Beyond Bullets: Political Engagement and Civilian Protection in Somalia

in Program

More civilian
casualties mounted this week in
Somalia’s capital as the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), supported
by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), continued to battle extremist
insurgents. The AU has appealed for reinforcements
and funds to support a larger troop presence in Mogadishu. But a bigger AU
force won’t make things better unless the government also earns what it does
not now have: legitimacy in the eyes of its own people.

By Lauren Wilson – The African Union (AU) plans to reinforce its peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) in Somalia in the wake of July 2010 bombings in Kampala attributed to the Islamic extremist group Al-Shabaab. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and Ugandan government, which presently supplies most of AMISOM’s troops, argue that a larger force is needed to defeat insurgent groups. However, additional troops alone will not accomplish that objective. Two critical components are missing from such a strategy. First, military power should only be used as one component of a larger political strategy to address root causes of Somalia’s instability. The international community has not invested enough in such a strategy. Second, the military component should be used to meet the security needs of the civilian population, which requires a protection strategy and appropriate military assets, not just boots on the ground.

Broadly viewed as a foreign-imposed entity, the TFG doesn’t exercise effective control outside Mogadishu and is dependent on Western backing. AMISOM is viewed as a foreign intervening force(1) and as such, its mandate to support and protect the TFG, contributes to the view that the government is a conduit for foreign “meddling” in internal politics. These perceptions of AMISOM undermine the TFG’s legitimacy in the eyes of a xenophobic populous. If the TFG hopes to do better, it must engage with the more moderate of its domestic opponents, including insurgent groups. Previous efforts have integrated such groups into the TFG, providing windows of credibility and opportunities for some political reforms (e.g. 2008 Djibouti Agreement with the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia). In the absence of a political-military strategy to encourage the TFG to increase such political outreach, AMISOM’s presence will continue to exacerbate rather than alleviate the government’s lack of legitimacy.

AMISOM and the TFG’s inability to provide protection to civilians has also undermined the TFG’s credibility and effectiveness. In fact, insurgents have successfully controlled the battle of narratives by shifting public perceptions of responsibility for civilian deaths to AMISOM. The primary extremist insurgent group, Al-Shabaab, and other insurgent groups disregard the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) launching attacks on AMISOM from civilian neighborhoods, knowing that AMISOM will respond by targeting the location of the attack, resulting in significant collateral damage and civilian casualties. By doing so, AMISOM has further alienated the population whose support it needs and hurt the transitional government it is mandated to support.

If AMISOM is to help the TFG take control of the conflict narrative, the mission must adhere to IHL and treat Somali civilians as a critical supporting asset. IHL is the minimal standard for protecting civilians, establishing civilian immunity and prohibiting the indiscriminate use of force. While internal AU reports acknowledge that civilian casualties are detrimental to the mission, such concerns have not changed actions on the ground. A clear and public commitment to IHL and a strategy to reduce civilian casualties is necessary for the mission to compete in shaping the conflict narrative.

Greater AMISOM efforts to ensure civilian security would also expose the main weakness of Al-Shabaab and other extremist insurgents. Al-Shabaab’s attacks on the population and harsh governance in its area of control have undermined its legitimacy. By proactively protecting civilians, AMISOM can improve its credibility and remove a critical rallying point for Al-Shabaab. Proactive protection involves reducing the threat of reprisal attacks against civilians, intercommunal violence and restrictions on access to humanitarian aid. Presently, AMISOM does not appear to have a strategy to reduce the population’s vulnerability to these threats.

A comprehensive strategy for protection requires sufficient troop strength, logistics, and intelligence capacity; AMISOM struggles with chronic under-resourcing and lacks all of these requirements. While several countries have pledged additional troop capacity, the mission has yet to reach its mandated force levels. Even if the committed troops were available, AMISOM lacks the strategic lift to position them in theater. Without strengthening its logistic capacity, AMISOM will not be able to implement a strategy for civilian protection. In addition, any proactive protection efforts by AMISOM will be counterproductive if conducted without better intelligence. The mission must be able to identify those posing threats and understand their motives in order to respond effectively. An evaluation of the potential risks and unintended consequences of preemptive action is also required to avoid inadvertent conflict escalation. AMISOM’s intelligence structure would need considerable augmentation in both people and money to accomplish these tasks.

Current plans to reinforce AMISOM are not enough to overcome the obstacles it faces from an increasingly complex insurgency. As the stalemate in Mogadishu cannot be resolved by military force alone, AMISOM must acknowledge the TFG’s inability to govern, as reflected by its constant infighting and the recent resignation of Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke. AMISOM lacks the comprehensive political strategy necessary to bolster TFG legitimacy and make it a viable governance alternative to insurgent groups. It will require significant resources beyond additional troops to be effective once it does have such a strategy. The success of AMISOM’s mission therefore depends on the willingness of the broader international community to offer the necessary investment and the willingness of the African Union to develop and implement the necessary changes in AMISOM’s strategy.

Photo Credit: Burundi peacekeepers prepare for next rotation to Somalia, January 2010. By Rick Scavetta, U.S. Army Africa.


The TFG was installed in Mogadishu in the last
days of December 2006 as a result of what was viewed as a foreign invasion of
Ethiopian troops that joined TFG soldiers to remove the then de facto authority in
Mogadishu, the Union of Islamic Courts. The TFG continued to request and rely
on the presence of Ethiopian troops, which didn’t fully withdrawal until 2009. Deployed in 2007,
AMISOM is largely viewed as taking over for the Ethiopian presence. The
association with the Ethiopian occupation continues to undermine support for
AMISOM and the TFG.

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