World Defense Review


Published 23 Jun 09

J. Peter Pham

Strategic Interests

by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist

Fiddling While Somalia Burns

Difficult as it may be to conceive, the already-bad security situation in Somalia deteriorated further over the weekend. Yet as Islamist militants brought their offensive to the edge of Mogadishu amid fierce fighting and the country's nominal government reeled from the loss of several of its more effective members, an observer would be forgiven for thinking that the principal actors in this high-stakes drama were recreating the infamous tableau from De vita Caesarum by Suetonius wherein the Roman historian recounts how while fire raged for six days and seven nights, consuming the Eternal City, the Emperor Nero viewed the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and sang a poem about the sack of Troy. Afterward, according to chronicle, "to gain from this calamity too all the spoil and booty possible, while promising the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost he allowed no one to approach the…and from the contributions which he not only received, but even demanded, he nearly bankrupted the provinces and exhausted the resources of individuals." While it might be a gross exaggeration to blame Somalia's "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG) and its international supporters for having set the Horn of Africa ablaze, it would not be unfair to ascribe a not insignificant share of the responsibility for the current burgeoning crisis in the subregion to their ongoing refusal to deal realistically with the situation.

Writing in this column one month ago, I presented the following somber conclusion:

While most Somalis loathe the jihadists (especially the foreigners), dislike of the extremist agenda should not be confused with support for the TFG. In truth, the TFG's continuing existence on life support says more about the international community's stubborn refusal to admit the failure of its top-down approach and general lack of investment in any alternatives than it does about the interim regime's viability. In short, the TFG's chances of success are non-existent: the only effect outside support can have will be to stave off an inevitable collapse of a regime whose only legitimacy was that conferred on it by outsiders unable or unwilling to move past the repeated failure of their top-down approach to remedying the collapse of the unitary Somali state nearly two decades ago (one is at a total loss to find any empirical evidence for the "tremendous progress made to date" by the TFG "in restoring a semblance of normalcy and peace in Somalia" about which Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson regaled the U.S. Senate [on May 20]). The real question is whether the eventual failure of the latest "solution" will be followed by a total sweep by al-Shabaab and its allies or whether, as they have repeatedly shown themselves inclined to do, the extremists will prematurely overplay their hand and ultimately fail achieve control, opening the way for a conflict of a different sort between rival clans. In any of these scenarios, without a significant shift in policy to engage legitimate authorities and other effective local actors, short- to intermediate-term prospects both for stability in the Horn of Africa—and the surrounding waters—and for the advancement of U.S. security interests in the region beyond possibly containing Somali chaos do not appear especially promising.

Subsequent events have, unfortunately, confirmed my analysis concerning not only the strength of the Islamist militants—spearheaded by al-Shabaab ("the youth"), an al-Qaeda-linked group that was formally designated a "foreign terrorist organization" by the U.S. Department of State last year, and the Hisbul al-Islamiyya ("Islamic party") group of Sheikh Hassan Dahir 'Aweys, a figure who appears personally on both United States and United Nations antiterrorism sanctions lists and who headed the shura of the Islamic Courts Union before it was driven out of Mogadishu by Ethiopian intervention two years ago—and weakness of the TFG headed by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, but also the misguided, if well-intentioned, efforts of the international community.

Last Wednesday, June 17, Mogadishu police chief Colonel Ali Said Hassan, one of the more effective security officials still loyal to the TFG, was killed amid clashes with Islamist insurgents in the south of the capital city.

The next day, June 18, a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with explosives into the Medina Hotel in Beledweyne, some 400 kilometers north of Mogadishu close to the border with Ethiopian. The blast killed some forty people, including the TFG security minister, Colonel Omar Aden Hashi, and its former ambassador to Ethiopia and to the African Union (AU), Abdikarim Farah Laqanyo. The official spokesman for al-Shabaab, Sheikh Ali Mohamed Ragi, a.k.a. Sheikh Ali Dheere, took credit for the attack in the name of the group.

