Lessons from AMISOM on peacekeeping in cities

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019 07:49 | By
Francisco Madeira (R), Special Representative of the African Union for Somalia and Head of the AU mission in Somalia welcomes Augustine Magnus Kailie, new Police Commissioner of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in Mogadishu, Somalia, Nov. 7, 2019. (Xinhua/AMISOM Photo)

In an ever more urbanising world, peacekeepers will increasingly operate in cities. In a recent article, we analysed how attacks against the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) affected the peacekeepers’ ability to operate in Mogadishu.

Cities host key logistical and political assets and institutions. They are frequently the object of fierce contestation among warring parties. Cities may also remain divided and insecure long after formal peace agreements are signed, posing challenges to peaceful transitions.

Securing strategically important cities and protecting key institutions are thus crucial tasks for peace operations. However, operating in densely populated urban areas comes with challenges.

For one, the density of cities makes it more difficult for peacekeepers to distinguish armed fighters from the civilian population. 

Militants with intimate knowledge of the city’s infrastructure may also counteract peacekeepers’ technological advantage. The city’s symbolic and political importance often makes it a prime target for large-scale attacks which can be difficult for peacekeepers to anticipate and prevent.

Some peace operations deployed in cities have come under attack by forces opposed to their presence. Such attacks, in turn, affect peacekeepers’ ability to operate and sometimes have led to their withdrawal. In Kigali, Rwanda, the killing of ten Belgian peacekeepers posted to the UN mission there in April 1994 led the country to withdraw its contingent. 

The United Nations Operation in Somalia was also forced to leave after the US pulled out its troops. This was after the infamous “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu in 1993. 

Recent research has shown such responses may be the exception rather than the rule. But attacks on peacekeepers may have other important effects for operational effectiveness.

In our article, we focus on the AMISOM between 2007 and 2009, the mission’s first three years of operations. The mission was deployed where there was little “peace to keep”. It quickly came under attack from al-Shabaab, the terror group opposing Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Using data from the Peacemakers at Risk dataset, we analysed patterns of violence involving peacekeepers. An estimated 50 peacekeepers were killed in direct acts of violence in Mogadishu between 2007 and 2009. This affected AMISOM’s operations in several ways.

First, the insecure conditions in Mogadishu forced it to concentrate on its core military tasks—protecting the TFG and its own troops. Patrolling and civilian engagement were limited, which also reduced the mission’s access to intelligence.

Second, attacks on AMISOM significantly hampered its ability to deploy throughout the city. It was not able to spread out across the city for several years. The concentration to a few key locations was partly the result of delays in deployment of troops and mission support. However, many states were unwilling to contribute partly due to the violence targeting the mission.

Third, attacks on peacekeepers at times led to heavy-handed responses. This prolonged fighting where civilians were caught in the crossfire. In turn, such cases increased popular criticism of the mission. 

Such instances also exemplify the challenges of peacekeeping in cities, as al-Shabaab often attacked from positions in civilian neighbourhoods.

These experiences illustrate the particular challenges that can result when peacekeepers face armed groups that know the urban terrain and rely on asymmetric tactics. These challenges appear to have hampered the implementation of some mandated tasks. 

These problems were amplified by the fact that the mission was initially under-resourced. However, despite these challenges, troop contributing countries did not withdraw but added more troops to the mission. This enabled AMISOM to prevent the overthrow of the Somali TFG— its core mission.

AMISOM’s experiences suggest that urban peace operations must be given sufficient resources from the outset: personnel, equipment and relevant training. They must also invest in gaining detailed knowledge of the urban environment by engaging local populations. 

—The article first appeared on The Conversation

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