Somalia in Need of New Approach Two Decades after State Collapse

by J.PETER PHAM, PHD February 2, 2011
Somalia and its administrative regions. A larger map can be downloaded here.
Last week marked the twentieth anniversary of the night when Mohamed Siyad Barre, president of the last entity that could plausibly be described as the government of Somalia, fled Mogadishu in his once proud army’s last functional tank, leaving behind a totally collapsed state. Two decades and no fewer than fourteen failed attempts later, the country is still fragmented into multiple fiefdoms and the current “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) is limping towards an August expiration date with little sign that it will be succeeded by a regime that is any more effective, much less legitimate, even as Islamist insurgents, spearheaded by the al-Qaeda-linked Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (“Movement of Warrior Youth,” al-Shabaab), give no indication that they will ease their assaults on either its remaining bastions or the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force protecting them. Hence the approaching deadline might not be a bad time to revisit how the international community in general and the United States in particular ought to be approaching to what is an increasingly significant security threat.
The Somali TFG is irredeemable. Given all the diplomatic and political support they have enjoyed in recent years as well as the resources expended on training a Somali security force—to say nothing of the Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers who have given their lives to defend them when they do not even have the courage to put their own sons lives on the line—the utter failure of TFG head Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and his ministers to extend the interim regime’s writ beyond the grounds of Villa Somalia, the presidential compound in Mogadishu, is nothing short of criminal. A draft report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) which was widely leaked although still not yet officially released due to political pressure from the TFG’s understandably embarrassed donors summarized the current state of things:
Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, led by President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, has squandered the goodwill and huge domestic and foreign support it has received since early 2009 and has failed to achieve anything significant in the two years it has been in office. Worse, the regime appears dangerously adrift and rudderless and may not survive to the end of its two-year mandate. Thoroughly inept, increasingly corrupt and paralyzed by Sharif’s indecisive and weak leadership, exacerbated by a vicious internal power struggle, every effort to make the government modestly functional, has come unstuck.
The regime—if the collection of ne’er-do-wells camped out in the lobby of Mogadishu’s Nassa Nablood II Hotel and drinking tea all day long, when they are even on Somali soil at all and not jetting off to one international confab or another, can even be described as a government—is so incompetent that it could not even capitalize on the failure of al-Shabaab’s Ramadan offensive last fall, during which the Islamists lost nearly 1,000 fighters, to expand its presence within its putative capital. If their sins of omission were not bad enough, the denizens of the TFG are also afflicted with delusions of grandeur: legislators are so sure of their importance to the world that, in late December, they overwhelmingly passed a $100 million budget for 2011 and are now griping that their international partners have yet to hand over the money—as if Western taxpayers have nothing better to do in these times of fiscal belt-tightening than throw more money at a country already ranked by Transparency International as the most corrupt in the world.
There is perhaps no more telling indicator of the TFG’s dismal prospects than the fact that no fewer than three different Western initiatives—a United States-funded training program using private contractors, a European Union military mission, and a French operation—have recruited, trained, and armed more than 9,000 troops for the TFG and yet fewer than 1,000 have remained loyal to the regime. To make matters worse, some alumni have gone over to the insurgents, taking with them invaluable tactical knowledge as well as their weapons.
Even if the TFG survives long enough to see its mandate conclude in August—and ongoing fighting in Mogadishu like the intense street battles in the city’s Boondheere, Hodan and Howlwadaag districts make that a questionable proposition at best—it is unlikely to accomplish any of the basic tasks, the fulfillment of which was the very raison d’être for its creation in the first place, including laying the reaching out to various segments of society, drafting a permanent constitution, conducting a census, holding elections, and, in general, reestablishing the foundations for Somali statehood.
AMISOM has no strategy. It has only taken four years for the African Union force to reach its original authorized troop strength of 8,000. Now the United Nations Security Council has authorized an additional 4,000 peacekeepers, although where those forces will be found is anyone’s guess. Even if the troops are raised and the international community, acting through the UN, the AU, or the subregional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), was to actually adequately equip the enlarged force, it would still be beyond delusional to think that a 12,000-strong contingent—or even the 20,000-strong force some blowhards at the AU summit this weekend were talking about—would succeed where the infinitely more robust and better trained and armed UNITAF and UNOSOM II forces, with their 37,000 and 28,000 personnel respectively, failed so miserably just a decade and a half ago against a far less capable opposition than the current Islamist insurgents.
