Negotiating an End to Somalia's War with al Shabaab
Why Military Solutions Aren't Enough
> Afyare Abdi Elmi
> Abdi Aynte
February 7, 2012
Summary and Author Biography
In August 2011, after three years of fighting, forces backing the Somali
Transitional Federal Government (TFG) took control of the Somali capital of
Mogadishu. Although this was a welcome development, it was a short-term
tactical gain. The strategy that the government and international community
are now employing to stabilize Somalia neglects reconciliation with the
rebels and relies too much on external military muscle. Further, aside from
the efforts of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), military
involvement in Somalia has been counterproductive.
The Somali government and its backers should instead focus on establishing a
competent security sector and starting genuine negotiations with those
rebels who are interested in a political solution -- and there are some. It
has long been known that some senior figures of al Shabaab (the al
Qaeda-linked militant group that controls most of southern Somalia) would
consider negotiating with the government. Moreover, a dialogue now could
boost the unpopular TFG's image in the eyes of the Somali people who view
the conflict as innately political. Indeed, for the last three years, the
TFG has talked about negotiating with its principal enemy, al Shabaab, but
has never put forward a serious plan for doing so, mainly because dialogue
has never been as high a policy priority as a military victory.
Yet the time is riper than ever. Although it is not close to defeat, al
Shabaab is back on its heels. The organization was especially hurt when
AMISOM pushed it out of Bakara, the country's largest market and by far the
organization's biggest generator of revenue. Recent setbacks have created a
rift within the upper echelon of al Shabaab. One camp is calling for a
guerilla-style war, noting the group's dwindling resources, while a rival
wing is bent on continuing the head-to-head fighting, contending that it is
the only a credible path to military victory. Complicating matters is al
Shabaab's image problem: It has alienated the Somali people with its
assassinations, attacks against innocent civilians, and poor management of
last year's famine.
For the last three years, the government has talked about negotiating with
al Shabaab but has never put forward a serious plan for doing so.
The process of translating the principle of negotiation into practice starts
with a third party, country or organization that is willing to take the
lead. Turkey and Qatar are natural candidates to help: both the TFG and
some, if not many, in the insurgency view the two countries as genuine and
credible mediators. Indeed, both have the capacity and the experience in
mediating deadly conflicts.
So, for the first time in a while, the corrupt, unstable, and congenitally
weak Somali government could enter negotiations from a position of strength.
To take advantage of the opportunity, the TFG should form a National
Reconciliation Commission that is backed by a legal, political, and
financial mandate from the TFG and the international community. To make it
work, the NRC would need individuals of considerable integrity and honesty
to run it. There would be several candidates: Many within the TFG had -- and
continue to maintain -- good relations with key al Shabaab figures. Other
members could be drawn from the ranks of Islamic scholars, civil society
leaders, and traditional elders. The NRC should be under minimal oversight
by the TFG, and its members' personal safety must be guaranteed.
Even if those conditions could be satisfied, holding a dialogue with al
Shabaab would undoubtedly be a complex process and require a meticulous plan
for where, when, and how to engage. Audrey Cronin, a professor at the School
of Public Policy at George Mason University, lays out two main approaches to
dialogue. The first is to offer concessions to a rebel group by addressing
some of its key demands in the hope that it reconciles with the government.
A good example is the 2008 Djibouti Agreement, which led to the formation of
the current TFG. Somalia's then-transitional government granted the Alliance
for Reliberation of Somalia (ARS) -- an Islamist-dominated group fighting
for the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces -- permission to merge with the new
TFG. It also promised that Ethiopia would withdraw from the country. The
insurgents took the deal, and the ARS joined the government. That pact forms
the basis of the current TFG and is widely cited as a successful
The second approach, according to Cronin, is to divide the rebels by winning
over moderate elements and isolating extremist ones. In this case,
negotiators would offer incentives -- payments, jobs, and so on -- to the
groups and individuals wishing to reconcile with the government. This
approach works best when applied to non-monolithic groups such as al
To make talks work between the TFG and al Shabaab would require using both
approaches. Some of al Shabaab's demands -- a government based on Islamic
values and the withdrawal of foreign forces -- are popular and have broad
constituencies. In addition, the group consists of various factions with
different grievances and aspirations, and many of these could be
As to the former approach, the first demand is the easier of the two to
address. Al Shabaab calls for a government that is based on sharia; the TFG
already passed legislation adopting a sharia-compliant constitution. In
other words, there is broad agreement among stakeholders regarding the
future role of Islam in Somalia. The differences are about the
interpretation, application, and timing of sharia. Entering into that debate
requires in-depth knowledge of Islam. Al Shabaab's interpretation of Islam
is a losing battle, since the group lacks evidence and respected scholars on
its side. So, over time, the two sides should be able to arrive at terms
that satisfy them both.
