This week featured ferocious clashes in Mogadishu between Somalia’s fledgling federal government and Al Shabab, an Islamist militia with ties to Al Qaeda. Al Shabab has declared a “massive, final” war on the fragile government and struck Tuesday with a deadly suicide bombing on a Mogadishu hotel used by the government to house ministers. Xan Rice, writing in the Guardian, reports that security experts expect more attacks during Ramadan, possibly coinciding with important dates on the religious calendar.
The attacks help underscore two uncomfortable truths about the situation in Somalia. One is that the Somali government is incapable of protecting itself and would fall, perhaps within hours, without support from 6,000 AU troops. Despite massive support from governments around the world, including the US, the Transitional Federal Government is so disorganized that it’s often unable to pay its troops. As a result, they are often defecting to Al Shabab, for economic reasons, not ideological ones. The second is that Al Shabab scares the crap out of nearby east African countries, especially Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
Uganda has a right to be scared. Last month, a set of coordinated bombings in Kampala killed more than 70 people who’d assembled to watch the final match of the World Cup. Al Shabab has claimed credit for the attacks, which it says were intended to punish Uganda for supplying troops to the AU force. The militia has also threatened Burundi, which supplies troops to the AU mission, and carries out occasional raids into bordering Kenya. Their real animus is reserved for Ethiopia, which occupied Somalia – with US support – from 2006-2009. (The countries have been in conflict on and off since 1948… and depending on who you ask, back to the 16th century.)
Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia are all important US allies, and it’s likely that there’s increasing pressure on the Obama administration to “do something” about Somalia. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni – in an NPR op-ed – makes clear what he’d like the US to do in Somalia: support more peacekeeping troops, and give the Somali government more money. While that sounds rational on the surface, it might not be a very good idea. Understanding why requires looking at the history of Al Shabab and the US’s tragic role in helping bring a violent and extreme movement to prominence.
The one period of peace Mogadishu has enjoyed since Barre’s ouster in 1991 was a six month period in late 2006 where the comparatively moderate Union of Islamic Courts controlled Somalia. Markets, stores, the Mogadishu airport and port reopened and many civilian and business leaders cheered the new stability.
This period of relative calm ended when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in December 2006 to re-install the government the UIC had chased out a few months before. Ethiopia had good strategic reasons for moving against the UIC. Ethiopia saw the UIC as an ally of Eritrea, with whom it has a stalled border conflict and long rivalry. And Somalia, under Barre, invaded the majority Islamic/majority Somali Ogaden region of Ethiopia in 1977. (BBC’s timeline of events in Somalia may be useful.) Ethiopia continues to fight rebels in the Ogaden, some of whom seek a “Greater Somalia” that encompasses western Ethiopia and Somalia. So the notion of an Islamic Union with popular support, which might seek a Greater Somalia strategy was understandably intolerable.
The US didn’t much care for the UIC either. The Bush Administration state department believed that some of the UIC warlords had provided support for Al Qaeda… a claim UIC leaders denied. And, as Nir Rosen observes in this excellent TIME op-ed, some in the state department found UIC’s explicit Islamist alignment intolerable. So the US supported the Ethiopian invasion with intelligence, military advisors and, incredibly, turned a blind eye to a North Korean arms shipment that allowed Ethiopia to repair its tanks. The Ethiopian army rapidly chased the UIC out of Mogadishu, reinstalled the federal government (TFG = “transitional federal government”) and, left in 2009 to be replaced by AU forces.
What Ethiopia and the US didn’t anticipate (though they should have) was that the occupation of Somalia radicalized the population and led to the rise of Al Shabab, a group that’s proven to be much more extreme than the UIC. Al Shabab now controls most of southern Somalia and all but a few blocks of Mogadishu, where the nominal government of Somalia is protected from ouster by 6,000 AU troops. Those troops, in turn, are increasingly resented by Somali civilians, as their shells kill civilians in trying to strike Al Shabab forces.