On Friday, June 19, a TFG parliamentarian, Mohamed Hussein Addow, was captured and executed by al-Shabaab fighters after they took control of his Karan neighborhood in northern Mogadishu. The heavy fighting in the Karan district as well as the Yaqshid and Shibis districts triggered a massive exodus of thousands of residents.

Things had gotten so bad by Saturday, June 20, that the head of the TFG's rump parliament, Sheikh Adan Mohamed Nuur, a.k.a. "Madobe," called for foreign troops to rescue the tottering regime. According to an Agence France-Presse report, the speaker admitted to reporters that "the government is weakened by the rebel forces" and was consequently begging "neighboring countries—including Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Yemen—to send troops to Somalia within twenty-four hours." Even as the legislator was making his appeal, al-Shabaab and Hisbul al-Islamiyya fighters were operating less than three kilometers away from the Villa Somalia presidential compound in Mogadishu, which is presently protected by some of the 4,300 valiant Ugandan and Burundian troops dispatched over the course of the last two years in the undermanned, ill-supplied, and certainly poorly-conceived African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force (see my commentary more than two years ago about "Peacekeepers with No Peace to Keep"). Not surprisingly, Ethiopia, which only recently withdrew its forces from Somalia, pointedly refused to send them back in without an explicit international mandate. No other country has, at the time of this writing, even responded directly to the TFG less-than-desirable invitation.

Meanwhile, al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Dheere practically exulted over the TFG's call for help, interpreting it reasonably enough in a press conference Sunday reported by the Reuters news agency to be an admission of failure on the part of the interim regime:

We tell our enemy that we do not fear any invasion from outside. We forced Ethiopia to withdraw from Somalia early this year and we shall do the same again… We, the Somali young mujahideen, shall fight against any troops deployed here to help the government until our last holy fighter passes away. This is a clear signal that the so called government established by the enemy had totally failed… God will help us to overcome all enemies and we believe we shall defeat them. We are not worried about their quantity and whatever weapons they have.

Highlighting the potential of any foreign intervention in support of the TFG to galvanize its Islamist opposition, Hisbul al-Islamiyya's Sheikh Hassan Dahir 'Aweys warned that his group would fight any foreign forces while Sheikh Hassan Yaqub, spokesman for the Islamist administration controlling the southern port city of Kismayo, issued a threat against Kenya in particular, "If you continue interfering Somali matters or attack any place in the country, we shall not be silent. We shall attack Nairobi buildings."

The TFG president, Sheikh Sharif, responded to his presidential compound being rocked by mortars on Sunday, June 21, by decreeing on Monday morning a "state of emergency," stating that the proclamation meant that "our forces are on full alert" without making clear, as an Associated Press report noted succinctly, "what difference the declaration will make on the ground."

Even as it was struggling to maintain control of what little bits of its capital it still holds, the TFG continues the charade of being a sovereign government. In a Voice of America (VOA) report published the same day as the suicide bombing in Beledweyne, correspondent Alisha Ryu narrated how, in the Old Port in northern Mogadishu, the TFG was beginning training of 500 recruits for a Somali navy that has not existed in two decades (full disclosure: I am quoted in the story). The "admiral" of the TFG's imaginary navy, Farah Omar Ahmed, waxed eloquent in an interview with the official Chinese Xinhua news agency a few days earlier, assuring his interlocutor that he expected his force to be trained, armed, and active within four months. The "naval commander" even claimed that he planned to have more than 5,000 men under his command—which, if it were true, would give him several times as many personnel as TFG president Sharif Ahmed has ever managed to muster on land despite the offer of cash bonuses for enlistment (a recruitment drive by the TFG last month fell apart as those who "enlisted" simply turned around and sold their weapons and uniforms to insurgents; analysts put the number of those in TFG units at barely 1,500).

To be fair, the musings of the wannabe admiral are no more or less removed from reality than the painful pretenses of Somalia's neighbors, other countries, international organizations, and members of the media have adopted in lieu of facing up to the reality that the TFG is not a government in any common-sense understanding of the term. Consider the following two vignettes:

  • I described in this column space earlier this year the manner in which TFG president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was permitted to pack and manipulate the electoral assembly which, in the comfort of the luxury Djibouti Palace Kempinski provided to them courtesy of the United Nations and the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Somalia, former Mauritanian politician Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, duly into granting him with his "mandate." In what sense is ne'er-do-well who comes into possession of a "mandate" by such means really a legitimate head of state, especially when he is incapable of so much as entering his official residence—to say nothing of actually exercising any authority from there—without a foreign military force to keep his own countrymen from running him out of there?

