Ethiopian troops previously assisting the internationally-funded African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) were suddenly withdrawn to Ethiopia a few days after the Ethiopian government declared a six-month emergency on October 9.
As Islamist al-Shabab militants, who have links to al Qaeda, retook a number of towns in their absence, many commentators were quick to diagnose the redeployment as a reaction to help Ethiopian security services subdue internal protests rocking the country since November 2015.
But to settle for that explanation risks missing a more nuanced picture that reveals problems within the United Nations peacekeeping system and AMISOM itself as it battles al-Shabab in Somalia.
"The withdrawal of Ethiopian troops certainly gives al-Shabab an opportunity to regain control of settlements it had previously lost," said Paul Williams, a peace and security expert. "[And] it will be a major boon for its forces and its propaganda machine."
AMISOM has grown from an initial deployment of 1,500 Ugandan soldiers in 2007 to a multi-national African force of over 21,000 soldiers, with troops from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Uganda. Sierra Leone withdrew its battalion of troops in early 2015.
Financial burden caused by unrest
Ethiopia's military, the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), provides more than 4,000 to that AMISOM force. They make up the third largest contingent and they are all still in Somalia.
The Ethiopian soldiers who were withdrawn were part of an additional Ethiopian force of about another 4,000 that operated outside of but in tandem with AMISOM, providing crucial assistance.
"Ethiopian troops know the land, they're used to the temperatures, they are the only ones who have fought both guerrilla and conventional warfare," says an Ethiopian Horn of Africa political analyst in Addis Ababa, who asked to remain anonymous.
"Ethiopia didn't need extra troops for the state of emergency, it's has more than enough," the analyst said. Estimates of the size of Ethiopian army range from 140,000 to 200,000. "But the unrest was making it more expensive for Ethiopia to have its non-AMISOM troops in Somalia, as its foreign direct investment has been hit and its foreign exchange reserves are decreasing."
Ethiopia declared the state of emergency after weeks of anti-government protests and riots during which at least 50 people were killed in a stampede and more than 2,000 demonstrators were temporarily detained.
The demonstrations were initially triggered by anger over a development scheme for the capital Addis Ababa but then broadened into demonstrations against political restrictions.
Steep soldiers' bill
The international community pays each country in AMISOM $1,028 (990 Euros) per month for each soldier. Countries are free to choose how much of that each soldier receives, while the United Nations Support Office for AMISOM (UNSOA) covers all logistics and associated costs.
Ethiopian troops outside of AMISOM, however, qualify for none of that, while the Ethiopian army pays them the same amount that its AMISOM troops receive for parity's sake.
General Samora Yunis, the ENDF Chief of Staff, had been saying for months the army couldn't sustain the cost.
"It wasn't just the money," the analyst said. "The Ethiopian government felt it didn't have the diplomatic support it should have and that its efforts hadn't been recognized. Ethiopia's troops are the only ones that are mobile and taking the fight to al-Shabab."
But there's another side to Ethiopia military role in Somalia.
"The ENDF intervention in 2006 was what created al-Shabab as we know it today,” Williams said. "It moved them from a fringe element of the Union of Islamic Courts to the dominant force whose ranks were swelled by anti-Ethiopian vitriol."
During two years of fighting between Ethiopian troops and Somalia insurgent fighters an estimated 10,000 civilians were killed, while the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimated that more than one million people, mainly from Mogadishu, were displaced.
At the same time, Ethiopian troops were accused by local and international human rights organizations of committing atrocities against civilians and indiscriminate bombardment of built up residential areas.
"ENDF troops are militarily effective against al-Shabab but potentially politically toxic with the local population, especially the further they move from the Ethiopian border," Williams said.
End of AMISOM?
Earlier this year the European Union, AMISOM's largest donor, cut its funding by 20 percent, leaving the African forces that contribute to it scrambling to come up with their own money. Uganda, the largest contributor of troops, announced it would pull its contingent of more than 6,000 soldiers out of Somalia by the end of 2017.
The African Union (AU) has announced plans to withdraw AMISOM completely by the end of 2020, saying security responsibilities would be gradually transferred to Somalia's military, starting in 2018.
On Monday.(20.12.2016) President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, which has threatened to pull out of the force over the funding cut, urged the EU to provide more support to AMISOM.