The U.S. government needs to change its Somalia policy—and fast. … The international community`s repeated attempts to create a government have failed, even backfired.


Somalia`s President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed is surrounded by AU troops upon his arrival in Mogadishu, February 7, 2009. Ahmed arrived in the Somali capital for the first time since he was elected President in neighboring Djibouti.

In the Quicksands of Somalia: Where Doing Less Helps More in the Nov. Dec. 2009 issue of Foreign Policy, describes the problem.

The brutal occupation of Somalia by its historical rival Ethiopia from late 2006 to early 2009, which Washington openly supported, only fueled the insurgency and infuriated Somalis across the globe. One of Washington`s concerns today is that al Qaeda may be trying to develop a base somewhere in Somalia from which to launch attacks outside the country. Another is that more and more alienated members of the Somali diaspora might embrace terrorism, too. … isolated incidents have generated more hype than they deserve, but they have nonetheless put the Obama administration in a tough position. If only to avoid seeming weak in combating terrorism, it must prevent these threats from escalating, but it is entering the fray at a time when almost any international action in Somalia is likely to reinforce the Somalis` anti-Western posture.

Alarmingly, the State Department seems not to realize this or the failures of past policy. …
… the TFG`s presence in Somalia hurts U.S. goals. Resistance to the so-called government has united various radical groups that would otherwise be competing with one another.
… With 3.8 million people urgently in need of relief, Somalia has once again become the site of one of the world`s worst humanitarian crises. This error stems from Washington`s mistaken belief that state building is the best response to terrorism. Because Washington has lacked both the political will and the resources to launch a large enough state-building program, U.S. efforts in Somalia have been inadequate.
Somalis may have grown weary of war, but they remain highly suspicious of centralized government. And they disagree about questions as fundamental as whether a Somali state should be unitary, federal, or confederal; whether the judicial system should be wholly Islamic or a hybrid of sharia and secular law; and whether the northern territory of Somaliland should be granted its long-sought independence. Efforts to create a central government under such conditions are a recipe for prolonging conflict.
… Another major problem with Washington`s Somalia policy is that it has not kept pace with important shifts in U.S. thinking about how to confront terrorism.

U.S. intelligence analysts have argued that Somalia is fundamentally inhospitable to foreign jihadist groups. Al Qaeda is now a more sophisticated and dangerous creature, but its current foothold in Somalia appears to be largely the product of the West`s latest interference. In fact, the terrorist threat posed by Somalia has grown in proportion to the intrusiveness of international policies toward the country. Al Shabab metamorphosed from a fringe movement opposed to the foreign-backed TFG into a full-blown political insurgency only after the U.S.-supported Ethiopian invasion.

Giving up on a bad strategy is not admitting defeat. It is simply the wise, if counterintuitive, response to the realization that sometimes, as in Somalia, doing less is better.

Under the Bush administration, Somalia became a front in the war on terrorism. A messy decades-long conflict was recast as an ideological battle between secular democracy and Islam, between “moderates” and “extremists”—blunt categories that blurred important differences in ideologies and tactics. This oversimplification has both severely undermined the capacity of U.S. and other international representatives to relate to the Somali public and allowed al Shabab to unify an otherwise diverse array of actors into a motivated armed opposition.

Even if the TFG were able to control more territory, this would serve little good: the government is simply incapable of governing. The parliament has swollen to an unwieldy 550 members. Most of its members reside safely outside the country, and the remainder are paralyzed by factionalism and infighting; just getting a parliamentary quorum in Mogadishu requires Herculean support from the UN.

AMISOM is widely viewed as a combatant in the conflict and has been accused by the local press and some clan leaders of firing indiscriminately on civilians. Both al Shabab and legitimate authorities among the clans and Mogadishu`s local clerics council have called for ousting the troops. Under these circumstances, bolstering the AMISOM contingent is a fool`s errand.

As al Shabab has gained ground, it has attracted opportunists and consequently has fractured along both ideological and clan lines.

The presence of al Qaeda operatives in al Shabab`s ranks is indeed alarming, but it is as much a tactical arrangement as an ideological alignment. And the utility for al Shabab of having foreign jihadists fighting by its side will decrease as doing so begins to impede the group`s hopes of governing Somalia: many Somalis condemn the presence of foreign fighters in the country on the grounds that they are bound to promote non-Somali values or act like brutal colonizers.

The tenuous nature of these alliances means there is no clear horse on which the U.S. government can bet. Both the TFG and al Shabab have backers among Somalis, but neither can count on a critical mass. The ostensibly moderate ASWJ has local supporters, but its factionalism and its dependence on Ethiopia are likely to undermine its capacity to generate a national constituency. No doubt this is a problem for the advocates of state building, who were counting on the TFG to be the solution to anarchy. But the weakness of all the parties is also something of a blessing: it means that al Shabab is less powerful than is often feared. The implications of this are clear. With no side capable of keeping the peace if it wins the war, the U.S. government, as well as the rest of the international community, should not focus its efforts on backing any one group. It should also forget about grand political projects to create a central government authority, which are likely to be futile.

Exploiting these tensions is the most reliable and cost-effective means of fighting terrorism in Somalia.

It will be impossible to isolate the truly dangerous elements from the nationalist, the pragmatic, and the merely thuggish factions of al Shabab until the United States stops supporting one group over another and disconnects local conflicts in Somalia from broader counterterrorism efforts.

The article provides much more detail on what has worked, and what has not worked in Somalia, and why, and on what is going on there now.

For now, the United States should commit itself to a strategy that promotes development without regard to governance. At the same time, it will have to continue its counterterrorism efforts, although preferably in the form of monitoring and de-radicalization strategies pursued in cooperation with the local population rather than air strikes.

There is a great deal more to Bruton’s article, and much food for thought for US policy makers if they are smart enough to pay attention. Of course this assumes the intent of US policy is to improve the situation in Somalia. Observation of US actions to date allows many to doubt US motives, and some assume the US prefers acting to destabilize Somalia, and to keep it weak and unstable. If US intentions toward Somalia are positive there is much in the article on how to proceed. I recommend the entire article: In the Quicksands of Somalia: Where Doing Less Helps More

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