Somalia’s Army vs. Al-Shabaab: Who Holds the Upper Hand as AU Troops Exit?

The African Union (AU) has gradually reduced its troop numbers in Somalia since late 2017, from a peak of over 22,000 to about 14,000 today. Another 4,000 AU peacekeepers are scheduled to withdraw by the end of September and the entire AU Transition Mission in Somalia is scheduled to leave by 31 December 2024.

African Union peacekeepers were first deployed to Mogadishu in March 2007. Their mandate was to protect the then Transitional Federal Government and support dialogue and reconciliation in Somalia.

Since then, the AU mission has played a vital role in the fight against the Islamist militant group, al-Shabaab. They pushed al-Shabaab forces out of Mogadishu in 2011, recovered dozens of settlements across south-central Somalia between 2012 and 2014, and helped to establish and secure four new federal member states in Somalia between 2013 and 2017. Nevertheless, al-Shabaab was not defeated and remains one of Africa’s most deadly insurgencies.

The AU transition mission is leaving because the federal government of Somalia is confident it no longer needs the mission. But it’s also, in part, because external partners have balked at the cost of financing it.

Without the AU there, would the Somali National Army or al-Shabaab be stronger militarily? This was the question I posed in an assessment of the two forces published recently.

I have researched the effectiveness of peace operations and the dynamics of warfare in Africa for more than two decades. I have published numerous articles and books, including Fighting for Peace in Somalia — a history and analysis of the African Union Mission in Somalia.

My assessment considered seven factors: size, material resources (finance and technology), external support, force employment, cohesion, psychological operations, and morale.

I concluded that the Somali National Army would retain an advantage in terms of size, material resources, and external support, but performs poorly on the non-material dimensions. It would remain dependent upon external finance and security assistance. Overall, al-Shabaab would be militarily stronger because of its advantages across the non-material dimensions related to force employment, cohesion, and psychological operations, as well as the sustainability of its forces.

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