World Defense Review


Published 02 Jul 09

J. Peter Pham

Strategic Interests

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

Somalia: Strategic Realities and Realistic Stratagems

This past week, as the "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG) of Somalia continues to lose what little ground it has left in the face of an onslaught from Islamist insurgents who have increasingly shown their penchant for brutality, it has emerged that President Barack Obama's administration has been supplying arms to the regime. The decision has been defended on the grounds that, as Congressman Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told the Associated Press, if the goal is "to bring some semblance of order to Somalia," then "there is only one game in town – and that is the government that is there." A closer examination of the actual situation on the ground, however, not only belies such claims, but points the way to a more realist approach that stands a far better chance of delivering maximum security to the greatest number of Somalis as well as satisfying the legitimate concerns of neighboring states and the achieving the realistic strategic objectives of the United States.

As the TFG held a subdued ceremony in Mogadishu on Wednesday to commemorate the 49th anniversary of the independence of the former Italian colony of Somalia (the northwestern British Protectorate of Somaliland had become independent as the State of Somaliland a week earlier on June 26, 1960), the situation in the city had clearly gotten worse on several different levels. Fighting between Islamist insurgents and those forces still loyal to the TFG persists in the city with heavy shelling and clashes, especially in the contested Qaran and Hodan districts, continuing to take its toll on the civilian population. According to a report from the United Nations released on Tuesday, more than 170,000 additional Somalis have been displaced from the city since the current round of conflict broke out in early May. An even more dramatic sign of the TFG's weakness is the fact that al-Shabaab ("the youth"), the al-Qaeda-linked group formally designated a "foreign terrorist organization" by the U.S. Department of State last year that is spearheading the opposition to the interim authority, is increasingly arrogating to itself the functions of government, even in the capital. Last Thursday, the group amputated the right hand and left foot of four young men in northern Mogadishu who had been accused of petty armed robbery – the first time a penalty of the kind had been carried out in Somalia. Then, this past weekend, Shabaab militiamen under the command of Sheikh Ali Mohamed Hussein, leader of the group in the region including Mogadishu, openly conducted inspections of shops in the famed Bakara market, the largest in the city, looking for evidence of expired food and medicine.

SAGH Hearing 25-06-09
Ted Dagne, Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service, and the author, Dr. J. Peter Pham (right), testified about the situation in Somalia before the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health on June 25, 2009.

However, as extremist as the ideology of al-Shabaab and some its allies may be, does it necessarily follow that, should they manage to totally defeat the TFG, the strategic situation will actually be much worse than it already is? Without a doubt, given the links which some al-Shabaab leaders have with al-Qaeda and the attempt which I reported here three months ago of Usama bin Laden to opportunistically claim a share in the credit for toppling the regime, such an occurrence would be a propaganda coup for jihadists worldwide. Nonetheless, as I argued in testimony last week before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs' Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, "even without taking Mogadishu, al-Shabaab and its allies have already succeeded in carving out a geographical space where they and likeminded jihadist groups can operate freely…Thus, even without toppling the TFG, al-Shabaab has already achieved a major objective of jihadists worldwide by securing a territorial base from which they can carry out attacks elsewhere, especially against targets on the Arabian Peninsula." Thus, the reality is that, "bragging rights" aside, whether or not al-Shabaab and other insurgents sweep aside the TFG altogether does not fundamentally alter the strategic landscape.

One could even make a credible case that the Obama administration's decision, first reported by the Washington Post last week, to send of 40 tons of weapons and munitions to the TFG, while worth less than $10 million according a senior State Department official who provided a background briefing to journalists last Friday, not only addresses the wrong needs, but also is potentially dangerous for the interest of America and its allies in the subregion. First, as I reported here last week, the TFG's problem is not so much the lack of arms as, rather tellingly, the lack of men willing to raise arms in its defense. A recruiting drive in May allegedly "enlisted" some 20,000 troops for the government. Even allowing for the typical padding of numbers by recruiters and officers eager to line their pockets with the funds designated for the new troops, the rate of desertion has been nonetheless startling given that total number of soldiers which analysts believe to still be fighting on the regime's side at barely 1,500. Second, there is already evidence that many of those who signed up in May recruitment drive simply turned around and sold their weapons and uniforms to insurgents who have turned its own arms around on the TFG. The State Department briefer last week could offer no assurance that the munitions being sent by the United States won't meet a similar fate. Sheikh Hassan Yaqub, spokesman for the insurgent-led Islamist regime controlling the southern port city of Kismayo, who was quoted in the Somali press describing the U.S. arms shipments as "a gift" and "a blessing [in disguise] that came from infidels who are enemies of Islam." In a nutshell, the administration's poorly thought-out gesture may have handed the Islamist extremists both the weapons and the nationalist (and anti-American) card to use in their fight against the TFG.

