[dehai-news] Forums.csis.org: Self Induced Stalemate in Somalia: An Assessment of U.S. Policy Options

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From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Tue Nov 11 2008 - 06:40:06 EST

Self Induced Stalemate in Somalia: An Assessment of U.S. Policy Options
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By Bronwyn Bruton


The clock has run out on the current international engagement in Somalia, and the United States faces a dearth of realistic policy options.

The ability of the United States, the United Nations (UN) and the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) to influence political events in Somalia is almost wholly dependant on the presence of Ethiopian military forces. It was the Ethiopian invasion that ended the promising reign of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) over Somalia's unruly capital city, Mogadishu; and the Ethiopian army, albeit with some assistance from the small African Union peacekeeping mission, is the coercive force that has allowed the unpopular Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to remain in power. But the TFG cannot retain power without the support of Ethiopian troops.

Two years after the invasion, the pressures of sub-clan allegiance and ideology have also caused the once-unified Islamic Courts movement to fracture into ever-smaller entities, and no single faction is capable of retaking control of the country. Now, with no realistic prospect that an Islamic regime will take hold in Somalia, and having declared its utter frustration with the TFG, the Ethiopian army has little reason to extend its occupation and has already begun to draw down its troops. A complete withdrawal is believed to be imminent. Such a withdrawal would precipitate the immediate collapse of the TFG and the end of the international community's most extensive effort to reconstruct a centralized governing authority for Somalia.

The pullout of Ethiopian troops, the unavoidable failure of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and the shifting political landscape in the United States will lead to a rapid diminution of U.S. options in Somalia. The international community, having shunned the vast majority of the opposition forces in Somalia as "extremists," is incapable of brokering any meaningful dialogue between Somalia's combatants. Neither the United Nations nor the African Union is willing to deploy the number of peacekeepers needed to impose a military solution on the conflict. With neither negotiation nor force available, Western intervention will effectively be stalemated.

Simultaneously, the ongoing financial crisis, the upheaval caused by the changing administration, the greatly reduced threat of an Islamic regime taking hold in Somalia-and, not least, the sheer intractability of the Somalia conflict-may tempt U.S. policy makers to resume the indifferent, "containment" stance that characterized the U.S. approach to Somalia after the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993 and up until the rise of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006.

In the short term, there may be no better option for either the United States or Somalia.

An overview of recent events

The Somali crisis has escalated rapidly in past weeks. The United Nations brokered a peace accord between the dysfunctional TFG and a politically isolated, moderate wing of the opposition Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (known as the ARS-Djibouti, because of the location of its leaders). If implemented, the peace accord would permit a face-saving withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Somalia; but the accord is dependent upon several unobtainable conditions, including a ceasefire and ongoing military cooperation between the unruly TFG and ARS militias. But despite its undoubted eagerness to pull its troops out of Somalia, Ethiopia has stated that it will only withdraw if it is "guaranteed" that there is an adequate force available to replace it; suggesting that the withdrawal could easily be sabotaged by hardliners. Failure to meet the conditions of the accord would backfire terribly on the United Nations, by demonstrating the incapacity of moderate elements within the TFG and the ARS-Djibouti to influence stakeholders on the ground. The risk to the ARS-Djibouti leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed-whose moderate stance is highly valued by international mediators-is particularly acute. The peace accord has cast him as a "collaborator" of the TFG, and he will be personally discredited if he fails to obtain the Ethiopian withdrawal.

Ethiopia's quiet drawdown of troops over the past several weeks has rendered its presence in Somalia increasingly irrelevant. The emboldened Islamic insurgency has shown its strength by stepping up attacks in Baidoa, Merca and Mogadishu; and in an alternate show of force, Islamic militants in the port city of Kismayo publicly executed a 13-year old girl for the crime of adultery, although she had allegedly come forward as a rape victim. A coordinated string of five suicide car bombings then racked the breakaway republic of Somaliland and a major port city in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland; reminding the world that the TFG's failure will leave Somalia at the mercy of an extremist movement that has never been stronger or more terrifying in its application of force. The attacks on Hargeisa and Bossasso were clearly coordinated, each taking place within an hour, and would have required an exceptional technical and financial capacity on the part of the Shabaab (who have been widely blamed for the attacks, though its spokespeople have not claimed responsibility). More significantly, the deployment of five suicide bombers requires a level of capability-and ideological indoctrination-previously undemonstrated in Somalia. These attacks suggest a reliance on Al Qaeda techniques, if not a direct dependence on its funding and operatives, and are a convincing suggestion that Al Qaeda may finally plant a foothold in Somalia.

