Paul D. Williams is an associate professor of international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and the author of the recent book Fighting for Peace in Somalia. You can follow him on Twitter at @PDWilliamsGWU.
Peace enforcement missions have been in vogue over the last decade, particularly in Africa. From Afghanistan to central Africa, Lake Chad to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia to the Sahel, various international organizations and coalitions of states have been tasked with fighting for peace against various “spoilers,” “insurgents,” or “terrorists.”
But these missions have run up against some very difficult problems, not least of which are: how to help stabilize areas where there is no functional central government or a peace process; how to combat transnational armed groups that use asymmetric and terror tactics but also retain deep roots in segments of the local population; how multiple international organizations and states can partner effectively to defeat such foes; and how to do all this when there is usually a huge gap between the mission’s capabilities and its mandated tasks, and political leaders are looking to slash budgets?
Another problem is how analysts and practitioners alike should set expectations for such missions and evaluate their success and failure? All these missions have cost considerable blood and treasure. But it is not clear how to evaluate whether they were worth the costs, in part because it has been difficult for researchers to collect reliable information about how these missions operate.
In my new book, Fighting for Peace in Somalia, I delved into the operational details of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to try and shed light on these and other questions about contemporary peace enforcement missions and the international partnerships that underpin them.
Initially comprising just 1,600 Ugandan soldiers who were deployed to Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city, in March 2007, these African peacekeepers have played the leading role in combating al-Shabab, one of the world’s deadliest insurgencies. Along the way, AMISOM has also been mandated to help protect political VIPs in Somalia, build the country’s new national security forces, support various electoral processes, and facilitate humanitarian assistance.
Now in its eleventh year, AMISOM is remarkable in several respects. It is the African Union’s (AU) longest running and largest peace operation by a considerable margin. By mid-2017 it was the largest deployment of uniformed peacekeepers in the world with over 22,000 personnel. Unsurprisingly, therefore, AMISOM also became the AU’s most expensive operation; since 2014 it has cost approximately $1 billion per year. Sadly, it has been the world’s deadliest peace operation, probably by a considerable margin, although the precise number of casualties has not been made public.
AMISOM was also unique because of its reliance on a complex set of partnerships between several international organizations—notably the AU, European Union (EU), and United Nations—and major bilateral states—notably the United States, Ethiopia, Kenya, and the United Kingdom. Thus while six African countries provided AMISOM’s troops, it was a UN Support Office that provided the logistical support and the EU that paid for the peacekeepers’ allowances and other forms of mission support, while the United States provided various train and equip programs, and later, special forces operations and air strikes.
My research suggests that AMISOM has delivered some notable successes but also been limited by serious structural, political, and operational challenges. Its most important success was protecting Somalia’s fledgling transitional and then federal governments. But it also degraded al-Shabab, certainly from the period of the movement’s “golden age” around 2010 and pushed the militants’ main forces from Mogadishu in 2011. AMISOM also helped expand humanitarian access and provided various forms of relief to significant numbers of Somalis. The mission also still provides the security foundation on which all other international actors depend in order to operate in Somalia.
But there were also major problems. AMISOM could not defeat al-Shabab, it was rarely able to function as a unified mission because of differences between its troop-contributing countries, and it struggled to carry out the crucial non-military aspects of stabilization. Nor could it force Somalia’s political elites to reconcile and implement a workable national security architecture focused on defeating al-Shabab. Today, therefore, AMISOM—like several other peace enforcement missions—is stuck facing an enemy it cannot defeat alone while waiting for Somali politicians to build the effective local security forces that would allow it to drawdown.