In contrast to the hand-wringing over the prospects of the TFG's collapse that is dominating this week's 13th annual summit of the African Union in Libya, as I suggested here five weeks ago, actually gaining full control of all south-central and southern Somalia may well prove to be the insurgents' undoing since their brand of Islam goes very much against the traditional practices among the Somali and, even were al-Shabaab itself not already divided into factions, the imposition of its Wahhābist religious strictures and grisly hudud punishments (like the stoning of an alleged rapist and killer Sunday in the town of Wanlaweyn, 90 kilometers south of Mogadishu), both inspired by its foreign sponsors—to say nothing to the presence of at least several hundred foreign fighters from everywhere from Nigeria to Kashmir in its ranks—would likelier than not turn most Somalis against them. In this respect, the loosely-organized Sufi militia, Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama'a (roughly, "[Followers of] the Traditions and Consensus [of the Prophet Muhammad]"), some leaders of which signed a "declaration of cooperation" with the TFG two weeks ago, may just be the first of several groups to organize themselves against the radicals.

If the new danger posed by a complete takeover of southern Somalia by al-Shabaab—as opposed to the insurgents controlling the overwhelming majority of the geographical space while the TFG is boxed inside a few blocks within Mogadishu (and having that much only thanks to the presence of African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi)—is not that different from the old danger, what is one to do? This is how I described current policy in my congressional testimony last week:

The approach of the international community and apparently the policy of the United States have become ensnared in what is essentially a circular "logic." 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 devote scarce political and material resources almost exclusively to shoring up the TFG because it has already invested too much time and resources into the regime to do otherwise.

What this approach ignores, however, is that if the failure so far of no fewer than fourteen internationally-sponsored attempts at establishing a national government indicates anything, it is the futility—indeed, hubris—of the notion that outsiders can impose a regime on Somalia, even if it is staffed with presumably moderate Somalis duly vetted and anointed by the international community. Instead, in the context of the decentralized reality among the Somali, the concerned international community in general and the United States in particular need to invest the time and resources to seek out local partners who are actually capable of partnering to create a modicum of stability—societal, economic, and, ultimately, governmental—rather than throwing money and arms at a "Transitional Federal Government" which, as a former U.S. ambassador who dealt with Somali issues told me last week, "is neither transitional, nor federal, nor a government."

Even more ironic—and counterproductive to the goal of providing security and stability for both Somalis and their neighbors—is the failure of the international actors, including the United States, to work with effective authorities in the Republic of Somaliland, Puntland State, the province of Gedo, and other areas of the onetime Somali Democratic Republic. Consider just the raw demographic data. Of the estimated 9 million Somalis in the world, more than one million of them are refugees or permanently living in the diaspora; 3.5 million live in the Republic of Somaliland; and another 2.4 million in Puntland. Thus, even if its writ were not circumscribed to a few pockets in Mogadishu, the unelected TFG could claim to govern at most one-fifth of the Somali population. How can failing to engage with the legitimate elected authorities—directly chosen in internationally-monitored democratic elections with universal suffrage in the case of Somaliland, indirectly picked by the region's House of Representatives in the case of Puntland, co-opted by traditional leaders in the case of Gedo—who actually govern two-thirds of Somalis be helpful? Going forward, the international community would do better to engage these nascent polities. Doing so not only recognizes the progress they have achieved, but also, by helping to strengthen the remarkable stability they have already secured, both reduces the "problem areas" which need to be of concern and wins Somali partners who are best positioned to show their own fellows how to they might get their act together.

Building up the capacities of the functional parts of the former Somali state also has the additional advantage of standing up important allies in the fight against the two most pressing security challenges emanating from the failed state: maritime piracy and the spread of Islamist extremism and violence. Two months ago in this column space, I made the case that while "the problem of Somali lawlessness at sea will only be definitively resolved when the international community summons up the political will to adequately address the underlying pathology of Somali statelessness onshore," the stand-up of coast guards along the littoral would "both immediately lessen the current threat to merchant shipping in the region and contribute to ameliorating the security situation in support of building governance capabilities," including control of natural resources. It would also be more fiscally sustainable proposition than maintaining the two dozen or so surface combatants from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, India, Japan, and several other countries. Furthermore, the coastal patrols would also help clamp down on the flow of men and materiel coming from the outside to join al-Shabaab and other groups.

In addition, as I have repeatedly emphasized, any workable solution to the crisis of governance and capacity in the Somali lands must embrace a "bottom-up" or "building-block" approach rather than the hitherto "top-down" strategy. This means that a truly realistic strategy must engage traditional clan leaders, members of the vibrant Somali business community, and civil society actors. Identifying the latter will not be an easy task since years of conflict have inevitably taken their toll on civil society. Nonetheless local groups exist do exist. At last week's Africa subcommittee hearing, I mentioned one example: SAACID, the extraordinary nongovernmental organization founded and directed by Somali women, engaged in conflict transformation, women's empowerment, education, healthcare, emergency relief, employment schemes, and development, comes to mind. Amid the current crisis and despite the fact that it had to move its main administrative compound because of the violence, SAACID is providing 80,000 2,000-calorie meals daily to residents of Mogadishu (because food is shared, meals are actually estimated to reach some 363,000 people daily).

In short, while the news coming from Mogadishu continues to be disconcerting, it need not be the cause for exaggerated alarmism. After all, any policy must, at the very least, do no harm. Moreover, a sober look at the reality on the ground in the Horn of Africa points the way to what can realistically be done to ensure security for Somalis, their neighbors, and the overall international order.

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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