Trends and Observations

Three trends and observations can be pulled from this scramble of events.

First, the United Nations has made commendable efforts to embrace one of Somalia's irregular Islamic militia elements as a partner in the peacemaking project. The inclusion of the moderate, Djibouti-based wing of the ARS in U.N.-sponsored negotiations may not bring a ceasefire to Somalia, but it shows a productive and important retreat from what has been widely perceived as an initial, "knee-jerk" hostility to the Union of Islamic Courts. Sadly, it appears to come too little and too late.

The willingness of the United States to sanction peace talks with Islamist elements results directly from the disintegration of the once-inclusive Islamic Courts movement into identifiably "moderate" and "hardline" factions. The Shabaab, the Islamic Courts, and the competing Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia wings in Djibouti and Asmara are acting now as independent and increasingly hostile entities, themselves riddled with internal division along ideological, business and sub-clan lines. Professor Michael Weinstein has recently analyzed the ideological rifts in the Islamic movement, and has argued convincingly that new and intense fracturing along sub-clan lines has destroyed the possibility that a unified Islamic movement will be able to launch a new political dispensation in Somalia. This may come as a relief to counter-terror advocates who feared that Al Qaeda might be emboldened by the presence of a sympathetic Islamic regime in Somalia; but the reverse also applies. The ability of moderate Islamists to restrain their militant brothers has also been severely compromised by the split. The Union of Islamic Courts was a comparatively cohesive entity whose leadership might have been able to sustain a ceasefire agreement. The ARS-Djibouti clearly lacks that capacity. The prospect of creating an inclusive "unity" government, one that reflects the Somalis' traditionally gentle practice of the faith, has also receded entirely beyond reach.

Second, it has become evident that the unwillingness of the U.S. and its allies to negotiate with the majority of the combatants in Somalia - those loosely identified as Islamic extremists, including the Shabaab, most of the Islamic Courts Union, and the Asmara wing of the ARS (led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys)-has fatally undermined the prospects for a meaningful ceasefire and/or peace agreement. When the Ethiopian force withdraws-unless it is replaced by a peacekeeping contingent considerably larger than the African Union force currently on the ground-the West will also lack the capacity to militarily influence events. Unable to talk and unable to fight, the international community will be rendered a powerless participant in Somalia's chaotic conflict.

Third, clan and sub-clan leaders are less able to peacefully moderate the influence of extremist Islamist elements, because the overt rejection of clan loyalty has developed into a surprising and distinguishing feature of the Somali jihad. The rejection of clannism, which has backward and negative connotations in Somalia, has always been fashionable among secular and religious intellectuals alike; but both the initial shari'a courts movement and the Union of Islamic Courts were strongly rooted among the sub-clans and drew financial and militia support primarily from sub-clan and business leaders. The militant youth wing of the Islamic courts, the Shabaab, has issued strong and convincing signals of its rejection of clan loyalty. This rejection will compromise the ability of clan and sub-clan leaders to demand moderation in the application of the shari'a law or to condemn the use of violent tactics-as they did during the Shabaab attacks on Mogadishu's international airport.

There has been some speculation that the Somali public's tolerance of the jihadists may diminish somewhat with the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, but it is highly unlikely that we will see a major reduction in the number of Islamist activists in Somalia. The pursuit of Islamist goals, including jihad, is more than an expression of outrage against the Ethiopian occupation: it is a conduit for countless individuals to obtain loosely-monitored funding and power. Somalia has become a minor cause célèbre in the Muslim world; and Somalia's devastated economy will ensure that foreign contributions, including the zakat (charitable contribution) of rich patrons in the Gulf, will always be desperately sought. (Anecdotal reports suggest that the Islamic Courts Union and Shabaab are significantly better-funded than their counterparts in the Transitional Federal Government.)

