Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pay Attention to Somalia

Here's an essay about the potential for intervention in Somalia. Somalia today is showing some of the same characteristics Afghanistan did in the 90s. As this essay is being posted, Mogadishu is recovering from yet another devastating suicide attack by the al Shabaab terrorist network. I think al Shabaab may be one step closer to seizing Mogadishu, just as the Taliban in 1996 seized Kabul. Note: this essay includes one map which may not load correctly into the blog. Forgive me for any blog formatting issues. The content here is key.


Afghanistan Part II: The Reoccurrence of International Terrorism in Somalia

Violence in Somalia has raged for so long that the conflict rarely grabs the world's attention. MALKHADIR M. MUHUMED

Afghanistan 1990-1996

    When the Soviet military withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 two significant things happened. The U.S. and other international actors withdrew their direct support for the country, and they withdrew their interest. In some ways Afghanistan was left to fend for itself without any relevant form of government and without any relevant knowledge of how to govern. By late 1992 the state was in almost complete anarchy. Mild attempts by the U.N. and other states did little to help Afghanistan build a firm governing foundation. A fledgling attempt at an interim government was just that – fledgling. In a 1993 essay for Asian Survey, Shah Tarzi offered, "the interim government, ineptly conceived and organized, was a constitutional monstrosity. By its very design, it was unfit to address the critical dimensions of political governance and state-building" (p. 166). As various militant groups fought to control the country, one emerged with force. The movement known as the Taliban captured the capital city of Kabul in 1996 (Rashid 1999).

Somalia 1991-2008

    A similar scene is playing out one continent to the west. Although not a key proxy state against the Soviets during the Cold War, Somalia did receive moderate U.S. support vis-à-vis military partnerships and education (U.S. Department of State 2010). Simultaneously, however, the country was is in the throes of civil war and an all out disentigration of Major General Mohamed Siad Barre's leading regime. In 1991, Barre's regime was toppled resulting in what the U.S. Department of State describes as, "the complete collapse of the central [Somali] government" (DoS 2010). A disastrous effort to "Restore Hope" by the U.S. and the U.N. between 1992-1993 ended in the death of 18 U.S. service men in the "Blackhawk Down" incident, made famous by a book and movie of the same name. The U.S. formally withdrew from Somalia the following year. Since then Somalia has been in a complete state of anarchy. In 2004 the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was developed, but much like the interim Afghan government the TFG has been flogged with problems. Now, one group, the al Shabaab terrorist network is gaining power. They control most of Southern Somalia and the capital city of Mogadishu.
    The question is what will the international community do? One need not hit fast-forward on this story because we have already seen the ending. Having watched Afghanistan dissolve into a dangerously dysfunctional state that became an international terrorist playground, the international community should seriously consider converging on Somalia now as it too is following a similarly dangerous script.