AMISOM’s problem is, unfortunately, a familiar one, in that its architects gave very little thought as to what they to achieve in Somalia, how does how they intend to do so, and what their exit strategy might be. Instead, as I told Agence France-Presse last week, what we have is nothing more than a charade whereby the international community pretends to be doing something while it really does nothing, all the while throwing increasing, but nonetheless inadequate, numbers of African soldiers into a conflict that they cannot hope to win. One of few things, aside from their noxious ideology, that unites the various Shabaab factions among themselves, is opposition to the TFG and its AMISOM protectors. The opposition to the presence of the AU force is one of the few advantages that al-Shabaab has to rally support from a Somali populace that otherwise has little time for its alien strictures, the ham-fisted tactics which AMISOM has adopted in response to attacks by the insurgents having fanned the long-smoldering Somali resentment of the foreign intervention into veritable flames.
The bellicose talk at the annual AU summit over the weekend about AMISOM acquiring five attack helicopters and petitioning the UN Security Council for a mandate to undertake an offensive against al-Shabaab amounts to little more than impotent political theatrics; chest-thumping does not make up for a lack of strategy.
Al-Shabaab and other Islamist forces have proven to be remarkably resilient. Unfortunately, unlike the TFG, the insurgents opposing it have proven to be rather flexible and well adapted to the type of campaign they have to fight, a point I document in my contribution to Victory Among People: Lessons from Countering Insurgency and Stabilising Fragile States, a volume published this week by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) and edited by Chief of the British Defense Staff Sir David Richards and Dr. Greg Mills, director of the Brenthurst Foundation. In the aftermath of its losses in last year’s Ramadan offensive, al-Shabaab reshuffled its leadership with Ibrahim Haji Jama, a.k.a. al-Afghani, a militant who trained and fought in Afghanistan and Kashmir before returning to Somalia, emerging as nominal leader of the group. More significantly, al-Shabaab has apparently formally adopted a decentralized system whereby various leaders have assumed command in their home areas, where they are most likely to garner support from fellow clansmen: the erstwhile emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane, a.k.a. Mukhtar Abu Zubair, has assumed control of operations in Somaliland; Fuad Mohamed Qalaf “Shongole,” who in December delivered an infamous speech demanding that President Barack Obama convert to Islam, is in charge in Puntland; Mukhtar Robow Ali, a.k.a. Abu Mansur, in the Bay and Bakool regions of southern Somalia; Hassan Abdullah Hersi “al-Turki’ continues to hold sway over the Middle and Lower Jubba Valley with his Mu’askar Ras Kamboni (“Ras Kamboni Brigades”) now more integrated into the al-Shabaab organization; and Ali Mohamed Raghe “Dheere,” assisted by the Comoros-born al-Qaeda operative Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, doing the same in Mogadishu.
Having been forced in December to fold his Hizbul Islam (“Islamic Party”) into al-Shabaab, Sheikh Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys has been given command of his native Hiiraan region in central Somalia. It should be recalled Hizbul Islam’s primary difference with al-Shabaab was in emphasis, rather than ideology, its two principal demands being focused on the implementation of a strict version of shari’a as the law in Somalia and withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country, rather than a more global jihadist agenda. Thus, as my colleague Dr. Michael Weinstein noted last month in a thorough analysis of the merger, the development represented a shift in power to the more nationalist elements within the Islamist insurgency which could have the effect of actually making it more attractive to Somalis.
Somalia’s inexorable devolution continues. Just because the TFG under Sharif Ahmed is in even more disarray than it was under his irascible predecessor, the Darod warlord Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, does not mean that there is a complete absence of political progress among the Somali. Quite to the contrary, the Somali have quite busy building alternatives to the faction-ridden, questionably legitimate, and generally useless “national government” that is the international community’s preferred interlocutor.