Michael Weinstein's research has suggested that a looming power vacuum caused by the Ethiopian withdrawal has caused a general and frantic retreat of individuals to their sub-clan affiliations, regardless of other ties to the TFG or Islamic factions. His analysis has been abundantly confirmed by independent interviews with international humanitarian and local NGO actors on the ground, all of whom report a resurgence of sub-clan forces. These conflicting trends make it likely that, in the absence of an external peacekeeping or other military intervention, the next wave of conflict in Somalia will play out largely between Islamic and sub-clan forces.

Conclusion: What next for U.S. policy?

Any review of U.S. policy options must begin with a realistic assessment of U.S. resources and of the level of U.S. commitment to action. Members of the TFG parliament have argued, with some justice, that inadequate technical support from the international community doomed their efforts to failure from the outset.

Unless the international community substantially increases the level of funding and technical support available to the TFG, it will continue to lack functional capacity. The United States and its partners in the international community need to assess, first and foremost, whether the will and the means to ramp up support for the TFG exists. Such calculations should assume the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, which will necessitate the deployment of a sizeable international peace-keeping force to sustain the TFG. (Relocation of the TFG to Nairobi would render the government totally ineffective, and would be perceived to reward individual TFG representatives for their failure. It simply should not be considered as a viable option.)

Policymakers should consider the rampant corruption within the TFG, the "lack of commitment" shown by its leaders, and the profound ineffectiveness of the government in accomplishing any of the transitional tasks assigned to it. The United Nations and the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) should also be supremely mindful that the renewal of the TFG's mandate is likely to be perceived as both arbitrary and unjust by the Somali population, and that such efforts have already been rejected by the Hawiye Tradition and Unity Council, which will be an indispensable partner in any meaningful effort to stabilize Mogadishu. Objective evaluation of the TFG should lead policymakers not only to abandon their support of that organization, but to actively encourage ally nations in IGAD and the UN to abandon efforts to renew or reconstitute the TFG mandate.

The implosion of the peacemaking process is not an argument for abandoning the urgent humanitarian intervention in Somalia. On the contrary, in the absence of a comprehensive strategy to stabilize and rebuild Somalia, the United States should perhaps look to humanitarian relief above all other projects. The sincere prioritization of humanitarian support may eventually mitigate the rampant anti-Americanism that has taken root in Somalia. This is a truly modest goal; but it is probably the only victory within our grasp. The U.S. should actively urge the U.N. and IGAD to refrain from political negotiation, and to focus all efforts on recapturing a posture of neutrality. A position of neutrality is an essential pre-condition for any viable interaction with Somalia, and the international community should focus on positioning itself to re-engage when the security situation eventually stabilizes.

In the longer term, and as a short-term measure to promote peace and economic development at the community level, the United States should examine several nontraditional strategies, including the previously explored "bottom-up" and/or "building block" approaches that were applied with some success in Somalia during the 1990s.

These bottom-up approaches have received renewed attention from policymakers in recent months. They are certainly not the silver bullet for Somalia; but the strategy adopted by the Life and Peace Institute (LPI) during the 1990s, for example, has proven to be an effective means of stabilizing conflicts and delivering development benefits at the micro-level. A tremendous new advantage-one that was not available to LPI in the 1990s-is the existence of dozens of viable, indigenous non-governmental organizations on the ground in Somalia. These NGOs are familiar with the LPI and other peace-building programs, and could easily be mobilized to serve as remote partners in conflict resolution and micro-economic or development projects. I admit that it is increasingly difficult to guarantee accountability when funding NGOs in Somalia; but the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) are federally-funded entities with existing mechanisms for delivering such support, and the U.S. should consider increasing the amount of funding available for these efforts. Micro-level development projects, particularly to the remote areas of Somalia, will go a long way towards restoring U.S. credibility in the eyes of the Somali public.

"Bottom-up" approaches may require a less ambitious financial, military and political commitment on the part of the United States, may be better suited to the extremely volatile security environment in the country, and will certainly prove less invasive to the Somalis' sense of sovereignty. But they should perhaps be differentiated from the "building block" strategy, which aims to create and link community-level administrations into ascending district and regional bodies. This "building block" approach has proven less effective in Somalia. (A future paper will examine these strategies in more detail. )

Finally, the U.S. should carefully evaluate the costs and benefits of continued counter-terror activities, even the use of targeted "snatch and grab" operations, to combat the growing extremist threat, bearing in mind the tremendous cost of such efforts in the battle for hearts and minds.


Bronwyn Bruton is an International Policy Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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