Published 03 Dec 08
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Somalia: The Times They Are A-Changin'
Two days after his victory in the presidential election one month ago, I argued that Barack Obama has an extraordinary opportunity to not only to renew and expand United States relations with Africa, but to "significantly advance America's values and interests on the continent while helping to achieve Africans' aspirations for peace, stability, and development." Subsequently, I suggested that the renewed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo "might well prove to be the first foreign policy challenge on the Africa agenda for the incoming administration." However, the rapid pace of developments in the long-conflicted Horn of Africa may well present a crisis for American policy before President George W. Bush vacates the Oval Office.
As the recent highly-publicized spate of pirate attacks off its coasts have underscored, with the exception of the hitherto internationally-unrecognized Republic of Somaliland in its northwest, the lack of anything even remotely resembling an effective government in the territory of the former Somali Democratic Republic is proving a bane not only to the Somali peoples, but to their neighbors and the international community as a whole. Despite this mounting challenge, however, American policy towards Somalia has continued to be almost entirely premised on a series of unrealistic assumptions. In fact, over the course of the last two weeks, all three pillars on which that policy rested have folded in quick succession.
First, U.S. policymakers assumed that the Ethiopians, who intervened at the end of 2006 to overthrow the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which had seized control of Mogadishu and extended their rule throughout most of southern Somalia, would remain. Instead, last week Ethiopia announced that it would withdraw its troops by the end of this year. On Monday, the U.S. State Department's deputy spokesman, Robert Wood, admitted that "the United States and the international community are going to have to deal with" the Ethiopian withdrawal. "We're going to do what we can. We're going to support the African Union efforts to help shore up the situation in Somalia," he said, before acknowledging that, "beyond that, I don't have anything further."
Second, there was the blind faith – manifested by repeated professions of support by both United Nations and American officials – that the largely notional "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG) led by "President" Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed would manage to not only prove itself a legitimate political actor among the Somali, but to somehow establish its write over a significant enough section of the former national territory so as to be an effective authority. Instead, as I warned three months ago, the TFG faced a downward spiral as violence escalated. As Abdullahi Yusuf himself acknowledged last week, his ramshackle "government" controls little more than a few blocks in Mogadishu and the provincial town of Baidoa – and that much only because all the Ethiopians have yet to leave. Things have gotten so far out of hand that, meeting in extraordinary session in Addis Ababa two weeks ago, the Council of Ministers of the subregional organization, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), essentially gave up on the Abdullahi Yusuf and his squabbling "ministers," issuing a communiqué which minced no words to express "utter dismay on the failure of the top leadership of the Transitional Federal Government to agree on the constitution of a new cabinet" and regret that "once again the Somali leadership has failed its people [and] the regional and the international communities at large." The IGAD ministers, moreover, recommended that the Assembly of Heads of State and Government that is scheduled to meet in early December "consider withdrawing political recognition and support" from a Somali leadership that has proven to be "an obstacle to resolving the Somalia problem."
Third, there was the desperate hope that so-called moderate Islamist leaders like Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad, a former chairman of the ICU who has been negotiating with Abdullahi Yusuf's estranged "prime minister," Nur "Adde" Hassan Hussein, could bring the insurgency under control. In reality, the self-appointed sheikh is himself isolated within the Islamist movement. In fact, two weeks ago, members of al-Shabaab("the youth"), which was formally designated a "foreign terrorist organization" by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this year (see my March 27 report), seized control of the port of Merka, just south of Mogadishu and have been tightening their stranglehold on the sometime Somali capital. The Islamist militants have also launched attacks into the only other Somali town held, however tenuously, by the TFG, Baidoa, where the rump legislature meets. On Monday night, the houses of deputy parliamentary speaker Mohamed Omar Dalha and several other legislators were assaulted and several guards killed.
With the collapse of these three conditions, any hope of restoring a unitary Somali state has likewise faded even further, a point which I have tried to repeatedly make in this column, for example when, in my May 1 column, I made the case that:
The international community needs to formally acknowledgede 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. To apply Max Weber's thesis, a government like the TFG that does not even enjoy the monopoly on the legitimate use of force in its own capital – much less elsewhere in the territory it claims as its own – is no government at all. Instead of constantly trying to put the best face on a bad situation,…the emphasis should be shifted to local Somali entities which have taken responsibility for governance in their respective regions. As I argued in the March/April issue ofThe National Interest, these latter – the Republic of Somaliland, the Puntland region, and others – should be progressively rewarded for achieving benchmarks of progress.
What is heartening is that a wide number of analysts, practitioners, and advocates have come around to a similar assessment of the realities on the ground in the Horn of Africa. Writing two weeks ago in The New Republic, Dr. Jonathan Stevenson, a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College and author of the authoritative case study of America's 1990s intervention in Somalia, suggested that: "Perhaps U.N.-sanctioned special political status for Somaliland that could qualify it for international aid and protection, in recognition of its largely self-generated order and viability, should be on the table to create incentives for the more unruly militias in southern Somalia to reach political compromises." Likewise Bronwyn Bruton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggested that "the United States should examine several nontraditional strategies, including the previously explored ‘bottom-up' and/or ‘building block' approaches." Even the nongovernmental aid organization Refugees International has chimed in with a policy bulletin. While the concerns of the NGO were primarily focused on what it termed "the world's worst humanitarian disaster," it also criticized the international community for its "schizophrenic approach to Somaliland" by "treating it as an independent state when it's politically or operationally useful…but otherwise maintaining the rhetoric of a unified Somalia."
Nearly two years ago, I outlined four components of a viable policy for coping with the state failure in Somalia, points which deserve to be recalled in their entirety:
First, formally acknowledge de jure what is alreadyde 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.
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.
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 [African Union Mission in Somalia, 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.
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 a policy like the one I have outlined may strike many as minimalist, to date the international community has shown little inclination to do much more than proffer empty words. Furthermore, my approach buys 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 realize most of security objectives. In short, this strategy has offers the most realistic hope of salvaging a modicum of regional stability and international security out of an increasingly intractable situation.
While these proposals will need to be refined and, in their precise points, updated, their overall thrust remains true. In fact, the only significant amendment which I would make to this scheme would be to clarify that obtaining for the Somali the time and space to determine their own future does not mean total disengagement. Rather, the international community should seek to engage traditional leaders and civil society actors at the local level, many of whom both enjoy legitimacy with the populace and whose localized security and economic development agendas complement the outside world's goal of preventing chaos from reigning in Somali territory.
In his 1964 protest hit, whose lyrics are undoubtedly familiar to many of those who will guiding American foreign policy over the course of the next four years, Bob Dylan pleaded: "Please heed the call / Don't stand in the doorway / Don't block up the hall / For he that gets hurt / Will be he who has stalled / There's a battle outside / And it is ragin'. / It'll soon shake your windows / And rattle your walls / For the times they are a-changin'." For the sake of the Somali and their immediate neighbors in the Horn of Africa as well as the security and other legitimate interests of the United States and other responsible members of the international community, it can only be hoped that, once the Bush administration leaves office, the Obama foreign policy team, especially the State Department which will be led by Hillary Clinton, will take a more realistic approach to dealing with the dynamic conditions in that difficult, but nonetheless geostrategically important, corner of the world.
— 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.
© 2008 J. Peter Pham
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