A State of Failure

The Data - Current Conditions

    There is no shortage of evidence to prove that Somalia currently is and has recently been the most troubled state in the world. In fact, for three years running, Somalia has topped the Fund for Peace/Foreign Policy Failed State Index as the world's most failed state (Foreign Policy 2010). James Traub, in a separate Foreign Policy article accounts for Somalia's present condition: "Today, three U.S. administrations, two U.N. secretaries-general, and 18 years later, Somalia has a raging Islamist insurgency, a government that controls a few city blocks, and African Union peacekeepers with no peace to keep" (Traub 2010).
    Economically the state has almost no GDP - estimated at a little more than $5 billion (DoS 2010). Most of it is comes from agriculture and trade exports. But, their trade partners are few: United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, India, Kenya, United States. The state does have natural resources including a variety of metals and petroleum. But, much of the resources are largely unexploited (DoS 2010). What really drives the Somali economy is money given by citizens that have moved away from Somalia. Almost $2 billion is estimated to come from remittances (DoS 2010). The African diaspora is an interesting and very important part of the country. It not only makes up a large part of the economy from remittances, it also makes up a large part of the political influence (Menkhaus, African Diasporas, Diasporas in Africa and Terrorist Threats, 2009).
    Why that is important is because there is no real internal political structure. Politically Somalia is pulled in many directions. Ken Menkhaus (2009) points out, "It is also the case that the diaspora has increasingly come to play a direct role in political leadership in government, opposition and armed insurgencies in Africa, so that virtually any political movement in Africa – whether terrorist or not – has a significant diaspora component" (p. 85). Additionally the installed TFG claims some political authority albeit minimal. There is also political influence from local clans, gangs, militant organizations such as Shabaab and businesses. Further complicating the political struggle are the northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland who separately claim independence including semi-functioning governments and separate currencies.
    There is no Somali military. Although the TFG supposedly has soldiers, the TFG has no measurable power to leverage what little supposed military it does have. Instead the TFG itself is protected by external actors, namely forces from Uganda. This is not only a major point of contention between militant Somalis, who view Uganda as an enemy, it is a major point of legitimacy or lack thereof in terms of rule of law.
    There is no rule of law because there is no constitution, and as the U.S. Department of State describes there is, "no functioning nationwide legal system" (DoS 2010). Instead a system of informal rules, shari'a law and customs instill what little sense of order there is in the country. Somalia is in effect a lawless state with no central government, no military, little to no economy, and no prospect of any positive change.
    Somalia is also the world renowned place of piracy. A relatively big business, piracy off the coast threatens the commercial waters almost daily. Piracy is a major problem, but the threat of international terrorism from piracy may not be as serious. Instead, piracy may just be more of a domestic and international criminal problem rather than a true terrorist threat. This is in part because piracy is truly a business complete with market conditions, competition, business models, fair market values, negotiated settlements, bookkeeping, and even timesheets. NPRs Planet Money Podcast showcased the Somali piracy problem and suggested that from a purely business perspective, "the issues of criminality and the potential for violence aside, a closer look at the 'business model' of piracy reveals that the plan makes economic sense" (Joffe-Walt, 2009). And it is true. It is actually an oddly interesting case study in free market capitalism. Nevertheless, piracy is a serious sore spot with world's shipping companies and adds to the lawless nature of the country.
    To make matters worse, Somalia environmentally and sociologically is a mess. Jeffrey Gettleman (2009), a long-time reporter in the region, points out that, "Just when things seem they can't get any worse in Somalia, they do. Beyond the political crisis, all the elements for a full-blown famine – war, displacement, drought, skyrocketing food prices, and an exodus of aid workers – are lining up again, just as they did in the early 1990s when hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved to death" (p. 62). This country, wracked by almost two decades of lawless thuggery is beyond the point of total collapse. It is a virtual disaster.
    Some suggest it is a state in name only. There is reasonable merit to support that claim. Somalia is a no-man's land, at least a no-reasonable-man's land. One would have to be armed, crazy or both to step foot in the country, particularly the southern capital region. Gettleman (2009) says, "When you land at Mogadishu's international airport, the first form you fill out asks for name, address, and caliber of weapon" (p. 62). But aside from the internal anarchy, why is Somalia potentially the next international threat especially for terrorism? We find the clues by comparing Afghanistan's demise through the 1990s with Somalia today.

Remember Afghanistan 1989-1996

Leaving a Void

    When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, so too did the international community. The proxy war between the Soviets and the U.S. ended in 1989. In effect, U.S. interest in Afghanistan ended at the same time. Granted, aid efforts did continue throughout the first half of the 90s, but they were not as robust as they had been through the 80s. The important point is that there was a noticeable void left behind in Afghanistan from the exodus of international actors. It was not so much a function of the physical exodus of international agencies. It was more the case that Afghanistan was left holding an empty bag. During the war in the 80s there was no effective government. When the war ended, there still was no effective government. When support withdrew from Afghanistan, it withdrew leaving behind no effective government. This is the first clue that the international community should pay attention to regarding Somalia.
    Michael Chege, in an essay about Sierra Leone points out the danger of a society that is left with a governmental void. Citing former British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, Chege captures, "'when we allow governments to fail, warlords, drug barons, or terrorists fill the vacuum…Terrorists are strongest where states are weakest'" (p. 147). Afghanistan was undoubtedly left with a void. Somalia today has been left with a void.
    When the Barre regime was overthrown in 1991, Somalia became very much like Afghanistan in 1989 – void of a government. What exacerbated the problem was that they had been under rule but under bad rule by Major General Barre. Bronwyn Bruton (2010), an expert in the region, points out that, "Somalia has been without a central government since the collapse of a decades-old military dictatorship in 1991. The bloody civil war that followed utterly destroyed what national governance structures remained, dividing Somalia into a patchwork of clan fiefdoms" (p. 6).
    The U.N. and the U.S. and others did notice the existing voids in both states. But the gravity at the time of the potential for disaster may not have been clearly understood. Unfortunately, moderate to weak attempts were made to help reinstate some form of central control. Those attempts proved to be failures.

