[dehai-news] To Do: Somalia

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From: wolda002@umn.edu
Date: Sat Nov 22 2008 - 00:35:54 EST

The New Republic

To Do: Somalia by Jonathan Stevenson

The looming crisis in Somalia is an opportunity for Barack Obama to show
that he won't repeat the mistakes of the U.S.'s recent past.
Post Date Friday, November 21, 2008

Somalia, a genuine failed state, ranks alongside Sudan as the world's most
conspicuous candidate for American attention in the early days of Barack
Obama's administration. Last week, capping a series of territorial gains
across the country, Islamist insurgents seized the port of Merka, and
appeared poised for an offensive against the capital city of Mogadishu 60
miles to the north. Aspiring jihadists, averse to the risks posed in Iraq
and Pakistan, are increasingly flocking to Somalia, which is 97 percent
Sunni Muslim. At the same time, Somali pirates have become a significant
maritime menace, with press reports suggesting that they are driving up
prices of goods worldwide. Almost two years ago, U.S.-supported Ethiopian
troops ousted the de facto government run by the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic
Courts Union (ICU) from Mogadishu, installed an internationally recognized
secular transitional government formed in exile, and remained in-country to
support it along with an anemic African Union (AU) contingent. But the
Ethiopians can't afford to stay much longer, and their repressive tactics
have lost Somali hearts and minds, allowing the Islamists to regain social
as well as military traction. Earlier this month, in a brutally populist
application of sharia law, a 13-year old girl was stoned to death in the
southern Somali city of Kismayu for alleged adultery in a stadium packed
with 1,000 spectators.

The upstart al-Shabaab--meaning "youth"--faction of the ICU has become a
political spoiler. On October 29, the group executed five coordinated
suicide car-bomb attacks against transitional government and U.N. targets
in different locations around the country, killing about 30 people and
accelerating a trend of rising jihadist violence against local civic
leaders and international aid workers perceived as pro-Western.
Significantly, al-Shabaab targeted the northern city of Hargeisa, the seat
of government of the relatively safe and successful quasi-state of
Somaliland, even as the transitional government was making progress in
Nairobi towards an orderly Ethiopian withdrawal. The threat the ICU posed
in late 2006 has thus re-materialized: that Islamists will Talibanize
Somalia and nurture a regional base for jihadism that exports insecurity
and instability.

If the résumés of his likely foreign-policy advisers are any indication,
President-elect Barack Obama does not intend to ignore Africa. Susan Rice,
a strong contender for national security adviser, was assistant secretary
of state for African affairs in the Clinton administration. Samantha Power,
also prominently mentioned, wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from
Hell, a passionate chronicle of the Rwandan genocide and critique of the
United States' failure to intervene. In the 2,000-strong Combined Joint
Task Force-Horn of Africa, based in Djibouti, Africa Command (AFRICOM), the
United States' new combatant command dedicated to Africa, has the means of
bolstering secular Somali militias (or more Ethiopians) against Islamist
forces. But that has not produced sustainable stability in the past and
isn't likely to do so now, and would only stoke Africans' fears of American
militarism. Further, constricted budgets and two wars elsewhere will call
for judiciously set priorities.

Soft rather than hard power should be the United States' instrument of
choice on the continent, and in Somalia. So what about an audacious
diplomatic American approach to Somalia? The fraught 1992-93 U.S.-led
humanitarian intervention, U.S. backing for Ethiopia, and civilian
casualties caused by recent American counterterrorism strikes have eroded
Somali respect for the United States. But Obama's singular status as the
first African American president substantially renews American diplomatic
credibility with all Africans, including Somalis.

Expending political capital on such a knotty problem--over a dozen
transitional governments have tried and failed over the past 17
years--might seem imprudent at first blush. But the Somalis' very
recalcitrance has yielded such low expectations that very little would
actually be at risk. Moreover, an earnest attempt at conflict-resolution in
Somalia would enable Mr. Obama to showcase the differences between him and
his predecessor.

Mr. Bush was a self-described "gut player," uninterested in the cultural
subtleties of other peoples, and it showed in a foreign policy that was
often ineffective on account of its insensitivity. By contrast, Mr. Obama
is surrounding himself with true regional experts, including Africanists
who have made it their business to understand Africans and their politics
in all their complexities. Somalia's notorious clan system makes for
extreme political atomization, and makes any power-sharing solution an
especially daunting prospect. Yet the clan network also disperses power
from the bottom up, and, properly harnessed, could systematically limit the
trajectory of a top-down movement like radical Islamism.

Mr. Obama's prospective team also has extensive experience on the volatile
international stage of the 1990s, when the Clinton administration
pragmatically--and usually successfully--backed high-level diplomacy with
the selective, and therefore credible, use of military force in the Balkans
and elsewhere. Thus, they understand one of Mr. Obama's most provocative
campaign positions: be open to talking to your enemies.

To be sure, al-Shabaab are bad guys. Members of the group's core leadership
are believed to have trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, it has
sought to expel transitional government forces, AU peacekeepers, and
Ethiopians troops through insurgency tactics, and supports forming an
anti-Western Islamic state. Yet it was a mistake for the Bush
administration to include al-Shabaab on the State Department's list of
proscribed terrorist organizations. That move, along with a U.S. airstrike
in May that killed Aden Hashi Ayro, al-Shabaab's leader, needlessly
glorified and antagonized the group; pushed it closer to Al Qaeda; spurred
it to expand its target set to any Somalis associated with the West,
including local aid workers and community leaders; attracted foreign
jihadist recruits; and politically inhibited any U.S. moves towards
positive engagement.

Conversely, removing it from the list--as the Clinton administration
de-listed the Provisional Irish Republican Army to advance U.S.-brokered
talks--could induce al-Shabaab to enter into all-party negotiations with an
eye to integrating it--and the ICU--into government and thus co-opting
them. Although al-Shabaab would likely continue to be a potential spoiler,
nudging it into a negotiating framework that offered some political
legitimacy would also make it more susceptible to compromising with
moderate Islamists, who are in turn more inclined to deal non-violently
with the secular transitional government and with the United States. Sinn
Fein's doves, after all, were better able to control the IRA's hawks once
the IRA had been de-listed.

High political dividends could be achieved with relatively low financial
and bureaucratic investment by coordinating U.S. efforts with and through
the AU's larger peace and security agenda. Useful precedents include
President Clinton's diplomatic intervention in the Northern Irish
"troubles" and President Bush's in the north-south conflict in Sudan. In
both cases, the president's appointment of a seasoned and dedicated special
envoy with influence and gravitas--former Senator George Mitchell and
former Senator John Danforth, respectively--ultimately produced formal
political settlements on a non-threatening multilateral basis.

The goal in Somalia would be negotiated state-building. 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. Even if a diplomatic foray by the Obama
administration does not yield immediate success, striking a salutary
keynote of multilateral diplomacy would help alleviate African worries
about AFRICOM and the militarization of U.S. Africa policy. And returning
to Somalia--the notorious site of U.S. military failure around fifteen
years ago, which drove its sustained disengagement from Africa and
emboldened Al Qaeda--would decisively signal a renewed commitment to the

Jonathan Stevenson is a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval
War College. His book, Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable, was published by
Viking in August.


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