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Since the collapse of the last central government in Somalia January 1991, the country has fallen apart into fiefdoms, controlled by power-hungry warlords with clan loyalties.
The rebels who deposed Mohamed Siad Barre, Somalia’s longtime military ruler, had nothing in common beyond their opposition to Barre's rule. Lack of a shared post-Barre strategy between the different rebels and their clans inflamed the resulting anarchy.
As each rebel group sought autonomy and dominance for their own community, they blocked the possibility, which meant a power vacuum was left as the country fell into chaos. This sparked a struggle over food and international aid, with much of it being looted or mismanaged with deficient logistic support, leaving many to suffer from a devastating famine.
In attempt to facilitate humanitarian relief and food deliveries to the people who were in need, the US-led United Nations Operation in Somalia (aka UNOSOM) was initated in July 1992. The failure of the UN operation, due to the warlords and tribal fighting as well as the mismanagement of aid delivery, led to the US military Operation Restore Hope in December 1992, which as mandated to take "all necessary means" to guarantee the delivery of food aid. The American-dominated multinational force operation ended in a humiliating withdrawal of American forces after the infamous Black Hawk Down incident, at the hands of warlord General Mohamed Farah Hassan (Aidid). General Aidid, who was listed as the US's most-wanted leader in Somalia at his time with a $25,000 bounty on his head, was previously in 1991 the leader of United Somali Congress, which overthrew the twenty-one year rule of Mohamed Siad Barre. US President Bill Clinton ended the American proactive policy in Somalia as well as its war against Aidid on October 1993, ordering a hasty withdrawal of US troops completed in March 1994.
As the other states serving in the UNISOM operation withdrew by March 1995, Somalia's warlords again flexed their muscles and resumed their notorious efforts to divide and pillage. As some warlords were receiving support, particularly arms, from neighboring countries, antagonism between the warlords rose. Seeing the warlords’ enrichment of their own families, junior commanders who were assigned to collect money from locals as well as commanding in the war against other rivals grabbed whatever territories they could and sought influence. A conflict which started as a power-struggle between two men -– Mohamed Farrah Aidid and Ali Mahdi –- resulted in a power-struggle between dozens of warlords in Mogadishu and led to a regional and global war between the western-affiliated African states and the al-Shabaab militants who have affiliated with al-Qaeda.
The people grew tired of the warlord era, which left civilians victims to vicious cycles of violence. Many were passionate for any kind of change which might lead to the end of the warlords. This presented an opportunity for the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), who drew popular support for their war against the deeply unpopular warlords. With the support of people, the ICU swept the warlords from the Mogadishu from much of southern and central Somalia in 2006 – a sucess which would have been unthinkable just a year before.
During their six months, the Union of Islamic Courts, which was led by the current Transitional Federal Government (TFG) President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, created a sense of peace and security which the country hadn’t seen during the sixteen years that followed the collapse of the central government in 1991 – marking their success where UN and US operations had failed.
However, the sense of peace in southern Somalia and the success of the Islamic Courts Union didn’t survive long. The western and Ethiopian fears of Islamists rising to power in Somalia justified the US-backed Ethiopian invasion to remove the Islamic Courts Union from power in late 2006.
For their two year presence in Somalia, Ethiopian troops never enjoyed security and their invasion resulted in the deaths of more than 16,210 Somali civilians. Ethiopian troops eventually withdrew from Somalia in early 2009, leaving Somalia even more unstable than before the intervention.
Against the backdrop of repeated failures from Somalis and doomed interventions, African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) was first deployed in Mogadishu in March 2007, with the mandate of protecting important government institutions. AMISOM spokesman, Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda told Somalia Report that their mission is to support the TFG mission to stabilize the country, to create conditions for dialogue and reconciliation, reconstruction and development.
African Union peace-keepers in Somalia, Ankunda explained, would like to see a peaceful and prosperous Somalia that is also at peace with its neighbors. Asked the exact number of AMISOM soldiers in Somalia, the spokesman said “the UN approved 17,731 soldiers for AMISOM and that is what we are operating with, officially.”
As with the Ethiopian experience in Somalia, AMISOM has since its deployment been involved deadly warfare with al-Qaeda-inspired group of Al-Shabaab militants that has tried to overthrow the TFG in Mogaidishu. The militants maintain control in much of southern Somalia and adjacent regions, but backed with the Somali National Army, AMISOM managed to wrest the capital from al-Shabaab last year.
AMISOM, which until has operated under the auspices of a peacekeeping force in Somalia, is now fighting al-Shabaab outside the capital for the first time in six years. One question is how long will it take for AMISOM to kick Al-Shabaab out of the country.
“Taking the whole country from al-Shabaab will take time, but I cannot set a specific date for that,” Mr. Paddy Ankunda said. “Fighting an enemy that wants to kill himself in order to kill others is a challenge,” said Amisom spokesman Paddy Ankunda.
The 12,000 AMISOM current troop strength, composed of soldiers from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and Kenya are present currently in the regions of Hiraan, Lower Shabelle, Middle Shabelle and Bay.
Kenyan troops, who rolled into Somalia last October, are eyeing the strategic town of Kismayo, some 500km south of the capital. Analysts believe if this town falls to Kenya, as a main source revenue for Al-Shabaab, it will mean both financial loss as well psychological defeat for Al-Shabaab.
AMISOM has been a life support machine for the TFG, which could not function without their presence in the capital. “I believe that the government would not have been standing today had it not been receiving the military backing of AMISOM," Mohamed Hassan Had, a well-known traditional elder, told Somalia Report. “They pushed Al-Shabab away from the capital. But they have also made mistakes, they did not use the principle of proportionality of force during their fighting with al-Shabaab. Their use of heavy weapons not only claims the lives of the enemy, but civilians as well.”
Other Somalis, including Yahye Mohamed, a young business man in Mogadishu, believe the TFG would not even be in power. “Without AMISOM, the government would have been based in neighboring countries, and we would call it the 'internationally recognized exile government of Somalia.' AMISOM offers more to the public than just military force," says Mohamed. “They provide people medical help, they train our soldiers and they are helping reconstruction."
For Abdirahman Abdishakur, a former minister of international cooperation and a presidential candidate, the biggest challenge facing AMISOM is the absence of a reliable Somali partner. “AMISOM has done their job, but we need a good partner here —- a government that can prevent a power vacuum forming in the liberated areas,” said Mr. Abdishakur. Al-Shabaab has recaptured areas which Somali troops had seized from them, in some cases without a battle.
“AMISOM may help in defeating Al-Shabab militarily but building local administrations, providing social services is the job of the Somali government but it failed to do that so far,” Abdishakur noted. “They send militias loyal to clan warlords to the areas they seize, and that is not working."
However, AMISOM's presences is not universally welcome. Many Somalis blame AMISOM for the deaths of their family members; many have been disabled by AMISOM mortars fired in Mogadishu, while others blame their poverty on AMISOM, because their properties and businesses were destroyed by AMISOM mortars. In particular Bakara market, Mogadishu’s largest market, has seen fighting, as it is also an source of income for al-Shabaab.
Some Somalis like Omar Abdullahi, a Mogadishu resident, believe that AMISOM is also a proxy for an American covert war against their coreligionists. “AMISOM is fighting a proxy war for America against Islam. Look how many people they have killed, how many buildings they destroyed,” he said. “They are here to prevent the implementation of Islamic law in Somalia.”