What Went Wrong with the Somali National Army?

Somali Army_Edited

For over a decade, a dozen states and multilateral organizations have invested considerable time, effort, equipment, and hundreds of millions of dollars to build an effective Somali National Army (SNA). So far, they’ve failed.

This was the conclusion of a multinational readiness assessment of the SNA conducted during 2017 by the Federal Government of Somalia and several international partners including the African Union, the United Nations, and the United States. The assessment was needed because neither the Somali government nor its partners had reliable basic information about the army, including the identities of its personnel, their locations and unit affiliations, or their weapons and equipment.

The assessment confirmed the army was in a dire state: There were fewer frontline personnel than previously estimated (on average battalions had only 63 percent of their authorized strength), there were inconsistent recruiting standards, and most battalions lacked basic equipment, including weapons, ammunition, communications kit, and vehicles. The result was an army in name only, largely confined to defensive and localized operations, unable to undertake a coherent national campaign, and often reliant on the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and United Nations Support Office for Somalia (UNSOS) for protection, securing supply routes, logistics support, and casualty evacuation. What went wrong?

Tommy Ross recently suggested in the Texas National Security Review that the failure to build an effective SNA stemmed from international actors’ lack of focus, with most attention and resources instead devoted to AMISOM. While this was largely true for U.S. assistance, a lack of international attention was not the main problem. Rather, it was the type of international engagement: The dozen countries and organizations that have tried to build the SNA since 2008 failed to coordinate their efforts and ignored the political problems of elite disagreements, clan politics, and corruption.

My new research provides the first comprehensive assessment of 11 years of international efforts to build an effective Somali National Army. I argue that Somalia represented a uniquely difficult context for this project because of two decades of state collapse, internecine clan conflicts, and world-leading levels of corruption. The project was made even more difficult by diverging priorities between local elites and external actors, the failure to focus on institution-building instead of short-term “train & equip” initiatives, and poorly coordinated international programs. In sum, international actors failed to persuade Somalia’s elites to create the right political conditions for building an effective national army — all against the backdrop of one of the most challenging political contexts in the world.

Despite this failure, it is not too late to build an effective SNA. There have been some encouraging recent signs: notably, the biometric identification process for all personnel scheduled for completion in June and the recent recovery operations conducted by SNA-led forces along the Shabelle river valley. But success will require a new approach, focused on imposing stricter conditions on international assistance and developing a deeper partnership between the Somali authorities and one primary international partner.

Why Somalia needs an army

Somalia suffers from three broad categories of violence. First, there is the war between the Somali authorities (federal and regional) and extremist organizations, notably al-Shabaab and, more recently, the Islamic State in Somalia. This gets the most international attention. Second, there is significant clan-related conflict, usually related to power struggles to control lucrative towns, ports, and transport routes. In 2016, there were approximately 150 unique armed groups in Somalia, most of them clan militias. The World Bank estimated that clan forces initiated roughly 15 percent of all violent incidents in Somalia between 2011–16. Finally, Somalia is experiencing rising levels of localized intercommunal violence over access to land, water or grazing, for livestock, which has been exacerbated by climate change and environmental degradation.



A national army is not much use for stopping clan-related or intercommunal violence. Indeed, building the national army has sometimes stimulated clan conflict. However, the war against al-Shabaab has been hampered by the absence of an army since Somalia’s central government collapsed in 1991. Even after a federal government was resurrected in late 2012, it has struggled to control its capital city and immediate hinterland, let alone the rest of the country. Today, Somalia desperately needs an effective army to stabilize the country and protect its citizens from one of the world’s deadliest militant groups, Harakat al-Shabaab. This would also provide AMISOM peacekeepers with a viable exit strategy. Over the longer term, Somalia’s security needs will likely require greater emphasis on police and law enforcement services, but for now an able, accountable, and affordable army is necessary.

Explaining the failure

It was the combined effect of contextual, political, and operational challenges that scuppered international efforts to build an effective SNA.

First, Somalia presented a uniquely difficult context for would-be state-builders because they had to deal with the legacy of two decades of state collapse and the complexities of the country’s clan dynamics. Since its civil war in the late 1980s, Somalia had become the archetypal case of state collapse, plagued by warlords, gangsterism, and endemic corruption as well as cyclical droughts and famines. In this context, security, justice, education, and healthcare was generally provided by clans, which fought to control the country’s major cities, ports, and transit routes.
These factors combined to leave the federal government with virtually no resources and very few soldiers loyal to the state, rather than particular clans or other powerful individuals. However, with sufficient political will and unity of purpose among Somali leaders and international partners this difficult context need not have guaranteed failure.