  • Then there is the Kenyan-born warlord-turned-politician Madobe, who appealed for foreign troops in the name of the TFG legislature. Reports over the weekend referred to him as "the speaker of Somalia's parliament" and repeatedly mentioned "Somalia's parliament" as asking for military intervention despite the fact that the legislative body has not met in the more than two months since its remaining members fled their temporary headquarters as it came under fire from rebel groups and it is doubtful that enough members can even be found in the country to constitute a quorum. Lest it be forgotten, the lawmakers were meeting in Mogadishu because the town of Baidoa, where they had been holding forth since 2005 when the long-suffering Kenyan authorities forced them to set up shop in their own country—possibly the first time in history that a legislature had to be compelled by a neighboring country to meet within the borders of a state it purported to govern—had fallen to al-Shabaab. What was this august assembly deliberating when its proceedings were so rudely interrupted by the mortar rounds lobbed by the Islamist militants? The matter before the parliament was not how to better defend the last major city held by the TFG, but rather whether or not prime minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke and his cabinet acted legally in agreeing to a memorandum of understanding with Kenya that both countries would separately submit documents of their respective claims to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

If all of this seems a bit farcical, it is because it seems the surreal has become the ordinary in the international community's approach to Somalia, even as the situation has gone from bad to worse to worst, presenting the entire Horn of Africa with a security crisis of the first order, spreading instability across a fragile subregion and, as I noted here three months ago, raising the specter that transnational terrorist networks like al-Qaeda will find and exploit the opportunities thus offered. Yet, for want of better ideas, the international community has opted to buy into a seductive, but nonetheless vicious, circle of its own manufacture whereby it must "stay the course" and continue to waste scarce resources shoring up the hopeless TFG because it has already invested too much time and resources into the regime to do otherwise. In short, if the TFG is "fiddling" while Somalia burns, it is doing so with a full orchestral accompaniment provided by an international community that apparently lacks either the will or the imagination (or both) to do anything else.

What might an alternative approach look like? More than two years ago, I presented an outline of how the international community in general and the United States in particular might salvage something out of the wreckage of the Somali state:

First, formally acknowledge de jure what is already de facto: the desuetude of "Somalia" as a sovereign subject of international law. Unitary Somalia is not only dead, but the carcass of that state has been putrefied; reanimation is no longer in the realm of possible. This description of reality does not mean that the former state's territory necessarily reverts back to terra nullius that is up for grabs—as if any rational, responsible state actor would want the quagmire—but rather that it would be a quarantined area under broadly-defined international surveillance to prevent outsiders from exploiting the lack of a central government.

If the failure of no fewer than fourteen internationally-sponsored attempts at establishing a national government indicates anything, it is the futility of the notion that outsiders can impose a regime on Somalia, even if it is staffed with the Somali faces we want to see, like the allegedly "moderate" Islamist Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and secular politicians like Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, who has spent more of his life in the United States and Canada than anywhere near the Horn of Africa.

Second, while encouraging Somalis to pursue peaceful dialogue among themselves, establish formal benchmarks for responsible governance within the former Somalia against which the regions or clans or whatever entities the Somali people themselves choose to organize for themselves will be measured. As these proto-states advance along that continuum of political maturity, they can gain progressive international recognition with the access which that would confer—for example, "interim special status" as a quasi-state entity within multilateral political and economic forums—as well as increasing amounts of assistance by way of incentive. Somaliland would, in my estimation, be well along the right side of this curve and would be ready soon—if it is not already—for international recognition; other Somali regions may take longer.

