A rapid collapse of state institutions may await Somalia when the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, or ATMIS, ends at the end of 2024, unless the United Nations' weapons embargo on the country is lifted, security experts warn.
Somali authorities and African Union officials said this week that ATMIS will draw down 2,000 soldiers by June 30 of this year to pave the way for the complete withdrawal of the African Union Mission in Somalia that started in 2007 with the African Union Mission to Somalia, or AMISOM, and it was replaced by ATMIS, which became operational on April 1, 2022.
Abdisalam Yusuf Guled, the founder of Eagle Range Services, a security company in Mogadishu, and former Somalia’s deputy chief of the National Security Agency, is among those who voiced concern.
"I have a great concern that Somalia could be another Afghanistan if the African Union troops leave the country, without Somalia getting strong and well-armed security forces that have international funding and backing similar to that for ATMIS," Guled said.
Last week, the Somali government said it is ready to take over security responsibilities from ATMIS, as 2,000 troops will withdraw from the country in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions 2628 and 2670.
This week, a technical team was appointed with ATMIS and the U.N. Support Office in Somalia that will oversee the implementation of the ATMIS drawback.
But security experts warn that a swift pullout of African Union troops in Somalia could lead to a swift collapse of the Somali government, similar to what happened in Afghanistan when U.S. troops left in August 2021.
"The Somali Army has been emboldened by anti-al-Shabab clan militias backing, as well as foreign military support. And now, it is clear that ATMIS withdrawal will encourage al-Shabab to remobilize and launch more brazen attacks on the Somali government," Col. Abdullahi Ali Maow, a former Somali intelligence official, told VOA.
Former deputy chief of Somalia's National Intelligence and Security Agency, or NISA, Ismail Dahir Osman, said he thinks the militants are on a downward spiral and that they cannot endanger Somalia’s government once African troops leave the country.
"I think the Somali government and the world community cannot agree on sending the ATMIS personnel back to their countries without a strategic contingency plan in place. I believe the donor countries and the United Nations will direct the ATMIS funding to Somalia’s National Army, and if that is the case, there is no chance for al-Shabab to position itself to a level where it can threaten the existence of Somalia's institutions," said Osman.
Omar Abdi Jimale is a Mogadishu-based political science lecturer and commentator on Somalia's security and politics. He says with genuine international support for Somalia, the country’s National Army can shoulder the burden and responsibility of security.
"We remember how the Taliban's swift takeover of power in Afghanistan took the world by surprise. I see that the case in Somalia is different. If sanctions are lifted and the Somali Army is equipped with better military hardware, I believe they are in a much better position than any other foreign force to deal with al-Shabab and the country’s security in general," said Jimale.
"I cannot rule out that the unexpected could happen in Somalia without the international community fully supporting the Somali Army in terms of salary and weapons."
Colonel Abdullahi Ali Ma’ow says African Union troops in Somalia have been filling in as a de facto army in Somalia, and their withdrawal could compromise Somalia’s security gains. "AU troops have been providing protection for Somalia's leaders and its economic sources, like ports and airports, until the Somali National Army is strong enough to counter the jihadi group on its own. I think any withdrawal of ATMIS without making sure that Somalia is ready could give an opportunity to al-Shabab, and it will make the decades of efforts, sacrifices, and the human and material cost of the war against terrorism wasted.”
With the help of anti-al-Shabab clan militias, ATMIS, and international partners including the United States and Turkey, the Somali national army dislodged the Islamist insurgency al-Shabab from swathes of central Somalia in 2022, during the first phase of military operations announced by Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
Somalia said it killed more than 3,000 militants and that the operation was successful. The militant group called it "a failed operation."
But for much of this year, the counteroffensive against al-Shabab has stalled, giving the militants a space to remobilize and carry out attacks, including a May 26 storm on an AU base in the Lower Shabelle region that killed 54 Ugandan soldiers, and a brazen siege of a beachside hotel in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, last week, which left nine people dead, including an employee with the World Health Organization, and another 10 wounded.
A Somali Defense Ministry statement said regional forces supporting Somalia in the next phase of the offensive against al-Shabab are ready to be deployed anytime soon.
"Troops from the three neighboring countries of Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, are ready to be deployed in any minutes to Somalia, in addition to the soldiers they already have serving as part of the African Transitional Mission in Somalia , or ATMIS," top Somali military commanders told VOA on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the military preparations.
The deployment of the troops follows an agreement between the leaders of the three countries and Somalia during a summit hosted by Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud on February 1, 2023, in Mogadishu.
The new phase reportedly aims to flush out al-Shabab from the remaining parts of the country under its control, focusing on the southern regions of the Middle Shabelle and Jubba Valleys.
As a part of the ongoing military preparations to defeat or at least weaken al-Shabab before ATMIS’ full withdrawal from Somalia, senior ATMIS commanders held talks with top U.S. military officials on Friday.
"The U.S. is one of our international partners. They have also injected a lot of resources into this mission, and we have discussed salient issues," said Lt. Gen. Sam Okiding after the meeting. "We are in the transition process, so as ATM exits, we should be proud of our brothers and sisters who remain behind to take charge of their country’s security. That is our hope and prayer.”
Over the years, the United States has provided security assistance, including logistical and financial support, to the African Union peacekeeping operation in Somalia.
This report originated from the VOA Somali Torch Program.