independent states. A coalition of Islamists jurists, called the Union of Islamic Courts, took over the capital and established a government in 2006. But, six months later, Ethiopia invaded to topple that government.

In the period that followed, Somalia was engulfed in violence. A new threat – the Al Qaida-aligned Al Shabab militant group – popped up, and AMISOM began operations in the country in February 2007.

In 2012, a new internationally-backed government was installed, but despite help from relentless US drone strikes and the backing of almost 20,000 AMISOM troops, Al Shabab continues to pose a serious threat to the authorities in Mogadishu.

“AMISOM is stretching itself ... its supply lines are getting longer. Its casualties are increasing. Besides, [there is the question of] ‘liberated’ territory not being well governed, providing Al Shabab the advantage,” said Abdi.

Exit strategy talks hint at a ‘transition period’ in which the aim is to increase the capacity of the Somali National Armed Forces (SNAF). But, Abdi said, the SNAF is “nowhere near” being a cohesive force. “If AMISOM leaves, SNAF cannot manage the situation. It is not capable [of providing security] in the short to medium term.”

Abdi agreed there were many parallels between the situation in Afghanistan and Somalia. “[In both countries] we have weak governments that depend on the support of foreign forces. The parallels are obvious.”

One of the reasons that AMISOM feels like it can now move out is Somalia’s bilateral secuirty arrangements with different countries. “There is a proliferation of bilateral security arrangements. But Mogodishu’s security dealings with these countries can never replace AMISOM.”

Asked what the endgame in Somalia would look like, after decades of war, Abdi said: “That’s the million dollar question. Mogadishu looks much different than before. There have been improvements. Somalia’s federal system has reistered progress. The picture overall is not hopeles. But, if AMISOM pulls out in a hasty manner, all that will be lost.”