As I noted here at the end of last year, a broad consensus is emerging among experts who have tracked Somalia for any amount of time that any workable solution must embrace a "bottom-up" or "building-block" approach rather than the hitherto "top-down" strategy. Moreover, given the ripple effects of continuing disorder in the Somali lands—not the least of which is the challenge of piracy (see my most recent update) which continues to expand as witnessed by the seizure two weeks ago of a German-owned, Antigua and Barbuda-flagged cargo ship, MV Charelle, 60 nautical miles south of Sur, Oman—it makes no sense for the international community to not work with effective authorities in Somaliland, Puntland, Gedo, and other areas as well seek to engage with traditional leaders and civil society actors elsewhere. Unlike the embattled TFG, these figures both enjoy legitimacy with the populace and have actual (as opposed to notional) security and economic development agendas which complement the outside world's goal of preventing chaos from reigning in Somali territory.

Third, redefine the role of the African "peacekeepers" to keeping the peace along Somalia's borders with other countries in the subregion, rather than trying to use this force to assert the questionable claims to authority by a clearly unpopular "government" like the TFG. The addition of naval and air components to the AMISOM ground force would bolster its capacity prevent foreign non-state actors such as al-Qaeda as well as state sponsors of terrorism or other spoiler states from supporting Islamist and other insurgents within Somalia.

The reaction last week of Kenya's foreign minister, Moses Wetangula, to the worsening situation in Somalia—"We are concerned with the unfolding events in Somalia that endanger peace and stability of the region…We will not sit by and watch the situation in Somalia deteriorate beyond where we have a duty"—captures the anxiety with which neighboring states follow developments in their troublesome neighbor. It also explains why both the subregional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the Peace and Security Council of the African Union have broken with the usual African "solidarity" and taken the unprecedented step of calling on the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Eritrea for providing arms and other support to the Islamist insurgency in Somalia. However the legitimate security interests of these countries can best be met not by their becoming embroiled in the Somali conflict where their support for the TFG has itself become a nationalist rallying point for the insurgents, but rather by containing the spread of the instability and preventing additional foreign fighters and supplies from fueling the conflict.

Fourth, recognize that occasionally forces like the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) based in nearby Djibouti or the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Arabian Sea will have to take preemptive action to prevent terrorists from gaining a foothold in Somalia when the nascent forces of order within Somalia and the AMISOM peacekeepers redeployed to guarding the perimeter may prove themselves unwilling or simply unable to do so.

While it is nowadays de rigueur to engage in facile denunciations of the Bush administration's preoccupation with counterterrorism in the Horn of Africa and, admittedly, some actions by U.S. military forces in the theatre have not been particularly felicitous in either their execution or even their outcome, it is nevertheless true that, as Dr. David H. Shinn, a veteran Foreign Service office who served as State Department Coordinator for Somalia during the 1993 international intervention as well as U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996-1999, noted in an in-depth article two years for the Journal of Conflict Studies, "Al-Qaeda cells almost certainly exist today in all the countries of East Africa and the Horn and the al-Qaeda threat may well be increasing" with Somali territory supplying "the larges potential safe-haven for al-Qaeda in Africa." In addition, more recently it has emerged that al-Shabaab and other violent Islamist groups operating in Somalia have recruited several dozen Somali-American youth to travel there to at least undergo training. One of these men, Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Somalia whose last known residence was Minneapolis, Minnesota, became the first-ever American suicide bomber when blew himself up in an attack in Somaliland which left dozens of civilians dead. Under those circumstances and given the relatively weak operational capacity of many subregional states—to say nothing of the utter ineffectiveness of the TFG and whatever entity emerges in succession to it—it cannot but be expected that America will need to act decisively at some point in the future.

I readily acknowledged that an approach such as the one I sketched out may strike many as minimalist. However, I was convinced and am even more certain today that it was the course most likely to buy Somalis themselves the space within which to make their own determinations about their future while at the same time allowing the rest of the world, especially the countries of the Horn of Africa, to achieve their legitimate security objectives. Thus, not only does the strategy offer the most realistic hope of salvaging a modicum of regional stability and international security out of situation that otherwise grows increasingly intractable with each passing day, but it certainly beats replaying a tired old score while the neighborhood goes up in flames.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).

In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.

© 2009 J. Peter Pham

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