A Subtle, But Significant, Shift in U.S. Somali Policy Opens the Door to Realism
by J.PETER PHAM, PHD
September 30, 2010
Last Friday, speaking in New York to reporters one day after attending a major meeting on Somalia chaired by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the margins of the 65th session the United Nations General Assembly, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson signaled a subtle, but significant, shift in United States policy—one that opens the door to finally dealing realistically with what the veteran diplomat characterized as “a national problem, a regional problem, and also a global problem.”
After reiterating the formulaic support for the internationally mediated Djibouti peace process as well as for the tottering “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) of Somalia and its weak head, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, and expressing the pious hope that the moribund regime would somehow become more effective, more inclusive, and provide services to its people, Ambassador Carson then, with little fanfare, announced a major refinement to what was otherwise the conventional approach taken by American administrations since the last entity that could accurately described as approximating a central government collapsed during the presidency of George H.W. Bush:
But we will also be pursuing a second track, which we think is also increasingly important, and that is we will work to engage more actively with the governments of Puntland and Somaliland. We hope to be able to have more American diplomats and aid workers going into those countries on an ad hoc basis to meet with government officials to see how we can help them improve their capacity to provide services to their people, seeing whether there are development assistance projects that we can work with them on. We think that both of these parts of Somalia have been zones of relative political and civil stability, and we think they will, in fact, be a bulwark against extremism and radicalism that might emerge from the south.
Equally as a part of the second-track strategy, we are going to reach out to groups in south central Somalia, groups in local governments, clans, and sub-clans that are opposed to Al-Shabaab, the radical extremist group in the south, but are not allied formally or directly with the TFG. And we will look for opportunities to work with these groups to see if we can identify them, find ways of supporting their development initiatives and activities.
These brief remarks are significant on several different levels which deserve to be carefully considered:
First, while Ambassador Carson was virtually obligated by diplomatic politesse to repeat the mantra of support for the TFG, it is clear that that hopeless entity has lost the confidence of all but the most uninformed and/or downright stubborn policymakers in Washington—and developments this week provided no one with any reason to revise negative impressions of the current interim Somali regime, the fifteenth such entity since the fall of the Muhammad Siyad Barre dictatorship in early 1991.
Despite the fact that, as I told a Congressional hearing last year, the TFG is “not a government by any common-sense definition of the term: it is entirely dependent on foreign troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to protect its small enclave within Mogadishu, but otherwise administers no territory; even within this restricted zone, it has shown no functional capacity to govern, much less provide even minimal services to the citizens,” its denizens continue to waste what little energy they have quarreling with each other over the resources that the international community has graciously donated to them. Last Tuesday, Sharif Ahmed (pictured) finally managed to force the resignation of the TFG’s prime minister, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, with whom he had been at odds for months. Rashid Abdi, the Nairobi, Kenya-based Somalia analyst for the International Crisis Group, summed up the situation well in an interview with Reuters as an attempt by Sharif Ahmed and his allies “to re-invent the TFG but this cannot be achieved by changing an individual,” adding that the president was merely looking for a scapegoat. Moreover, whatever his faults, Sharmarke, the son of Somalia’s last democratically elected president, Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke (elected 1967, assassinated 1969), represented what little remains of the rather diminished secular current in Somali national politics.
To compound matters, the prime minister’s departure was not the only crisis the TFG leader brought upon his own head this past week. Over the weekend, the Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama’a (roughly, “[Followers of] the Traditions and Consensus [of the Prophet Muhammad],” ASWJ) militias, which have hitherto opposed al-Shabaab and its allies in the central regions of Somalia and which entered into a power-sharing agreement with the TFG in March of this year, pulled out of the TFG, citing the Sharif Ahmed’s reneging on promises to incorporate five of the group’s members into the cabinet as agreed upon in the deal. The relatively moderate Sufi Muslim movement’s walkout means that the TFG’s nominal writ is even more limited than it has ever been since it was created in 2004. Foreign Policy assistant managing editor Elizabeth Dickinson put it into perspective in a rather entertaining essay last week entitled “How Much Turf Does the Somali Government Really Control?”:
Imagine if the U.S. government only controlled a few blocks on either side of the White House, or if French troops securing the Élysée Palace were afraid to march down the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It's a good bet your government is in trouble when it doesn't even control the district where the presidential palace is located…The country's internationally supported government wouldn't last through the night were it not for a 7,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force that protects them.
And the government is entirely dependent on the Ugandan and Burundian soldiers who make up AMISOM since, as Dickinson noted, “Some 9,000 troops have been trained and armed to help fortify the government, but desertion rates are astronomical. Perhaps no more than 1,000 soldiers—or fewer—remain.”In a nutshell, if you’ve had several years and several hundred million dollars worth of foreign aid and you’re still going to bed every night worrying about whether the one road that connects your bunker in the presidential palace compound at Villa Somalia with the rest of the world will still be open in the morning, it is highly unlikely that you’ll ever amount to much.