The case against doubling down on peacekeeping and supporting the TFG, as Museveni suggests, starts with the observation that there’s no peace to keep in Somalia, an argument Jeffrey Gettleman makes in the NYTimes. Peacekeeping has never had meaningful dividends in Somalia, and outside occupation seems to be a powerful catalyst for the creation of new military forces. The federal government is a bad joke, not only ineffectual but fraught with internal divisions that are likely to break it apart if it ever achieved any power. If the government were ever to be able to operate beyond a AU-maintained perimeter, it would face a reconstruction challenge much worse than the situation faced in Afghanistan.
Counterintuitively, the best thing the US might do to prevent Somalia from becoming an operating base for Al Qaeda is to disengage, limit involvement to targeted strikes on international terrorist leaders and to providing humanitarian aid. That’s the case governance expert Bronwyn Bruton makes in this interview with the Council on Foreign Relations. She notes that a divided, clan-ruled Somalia was an environment Al Qaeda previously found impossible to operate in – the level of inhospitality of the clan system appeared to “inoculate” Somalia from foreign engagement. She suggests that allowing the TFG to fall and Al Shabab to rise will lead towards Al Shabab fracturing as a coalition, and eventually a return to clan politics and conflict, which is ultimately the only stable basis for a future functional Somali state.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi makes a similar case in an article in the American Thinker titled “What To Do About Somalia“. He urges a containment strategy – ensure that Al Shabab doesn’t act outside of Somalia, and cut off external supports. He also suggests the US and the international community recognize Somaliland, the comparatively stable north of the country, as an independent nation, creating another potential ally in stabilizing southern Somalia.
(Side note – while looking for Al-Tamimi’s article, I searched for “what to do about Somalia”. Google returned a wonderful result from Trip Advisor, titled “Things to Do in Mogadishu“. I love that Trip Advisor wants to find me a cheap flight to Mogadishu and to help me find a cheap Somali passport.)
What I find most interesting about Bruton’s arguments is her argument that the US is incorrectly framing the situation in Somalia as a conflict between religious ideologies. She argues that the TFG and Al Shabab are both ad-hoc, opportunistic groups looking for power, not advocating for a particular religious ideology. Because TFG is seeking funding from western governments, it argues that it’s a bulwark against terrorism. Al Shabab looks for support from Al Qaeda in the hopes of support from extremists in the Middle East. But the ideology is secondary to the search for power. (Some groups in Somalia have expressed concerns that the TFG includes a large number of Wahabbists, which seems incompatible with a pro-US orientation… and supports Bruton’s case that ideology is trumped by opportunity.)
If we take the conflict in Somalia out of the “extremist Islam versus the world” frame that the US often falls into, Bruton argues, we might be able to see that increased outside intervention will likely worsen the conflict. Perhaps then would make the decision to disengage. This doesn’t mean ignoring Somalia – it means watching borders closely, and being willing to strike against foreign fighters should they take shelter under Al Shabab. But it means giving up a failed strategy of nation building on the cheap and by proxy.
It’s a tough time in terms of US politics to make this case. The US’s ongoing costly and bloody involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq sends a daily message to the American people that the Muslim world is a dangerous place. That sense is being exploited for political gain by the far right in the US, who see islamophobia as winning political strategy, as seen in the absurd debate about the Park51 Center in New York City. President Obama has been admirably clear about his willingness to build bridges with the Muslim world and in supporting Park51 in the current controversy. President Bush was also admirably clear about rejecting a “clash of civilizations” frame in his public statements, but it’s less clear that his state and defense departments rejected this frame.
Nir Rosen is right – the US helped bring Al Shabab to power by backing an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. What President Museveni is saying isn’t as extreme as the rhetoric Meles Zenawi used prior to the Ethiopian invasion, but the course of action he urges may lead to a similarly undesirable outcome. Or, to quote noted Somali analyst Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap.” Let’s hope President Obama is wise enough to avoid it.