As I reported last year, the peaceful presidential election in the northwest region of Somaliland, a poll which international observers acknowledged met global standards, and the subsequent orderly transition to a new administration under President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud “Silanyo” further enhanced the territory’s claim for international recognition of its de facto independence. The statement last week by the current AU chair, Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, that the pan-African organization should be the first to recognize the forthcoming independence of Southern Sudan further undercuts whatever “logic” argues against its acknowledgment of Somalilanders’ exercise of self-determination. Moreover, as I observed last year,
Given both the chaos that characterizes southern and central Somalia and the demographic reality that the majority of the more than three million Somalilanders were born after the region declared its resumed independence and have never thought of themselves as citizens of a unitary Somalia, can anyone imagine a scenario where it would be possible to reincorporate them into such a state?
While the northeastern region Puntland is still formally committed to being a part of a future federal Somalia, its people have continued to edge closer to abandoning altogether the shipwreck that is the Somali ship of state. It has been just over a year since the regional parliament voted unanimously to adopt a distinctive flag, coat of arms, and anthem. Last week, the regional government openly defied the TFG and insisted on maintaining its ties with Saracen International, a private security company that has been training Puntland’s forces. While the region has its share of problems—and is itself a not insignificant problem for the international community insofar as it is the epicenter of Somali piracy activities which last year not only garnered record ransoms, but also expanded operations into unprecedented areas to the east and south—it is nonetheless understandable that Puntland’s citizens are frustrated with the utter failure of the Mogadishu-based TFG to provide them with security or any other goods or services.
The central regions of Galguduud and Mudug are moving along a similar trajectory, the local residents having set up what they have dubbed the “Galmudug State” several years ago, complete with its own website. Last year, they elected a veteran of the old Somali military, Colonel Mohamed Ahmed Alin, to a three-year term as the second president of what describes itself as “a secular, decentralized state.” There are similar stirrings among the Hawiye in the Benadir region around Mogadishu and among the Digil/Rahanweyn clans in the south.
Without necessarily precluding an eventual confederal arrangement of some sort, it seems a foregone conclusion to all but the willfully blind that political momentum among the Somali is moving overwhelmingly in the direction of multiple divisions.
A new strategy is needed. Four years ago, I sketched out a four-part strategy for coping with the continued statelessness in what was once the territory of the Somali Democratic Republic:
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.
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 it is gratifying that the recalibrated policy for Somalia announced by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson in September—which included a “second-track strategy” of increased engagement of the governments of Somaliland and Puntland as well as outreach to various local authorities and other groups which oppose the extremists in southern and central Somalia irrespective of whether or not they are formally aligned with the TFG—was a step in this direction, the policy itself needs to be clarified and more broadly implemented. Moreover, the impending expiration of the TFG’s mandate presents an opportunity that should not be passed up to examine and overhaul the international community’s approach in toto, rather than merely allowing the interim regime to prolong its existence for mere want of more creative options.
At a very minimum, while the international community seeks to engage emerging political entities, traditional clan leaders, members of the vibrant Somali business community, and civil society actors who, unlike the moribund TFG, actually enjoy legitimacy among the Somali populace, it should not prejudice the outcome of this process by rushing to recognize yet another “national authority”—undoubtedly contrived at another expensive and unrepresentative international conference—as sovereign. And, most certainly, the proposal made this week by IGAD to simply extend the already-extended life of the TFG should be rejected out of hand for what it is: an obstructionist ploy to delay the inevitable denouement of what has been not just an abject failure, but a danger to regional security. Perhaps the sovereignty of the collapsed Somali state could be suspended and held in trust by the United Nations or the African Union, pending the emergence of a viable claimant among the Somali. In the meantime, the Somali people can be given the time and space to determine their own future dispensation. Considering that the top-down approach pursued at great cost and precious little good effect for the last twenty years has only resulted in fourteen—and, soon enough, fifteen—successive failures, there can be little harm done and possibly much gained if a different tact were tried for once. Contributor J. Peter Pham is Senior Vice President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also hold academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) and Editor-in-Chief of its refereed Journal of the Middle East and Africa.
Dr. Pham has authored, edited, or translated over a dozen books and is the author of over three hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic. 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.

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