There is no doubt that an experienced Africa hand like Ambassador Carson knows this, even if he just cannot say it out loud. He was, if anything, very careful in his choice words which, under closer examination, reveal something of U.S. thinking. For example, notice what is missing in the assistant secretary’s recital of states and other entities recognizing the TFG as the government of Somalia: “It is recognized by IGAD, which is the subregional organization. It’s recognized by the AU and it’s recognized by the UN.” As I have pointed out previously in this column space, the United States does not in fact recognize the TFG as a sovereign. The lack of affirmative de jure recognition for the TFG is presumed by the introduction last year of a proposed Congressional Resolution by Congressman Donald Payne, chairman of the Africa Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, urging “the Obama Administration to recognize the TFG and allow the opening of an official Somali Embassy in Washington.” (Fortunately, that piece of ill-considered legislative tinkering with executive prerogatives has never made it out of committee.) In fact, earlier this year, in administration’s official brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving Siyad Barre’s former defense chief, Mohamed Ali Samantar, Justice Elaine Kagan, at that time Solicitor-General of the United States, and Professor Harold Hongju Koh, Legal Advisor of the State Department, acknowledged that “since the fall of that government, the United States has not recognized any entity as the government of Somalia.” Specifically, the administration spelled out official American policy: “The United States does not recognize the TFG as the government of Somalia, and absent contrary guidance from the Executive Branch, the TFG is not in a position to assume that role in United States courts.” (Full disclosure: Professors Lee Cassanelli of the University of Pennsylvania, Ioan M. Lewis of the London School of Economics, Gérard Prunier of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Hussein Bulhan of the University of Hargeisa and I filed a joint brief as amici curiae in support of Samantar’s victims).
In short, U.S. support for the TFG isn’t quite as thoroughgoing as it is often portrayed as being—and rightly so since Sharif Ahmed is about as likely to succeed as president of Somalia as he is to mount al-BurÄ�q, the mythical winged steed of Prophet of Islam, and ascend to the heavens.
Second, Ambassador Carson’s announcement concerning greater engagement with Somaliland and Puntland is to be applauded as not only good policy, but right policy, as far as it goes. Specifically, he pledged:
The greater engagement can be defined as meeting on a periodic basis with government officials from these two political entities, talking to them about development issues, including a range of health, education, agriculture, water projects that they might want to develop, looking for ways to strengthen their capacity both to govern and to deliver services to their people. In the past, we have not engaged these areas and political entities aggressively. We will now start to do so.
I have consistently argued for such an outreach. After monitoring the remarkable presidential elections in Somaliland in June, a poll which was not only declared in conformity with international standards by observers, but remarkably for the Horn of Africa subregion, resulted in a smooth transfer of power from a defeated incumbent to his democratically elected successor, veteran statesman Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud “Silanyo,” I affirmed here that:
It is not only prejudicial to our interests, but also antithetical to our ideals, to keep this oasis of stability hostage to the continual conflict which afflicts its neighbors to the south, rather than to hold Somaliland up as an example of what the other Somali regions might aspire to—and could readily achieve if their unelected so-called leaders weren’t so busy fighting tooth-and-nail over the decayed carcass of an utterly collapsed state and the pitiful scraps which some members of the international community stubbornly continue to toss at it in the hope of somehow reanimating a corpse that has been dead for almost two decades. It is high time that the international community dedicate its resources to strengthening the viable, rather than wasting them on the defunct.
As for Puntland, while it is still formally committed to being a part of a future federal Somalia, its people have reserved their right to negotiate the precise terms of any such union. While the region has its problems—and is a problem to the international community insofar as it is the epicenter of Somali piracy—it is nonetheless understandable that its citizens have edged closer to formally abandoning the wreck that passes for the Somali ship of state. December, the regional parliament voted unanimously to adopt a distinctive flag, coat of arms, and anthem (hitherto the emblems of Somalia had been used). After the ignominious ouster of their fellow Darood/Harti clansman, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, from the prime ministry, one should not be surprised if Puntland’s leaders followed the lead of ASWJ and broke entirely with the TFG. In any event, as I argued in a column last year, the international community should not hesitate to strike some sort of a “grand bargain” with the northeastern region, exchanging political and economic engagement for a firm commitment from President Abdirahman Mohamed Mohamud “Farole” and the Puntland government for continued opposition to Islamist extremism and resolute action to rein in piracy.
It seems that the prospect of increased engagement by the United States has already had a salubrious effect on Somaliland and Puntland, which have clashed in the past over along their disputed border. On Sunday, Somaliland’s interior minister, Mohamed Abdi Gabose, announced that the two governments had agreed in principle to work together against “anti-peace groups who want to threaten our peace,” to which Puntland’s information minister, Abdihakim Ahmed Guled, responded: “On our side, we are happy to hear that the Somaliland government is ready to work with us on security matters because at this time, there are new groups in the region who are killing Muslim people in mosques. These groups have in the past carried out suicide attacks in Hargeisa as well as in Puntland's port of Bosasso.” Both ministers were apparently referring to Sheikh Mohamed Said Atom, who operates on the Puntland side of the border near Galgala where he leads a small insurgency linked with al-Shabaab.
