Pause in ATMIS Troop Drawdown Raises New Questions About Somalia’s Security
A United Nations helicopter in mid-January was conducting a medical evacuation when a technical problem forced it to make an emergency landing in an area long controlled by al-Shabaab in central Somalia.
The terror group abducted six people and shot another person dead as they tried to flee.
The incident underlined the struggles Somalia has faced since it asked the U.N. in September to delay the planned drawdown of 3,000 African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) Soldiers. The attack and others show that al-Shabaab still poses a threat and highlights challenges faced by the Somali National Army in providing security for the country.
ATMIS, which includes troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, completed the first phase of the drawdown of 2,000 troops on June 30, 2023, and was due to withdraw more September 30, reducing its military personnel to 14,626.
It was the second pause in the drawdown since December 2022, when the Somali government sought a review of ATMIS operational timelines. Analysts says ATMIS also has been hampered by a lack of funding.
“It remains vital that the drawdown of ATMIS troops be informed and guided by a careful assessment of the prevailing security situation and the Somalia security forces capability,” ATMIS head Mohamed El-Amine Souef told the U.N. Security Council.
Researchers at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) argued that Somalia’s request for another pause in the drawdown reveals a lack of confidence that its Army can adequately stabilize the country by December 2024, when ATMIS is scheduled to hand over full security responsibilities to Somali forces.
Ongoing al-Shabaab offensives against the Somali Army and police, coupled with forces’ retreat from areas previously captured, highlighted weaknesses in the military’s capabilities.
“Insufficient funding and al-Shabaab’s relative strength has left ATMIS forces strategically overstretched and hindered by limited equipment, such as helicopters, for decisive operations,” the ISS researchers wrote.
There is also insufficient firepower and training support for Somali forces to handle all security efforts by December 2024, according to the ISS, which said that ATMIS should completely draw down only when the Somali military generates enough force with the capacity to eliminate al-Shabaab.
“Short of this, the drawdown according to set timelines will reverse gains of recent years with detrimental implications for Somalia and the broader Horn of Africa,” the ISS researchers wrote. “It will also cast continued doubt over the AU’s role in managing peace and security in Africa.”
Despite these challenges, Somalia’s military offensive has regained more than 600 kilometers of ground against al-Shabaab since August 2022, according to Souef, who also chairs the A.U. Commission for Somalia.
In August 2023, Somali security forces killed more than 160 al-Shabaab members during a four-day operation.
“This is the first time that the Somali people have been able to defeat al-Shabab and the confidence is very high,” Federal Parliament member Malik Abdalla told news agency, The Media Line. “Now people have started talking about the post-al-Shabab [era].”
In December, Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency also scored a victory over the militants when it seized two illegal shipments of military hardware and explosive material bound for al-Shabaab.
The intelligence agency said an investigation relating to the shipments led to the arrest of 10 people linked to a smuggling network.
“Our agency has been following the activities of these individuals in Somalia and outside Somalia,” then-State Minister of Defense Mohamed Ali Haga said in a Voice of America report. “It has been following their involvement in this smuggling network. Fortunately, all of them are in custody, and none has escaped.”