The second demand is more challenging. Al Shabaab wants foreign forces to
withdraw from Somalia, including Ethiopians, Kenyans, and AMISOM troops.
Many Somalis would also like to see Ethiopian and Kenyan troops sent home,
because they see them as occupying forces that have territorial ambitions in
Somalia. They do not see AMISOM that way, and indeed, that mission will not
likely wind down any time soon, mainly because the TFG depends on it for
survival. That said, developing a plan to establish and equip a professional
Somali force that could eventually handle the security of the country itself
would be a win-win. A strong, competent, and professional Somali army --
composed of all sectors of society -- must be the ultimate guarantor of
peace. And former al Shabaab fighters, demobilized and retrained, could be
integrated into that army.
After dealing with these demands, the negotiating team could tailor specific
incentives to al Shabaab's different factions. Sitting at the top of the
group is the small but powerful leadership council called Majlis al-Qiyadah.
Ideologically, it is al Shabaab's most extreme faction. Although it will not
be easy, engaging Majlis al-Qiyad (or part of it) is possible. Just below it
is the Qiyadatul Mayadin (field commanders' network), which implements
policies as directed by the leadership council. It is comprised mostly of
local young men, some of whom belonged to the militias of Somalia's
notorious warlords. They view their involvement with al Shabaab as a
redemptive act of sorts but do not necessarily espouse the Qiyadah's radical
ideology. They could be engaged through traditional elders and Islamic
scholars. At the bottom of the group is a vast fighting force. These
fighters are not privy to any information, and the al Shabaab leadership
does not trust them. Cognizant of this, the youth can be engaged through
rehabilitation programs and other material incentives.
During negotiations, the TFG, backed by the international community, could
offer general amnesty for those members at the bottom two levels who want to
rejoin society. Second, it could develop a cash and employment scheme for
young fighters who are not yet radicalized. The remaining incentives could
be aimed at the upper echelon of the organization. The TFG, for example,
could offer interested members the option of joining the Somali government
at a senior level. And good faith efforts to get the United Nations and the
United States to remove some al Shabaab names from the terror list would
also appeal to the senior and commander-level figures, even if the push is
ultimately unsuccessful. Finally, some al Shabaab leaders would certainly
entertain the idea of resettling in a different Muslim country. There are
several countries that could assist this effort.
The success or failure of negotiations hinges on the extent of the
international community's support. The United States must fully endorse the
initiative, much as it is has begun engaging the Taliban in Afghanistan. The
United Kingdom, which is holding a major conference for Somalia this month,
should also embrace dialogue with al Shabaab as part of broad stabilization.
TFG leaders have said that they feel dissuaded by regional governments that
have overtly opposed engaging al Shabaab. Ethiopia has vehemently resisted
talks, because it is worried about the rise of Islamists in the Somali
government. (At the same time, it recently signed a peace agreement with a
domestic Islamist rebel group.) And there is Kenya, which also has troops in
Somalia. It needs to respect the will of the Somali people to resolve their
conflicts internally. Certainly, both countries should be reassured that
successful dialogue with al Shabaab means a secure and peaceful Somalia and
Lest it be forgotten, the TFG is, on its best of days, a fledgling outfit.
The government will likely undergo many changes before talks with al Shabaab
even begin -- new parliament, new leaders, and new conditions. Regardless of
who is at the helm, however, the Somali government and its backers must
embrace talks as state-building and counterinsurgency strategy.
Finally, like those of any other extremist group, some of al Shabaab's top
leaders will surely reject the negotiations and try to spoil them with
violence. This will be a deadly tool, since the TFG is not yet able to
provide security to the moderate groups that are interested in negotiating.
But that is true during most counterinsurgency talks. The best way to
address this challenge is to create secure environments in the areas under
TFG control by recruiting and training more Somali forces.
With the conflict in Somalia entering its third decade, it is time for the
TFG and the international community to get real about stabilizing the
country. Now is the moment to engage al Shabaab while building the security
sector of the state -- particularly the coercive instrument of the
government as the ultimate guarantor of security.
At the end of the month, British Prime Minister David Cameron will host
world, regional, and national leaders in London for a meeting on Somalia.
This is an excellent platform from which to build a comprehensive strategy
that entails reconciliation and state building (security, political, and
economic institutions). Short-term thinking and quick fixes have failed many
times in the past. With the right strategy and major-power leadership, peace
in the Horn of Africa is within reach.
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Received on Wed Feb 08 2012 - 17:39:36 EST