There is, however, in Ambassador Carson’s remarks a troubling limitation set for U.S. engagement of Somaliland and Puntland: “We believe that we should follow the African Union position on this. We still recognized only a single Somali state. This is the position of the Africa Union, which is the most important and largest continental regional body. We do not contemplate and we are not about to recognize either of these entities or areas as independent states.” Aside from the whether or not the United States should ever allow any international organization—much less one which it is not a member of—to limits its right to exercise the prerogatives of sovereignty, including who it can or cannot recognize, this statement misrepresents the AU position. In fact, the report of a 2005 African Union mission to Somaliland led by then African Union (AU) Commission Deputy Chairperson Patrick Mazimhaka concluded that “the fact that the union between Somaliland and Somalia was never ratified and also malfunctioned when it went into action from 1960 to 1990, makes Somaliland’s search for recognition historically unique and self-justified in African political history” and recommended that “the AU should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case.” That the AU has not followed up on the reasonable recommendation of its own panel should not by itself be dispositive, especially when one recalls that only nine of its fifty-three members even qualify as “free” countries in the most recent edition of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report and that twelve of the members of the organization are among the twenty most critical countries in the 2010 edition of the “Failed State Index” put together by Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace, while another full-fledged AU member—the Polisario Front’s phantasmal “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic”—is at best a farce played out in corner of the Algerian desert.
In any event, 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? As Graeme Wood observed earlier this year in Foreign Policy:
A reconstituted Somalia would require reconnecting Somaliland with what may be the world's most spectacularly failed state. Where Somaliland has a fledgling coast guard, Somalia has flourishing pirates, and where Hargeisa has a form of democracy, Mogadishu has howling anarchy punctuated by fits of sharia law. Yet this is the alternative urged by nearly everyone in the region.
But just because “everyone” is urging this nonsense, does it necessarily follow that the United States should accept it as received wisdom? Or, conversely, how does cutting a stable polity like Somaliland off from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other global institutions help make Somaliland the “bulwark against extremism and radicalism that might emerge from the south” that Ambassador Carson envisions can be its role? And even if it might not be diplomatic to formally rebuff the AU, does tact require conceding it a veto? Is it in anyone’s interest to even suggest that it might possibly have one over America’s policy options? These are questions which require further consideration.
Third, the recalibrated policy’s openness to working with “other moderate forces and elements in the south” even if “they may not be directly allied” with the TFG is the correct one. Why should the otherwise ineffectual Sharif Ahmed be allowed to determine who the international community can or cannot partner with? Supporting governance at the level where it is accountable and legitimate—that is, in local communities, among traditional clan leaders, members of the vibrant Somali business community, and civil society actors, all of which remarkably are still to be found across southern and central Somalia—is the most effective and efficient means of both mitigating the toll of conflicts within Somali society and countering the security threats that have arisen amid the wreckage of the former Somali state.
The international community in general and the United States in particular need to invest the time and resources to identify and cultivate local partners who can work with us and with their fellows in creating a modicum of stability—societal, economic, and, ultimately, governmental. This will not be an easy task since the conflict of recent years has taken its toll on civil society. Nonetheless local groups exist do exist. To cite just one example whose leadership I know personally, there is SAACID, an extraordinary nongovernmental organization founded and directed by Somali women. SAACID, whose name in Somali mean “to help,” has successfully run conflict transformation, women’s empowerment, education, healthcare, emergency relief, employment schemes, and development for twenty years—right through the worse of times. Amid the current crisis SAACID is not only providing 80,000 2,000-calorie meals daily to residents of Mogadishu—5,000 meals in each of the sixteen districts of Mogadishu, making the charity the only entity operating throughout the capital (to put this in perspective, it is generally accounted a “good day” if the TFG manages to wave its flag in six districts)—but also running the only women teacher’s college in the capital, a rigorous two-year program.
I have repeatedly argued that the most realistic strategy for dealing with the many challenges arising from the spectacular collapse of the Somali state will likely be the one that eschews any ambition to rebuild a centralized state from the top down like the current TFG has repeatedly tried and failed to do. Instead, adapting to the decentralized nature Somali social reality and privileging “bottom-up” approaches are likelier to achieve the desired outcomes: buying Somalis the time and political space within which to make their own determinations about their future political arrangements, while at the same time still being flexible enough to allow their neighbors and the rest of the international community the ability to achieve their legitimate security objectives, including the curtailment of maritime piracy and the containment and eventual eradication of terrorist and other extremists elements. It is reassuring that U.S. policy has begun to shift, however subtly, in the direction of an approach that is not only more modest and balanced, but, as a consequence, more likely to be both successful and sustainable over the long term.
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.