One year from now, if all goes according to plan, the African Union mission in Somalia will withdraw 1,500 soldiers from the country, in a crucial first step toward Somalia shedding its reliance on outside troops to maintain security and fight off Islamist militant group al-Shabab.
But the plan depends on Somali government forces being ready to protect the government and civilians from the al-Qaida-linked militants.
Last month, Somalia's ambassador to the United Nations, Abukar Osman, told the U.N. Security Council that "the Somali National Army is not ready to take over the security of the country.” Premature withdrawal of AMISOM, he said, might be a “recipe for disaster."
That's why the opening of a new Turkish military base in Mogadishu is being hailed by some analysts as a possible turning point in the decades-long effort to stabilize Somalia. Turkey, which backs the Somali federal government, plans to train thousands of troops for the Somali National Army in hopes the SNA will become cohesive and powerful enough to handle the al-Shabab threat by itself.
The SNA has existed in one form or another since 2004, when the first transitional government since Somalia's 1990s civil war was created. But a host of factors including corruption, clan rivalries, poor training and a lack of funding have undermined all attempts to make the SNA bigger and stronger.
Ahmed Moallim Fiqi, the former director of Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency, says the Turkish training base is Somalia's best opportunity to acquire a unified, effective army.
“This has to be the factory that produces the security forces, to enable the reintegration of a balanced army and to equip them before they are put to operation,” he says.
Turkey said it wants to do that. At the opening of the base on Saturday, the chief of staff of the Turkish army, General Hulusi Akar, said that his government plans to help Somalia until the country gets "militarily stronger."
The Turkish ambassador to Somalia, Olgan Bekar, said his government wants to “help the Somalis reclaim authority and restore order in the country.”
AMISOM threatening to leave
Fiqi says the government of Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known by his nickname, Farmajo, is feeling the pressure to get its forces in order.
“The Somali government is under constant reminder that time is running out for AU troops, and the only troops who can replace them are Somali soldiers,” he says.
The AU force, AMISOM, arrived in Somalia in 2007 as al-Shabab emerged to fight Ethiopian troops who invaded in late 2006 to oust a six-month-old Islamist government from power. AMISOM troops have been the main defender of Somalia's fledging federal governments since Ethiopians left at the start of 2009.
Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti supply the current force of 22,000 AMISOM troops, which ended al-Shabab's control over most of Mogadishu and other Somali cities. But after taking thousands of casualties, the countries have made noise about bringing their soldiers home.
Earlier this year the Somali government unveiled a structure for the future Somali security forces. The plan projects Somalia will have at least 18,000 regular troops and 4,000 special forces, bringing the total to 22,000.
According to military experts, the number of troops currently available to the government is likely half of that, because officials have struggled to keep soldiers on duty due to lack of regular pay.
Heightening the confusion, the troops were trained in different countries, including Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti, by different armies. About 500 special forces who make up the battle-tested Danab ("lightning") unit were trained by the United States. EU forces gave some instruction, as did the United Arab Emirates.
Somali military officials say the newly-opened Turkish base will make sure all SNA troops receive the same training.
“It’s very important for the army, when they are trained outside the country, that they are brought here to have harmonized training,” says General Abdullahi Mohamed Ahmed, a senior military officer at the Somali Defense Ministry.
Last week, the government took steps to ease the funding shortage. Farmajo flew to Saudi Arabia to smooth relations ruffled by the diplomatic dispute between the Saudi kingdom and Qatar. Before his departure, the Somali Cabinet reaffirmed its strict neutrality in the matter.
That must have been what the Saudis wanted to hear, because upon Farmajo's return, the government announced that it received $50 million in financial aid from Saudi Arabia, and said it will use that money to pay salaries and provide rations to the army.
Fiqi says if army can get strong enough to handle security on its own, all of Somalia's neighbors should be pleased.
“It helps the security of the region because the countries who sent troops to Somalia say they have done so because of a threat coming from Somalia," he says. Building a Somali army that contains that threat, he says, will give those countries "greater confidence in the Somali government."