It was Somalia’s political problems that sealed the failure. The most important was interest asymmetry between international actors and Somali elites. Somalia’s political leaders in Mogadishu and the emerging regional administrations — in Jubbaland, Southwest, Hirshabelle, and Galmaduug — lacked the will to put aside their conflicts and build professional, national security forces. Instead, they prioritized securing their own local power bases, fending off opponents, and benefitting economically from running the world’s most corrupt country. The inability of Somalia’s political elites to forge a consensus left AMISOM and other international partners with an impossible task. There was no shared vision of what Somalia’s national security architecture should look like, how key decisions should be made and financed, and how best to prioritize the fight against al-Shabaab. This elite dissensus stymied the establishment of the kinds of security institutions that a national army needs to function — from housing to health care and procurement to pensions.

Somalia was thus left without an agreed national security architecture, even on paper, until mid-2017, when international partners and Somalia’s federal government endorsed the London Security Pact. In March 2018, the government issued its official Transition Plan to chart how local forces would assume security responsibilities from AMISOM. Once again, however, progress stalled because of disagreements between Somalia’s regional authorities and the Federal Government, particularly over how these plans would be financed and how command and control of troops should work across the regions.

These intra-Somali arguments left international partners without a settled framework into which to plug their security assistance. The result was numerous partner projects trying to build an army in separate pieces, including most notably the United States, the European Union, Turkey, the UAE, and Ethiopia. However, despite the internal political obstacles, Somalia’s international partners could have done a much better job of coordinating their disparate security assistance programs.

Finally, the project to build the SNA faced myriad operational-level challenges. This army had to be built almost from scratch while simultaneously fighting a war against a deadly, adaptable, and knowledgeable foe. It had to fuse together numerous and incoherent armed factions, many of which did not want to be integrated into a centralized chain of command headed by the government in Mogadishu. And, it had to do so with a lack of resources across every conceivable dimension from weapons to vehicles, barracks to medical support, and identification systems to salaries.

In sum, while international actors should have better coordinated their activities, the most fundamental problems preventing the development of an effective SNA were related to local history and politics. As a result, they are only likely to be overcome if Somalia’s political elites change their way of doing business, or they are pressured to do so by international actors.

A better way forward?

International actors seeking a more effective SNA need to figure out how to get the federal and regional authorities to genuinely cooperate, stem corruption, better coordinate international security assistance, and maintain AMISOM’s presence — albeit in a reconfigured form — for as long as Somali forces require its assistance.

International diplomacy has so far failed to generate elite buy-in for genuine reform. Thus, international players should impose more conditions before providing more security assistance, as Jason Hartwig argued in a recent War on the Rocks article. In December 2017, the United States adopted this approach when it suspended its stipends and other forms of security assistance to non-mentored SNA units, citing concerns about corruption. To restart U.S. assistance, Somali leaders must stem corruption and deliver on their promises to implement the details of the new national security architecture.

Stemming corruption in the security sector must also start at the top with Somali politicians leading by example. Given their dismal track record, this will require sustained diplomatic pressure as well as conditionality imposed by external partners. Completing the SNA’s biometric identification system would also help, since it will make it much more difficult for corrupt commanders to steal from their troops’ salaries.

International security assistance has been better coordinated since the adoption of the new Comprehensive Approach to Security, developed in 2017 between external partners and the federal government. However, it could be improved further by adopting the lead-nation model, wherein Somalia’s army is developed by one prime partner. This approach was used to good effect in Sierra Leone where the British-led International Military Assistance Training Team forged a new and effective army. Somalia took a step in the right direction in mid-2018 when it agreed that NATO standards would be used across all international security assistance programs for its army.

While these processes continue, Somalia’s international partners must also maintain political and financial support for AMISOM during this transition period. AMISOM faces several dilemmas as it transitions but the mission should continue to be downsized, ideally in tandem with creating some more mobile forces across its sectors. The mission and the Somali authorities must also agree on the details of how to work with the many thousands of so-called “regional forces” in south-central Somalia, including police forces, fighters loyal to particular regional administrations, clan militias, and Darwish paramilitaries.

None of this is guaranteed to succeed, let alone quickly. But forging an elite consensus on the politics of security sector reform remains the best pathway to building an effective Somali national army and an exit for AMISOM. Without it, the future of Somalia’s armed groups will look quite familiar: fragmented, localized, clan-based, and often hostile towards one another. At best, this balkanized approach could contain al-Shabaab in particular areas. But it won’t produce a military victory, a professional national army, or sustainable national security institutions.



Paul D. Williams is Associate Professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. His books include Fighting for Peace in Somalia: A history and analysis of the African Union Mission (AMISOM), 2007–2017 and War and Conflict in Africa. He’s on Twitter @PDWilliamsGWU

Image: AU-UN IST photo by Stuart Price