Five years after a U.N.-backed force began to push al-Qaeda-linked militants out of their strongholds, Somalia boasts clear signs of progress. Large swaths of the country have been reclaimed. Streets, beaches and markets have come back to life in once forsaken cities.
The United States has promised to rebuild its long-shuttered embassy. But as Somalia now approaches a critical period, with parliamentary and presidential elections due by August, those gains are showing signs of reversal.
The Al-Shabaab rebels are “resurgent,” President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said in an interview last week. He and other senior officials acknowledged that Somalia’s government is still unable to provide security or public services to regions that have been liberated. The government must choose between giving its soldiers wages or weapons, he said.
“The Somali government cannot afford to pay the soldiers and at the same time to purchase lethal equipment,” Mohamud said. “This is the dilemma that we have.” Western officials say they have provided ample aid but that much of it is diverted through corruption, and that the Somali government must do a better job of constructing a security force that fits within its budget.
Somalia has been racked by near-constant conflict for the past quarter-century, resulting in chaos that has provided fertile ground for the rise of the al-Shabab militants in 2005. The United States has since spent more than $2 billion on Somalia, sending military trainers and killing militants in drone strikes, including two Al-Shabaab commanders.
The White House sees the group as one of its top concerns in sub-Saharan Africa, in part because its attacks extend beyond Somalia to civilian targets in neighboring Kenya, such as Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall. African Union forces led an operation to push Al-Shabaab from Mogadishu in 2011, and went on to launch a series of offensives that prompted the militants to withdraw unilaterally from much of the territory they occupied.