Why is Ethiopia bringing back some of the best-trained and best-equipped soldiers fighting al-Shabaab?
This month has seen multiple withdrawals of Ethiopia National Defense Force (ENDF) units from Somalia. On 11 October, ENDF soldiers under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) unilaterally departed from two strategic towns in the Hiraan region of central Somalia. On 23 October, another contingent abandoned a base in Halgan district of northern Hiraan. Then on 26 October, the BBC reported that ENDF units operating independently of AMISOM had vacated their positions in the Bakol region near the Ethiopian border.
At this point it is unclear how many of the Ethiopian troops deployed in Somalia (numbering roughly 4,400 of AMISOM's 22,000 total troops) have departed, but it is clear that the withdrawals will have a significant strategic effect on the multinational counterinsurgency.
Both towns that were abandoned in Hiraan - El-Ali and Moqokori - were shortly thereafter occupied by al-Shabaab, and residents have reportedly already fled from villages Bakol in fear of further advances by the Islamist militants.
As al-Shabaab looks to exploit the vacuum caused by the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces, the crucial question is whether AMISOM can overcome the loss of strategic positions and manpower at a critical juncture in Somalia's stabilisation.
The ENDF withdraws
Ethiopia has a complex history of conflict with its neighbours in the Horn of Africa, beginning in the late 19th century when Emperor Menelik II conquered the ethnic Somali region of Ogaden. Thousands of Somalis died trying to regain the Ogaden in an unsuccessful 1977-78 war, and Ethiopia backed various Somali warlords as proxies following the disintegration of the Somali state in the 1990s.
In 2006, Ethiopia invaded Somalia with full force to oust the Islamic Courts Union and help install the internationally-recognised Transitional Federal Government. In the wake of this intervention al-Shabaab emerged, drawing on a Salafi-jihadist narrative to exploit the nationalist backlash against the return of Ethiopian "imperialists", the ENDF's brutal treatment of civilians, and the transitional government's lack of popular legitimacy.
In 2007, the African Union established AMISOM, which the ENDF joined as a troop-contributing country in 2014 to protect the fledgling government and degrade al-Shabaab through combined-force offensives. The ENDF brought with it significant war-fighting capabilities that other AMISOM nations lack. Ethiopia's military is well-trained, well-equipped, and is more competent in the field of logistics than most African armies.
Combat capabilities aside, the ENDF is an unaccountable institution with a disturbing human rights record at home and abroad. In Somalia, ENDF troops have been accused of widespread rape, torture, and extrajudicial killings. Meanwhile, as the mostly Oromo and Amhara protests have grown in recent months at home, there have been hundreds of deaths as the Tigrayan-dominated government has bypassed regional security forces and deployed the ENDF in traditional police roles such as riot control.
Why is Ethiopia pulling out troops?
The ENDF had remained silent about the withdrawals from Somalia until yesterday, when Communications Minister Getachew Reda denied that they were related to the nationwide state of emergency that was declared in Ethiopia on 9 October in response to the ongoing protests. Instead, he blamed the EU for failing to sufficiently support AMISOM.
While the rationale behind the withdrawals is undoubtedly multifaceted, claims that the domestic unrest is irrelevant to the decision are unconvincing, and not only because of its conspicuous timing. For one, the ethnic tension behind the Ethiopian protests has already manifested itself in Somalia, with several reports of infighting between Oromo soldiers and Tigrayan officers in certain units. It has been the practice of governments since antiquity to bring potentially disloyal troops home to facilitate their surveillance (or punishment) rather than allow them to scheme abroad. The Tigrayan-dominated EPRDF government in Addis Ababa could be following this logic.
It is also possible that ENDF units have redeployed to Ethiopia for the straightforward need to bolster the government's response to the protests. If the protests evolve into a more organised low-intensity conflict (a distinct possibility) the government will need to deploy significant forces domestically. Ethiopia's units in Somalia represent less than 5% of the ENDF's total forces, but battlefield experience often counts more than sheer numbers. Assuming the EPRDF can trust at least some of the units they have brought home, the government will have at its disposal soldiers with significant experience in asymmetrical warfare.
Another possibility is that the EPRDF is attempting to leverage its participation in AMISOM to pre-empt any potential international sanctions. So far the response from the US and EU to the state of emergency has been quite muted, but should the domestic crackdown intensify, the EPRDF might dangle the possibility of redeploying to Somalia in return for US and EU agreement to temper their responses. (No doubt President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose Burundian armed forces constitute 5,400 of AMISOM's troops, would be interested to see how that plays out.)
Effects of the withdrawal
Regardless of the EPRDF's motives and of whether a future redeployment is likely, however, Ethiopia's withdrawal has already significantly affected AMISOM efforts.
Over the past years, multinational efforts have reduced al -Shabaab's territorial control from 55% of Somalia in 2010 to roughly 5% today, according to a recent report by the RAND think tank. Nonetheless, the militants remain the single greatest threat to Somalia's stability, employing modern guerrilla tactics to great effect.
Due to the weakness of the nascent Somali National Army (SNA), AMISOM is crucial to containing the militants, and the abrupt withdrawal of ENDF forces poses a significant strategic setback to these efforts. According to standard counterinsurgency doctrine, AMISOM forces already constitute less than half the number of troops needed to stabilise Somalia, and the withdrawal of ENDF forces will stretch limited resources even further.
ENDF units had also been deployed to strategically significant positions in central Somalia. Ethiopian positions in Hiraan, located less than 100km north of Mogadishu, had abutted one of al-Shabaab's two remaining areas of freedom of movement. The main highway in Hiraan is one of only two which connect Mogadishu to the rest of Somalia, the other running through Al Shabaab's southern stronghold in Bay and Lower Shabelle.
With positions along the Hiraan highway now abandoned, al-Shabaab can more easily harass AMISOM and SNA forces in Mogadishu's northern environs and threaten the capital from the north and southwest. They have done this with increasing frequency in the run up to Somalia's fragile electoral process, and most recently launched a bold attack in Afgoye just 30km south of Mogadishu on 18 October.
Furthermore, the ENDF withdrawals in Bakol, which was previously a relatively secure region, allow al-Shabaab to expand their operations closer to the Ethiopian border. Given that Bakol borders the Bay region, where al-Shabaab enjoys substantial freedom of movement, increased operability in this area could translate to greater contiguous territorial control than the militants have enjoyed for some time.
The withdrawal also complicates possibilities of a final clearing operation in al-Shabaab's remaining strongholds north and southwest of Mogadishu. This was always going to be difficult given the fledgling state of the SNA, poor coordination among AMISOM forces, and manpower shortages - not to mention the ease with which insurgents transition to underground cells. But any offensive will now be even more challenging.
A prudent strategy would have been to focus the bulk of forces on clearing the Bay/Lower Shabelle region where al-Shabaab is stronger and gains revenues from extorting traders in the few ports it controls. But the fact that al-Shabaab is now bolstered in Hiraan raises the risks of diverting substantial forces to Shabelle, which would leave Mogadishu and central Somalia vulnerable.
Without a sufficiently capable Somali security sector, the presence of AMISOM is crucial to this critical phase of the counterinsurgency. As the ENDF withdrawals demonstrate, however, a successful multinational stabilisation force is dependent on the stability of the member states themselves.
James Barnett is a Boren Scholar in Tanzania, having previously researched at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. You can follow him on Twitter @jbar1648. The views expressed in this article are his own.