Failed Government Attempts

    In Afghanistan, the U.N. attempted a power sharing scheme to bring together the different warring factions left over from the Soviet war. Shah Tarzi (1993) points out that, "the U.N. formula envisioned a power-sharing arrangement – the creation of a 15-member council selected from the various mujahideen parties and the Wattan (homeland) Party, the former Communists" (p. 165-166). This arrangement did not work; however, and Tarzi continues, "events quickly overtook the U.N. plan and Najibullah's government crumbled under the weight of military defections" (p. 166).
    For the next few years a series of power grabs between mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Masood, militia leader General Abdul Rashid Doestam, and hardliner Islamist, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar took place. These different warlords jockeyed for premier government positions (Tarzi, 1993). As these three notables and others sought power, efforts by the U.N. to stave off a complete government collapse proved futile. The country moved further into civil war. Attacks against the struggling factions grew. A massive refuge problem emerged, and people began fleeing the country for Pakistan and Iran. By the end of 1994, Afghanistan was embroiled in war internally and the U.N. could do little to help. A collapse of the government had by that point positively occurred, and the U.N. had virtually given up. Zalmay Khalilzad (1995) reported in an Asian Survey essay that, "Because of the attacks in Kabul, U.N. staff members left and U.N. humanitarian aid declined" (p. 149). The decline of international interest gave way to the rise of a force able to seize control of the country. The Taliban in 1996 took Kabul and effectively took Afghanistan.
    In Somalia, the story follows a similar line with one exception. The U.N. and the U.S. took great interest in restoring control in Somalia between 1991-1993. Seth Kaplan (2010) in a Washington Quarterly article points out that, "Since 1992, the United States and other international actors have repeatedly sought to rebuild the Somali state by bringing the country's various factions together inside a national government" (p. 83). However, those attempts failed miserably. The famous "Black Hawk Down" incident which capped the moribund "Operation Restore Hope," was an international embarrassment. By 1994, Kaplan (2010) points out, "U.S. forces withdrew…and all UN troops exited a year after that, having sustained significant casualties in a failed bid to foster a federal government" (pp. 84-85). The U.N. did make another attempt in 2004 to create a viable Somali government.
    They established the TFG which is currently recognized as the legitimate government (Kaplan, 2010). However, the TFG is far from legitimate. It has no power. It has very little control. And the TFG is incapable of regulating anything in Somalia. Ken Menkhaus implies that more damage may have come from having the TFG than if the TFG were something else or simply never existed. He says:
If the TFG were merely incompetent, a strong case could be made that the international community must simply redouble its efforts to build the government capacity and accountability for however long it takes to make it succeed. But the TFG's poor performance, and sustained external support to the TFG, have been anything but harmless. They have been actively detrimental to the objectives of reducing extremism and lawlessness in the country, and have helped to fuel the very violent extremism US and UN policies are intended to erode. (Menkhaus, Horn of Africa: Current Conditions and US Policy, 2010)
As in Afghanistan, with no real government and no helpful external influence, one militant organization is seizing the fertile opportunity. Al Shabaab, much like the Taliban in 1996, is on the verge of taking Mogadishu from the TFG. If they do, al Shabaab will in effect have taken a critical portion of Somalia.

Who's in charge?

    With the Taliban in control of the country in the late 90s, Afghanistan became a playground for would be international terrorists. In 1999 Peter Tomsen noted that, "Afghanistan is the documented training and inspirational base for worldwide militant Islamist operations ranging from American soil to the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and the Philippines" (p. 181). The most notable militant Islamist group, al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Ladin took advantage of the real estate. Ahmed Rashid, who wrote extensively about the rise of the Taliban, warned that if international efforts were not coalesced in Afghanistan, "Terrorism [would] develop new adherents there" (p. 35). As the world saw, that is exactly what happened.
    What the world should wonder today is whether al Shabaab will gain control of the country. Reports differ as to the influence al Qaeda has with al Shabaab. But it seems clear that there is at a minimum a familial relationship. Bronwyn Bruton (2010) points out, regarding the failure of the TFG and the rise of al Shabaab, "Foreign jihadists, including al-Qaeda, sensed an unprecedented opportunity to globalize Somalia's conflict and quickly funneled support to the Shabaab" (p. 8). Shabaab today looks very similar to the Taliban in 1996. If we already know what happened after the Taliban seized Afghanistan, then should we not direct more attention to al Shabaab and their potential threat? Figure 1 depicts the current control al Shabaab has over Somalia. But are they a real threat?

The Threat of al Shabaab

    There are differing opinions as to the real or perceived threat of al Shabaab. Some suggest that Shabaab is indeed a threat, but not particularly an international one. Al Shabaab is similar to the Taliban in that they are a movement of extreme militant Islamists. In 2008 the U.S. Department of State officially declared them a terrorist organization (Rice, 2008). The difference between the Taliban and Shabaab is that al Shabaab is generally a youth movement. They have been thought of as more of a violent, radical gang than a terrorist network. However, their tactics and their influence is without question significant. Because they are a local radical movement, some suggest that like a gang, Shabaab is only intent on garnering power locally with little intent on expanding its reach.
    That may be a dangerous assumption. During a hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ken Menkhaus, testified about Shabaab's potential influence. During the testimony, which took place on June 17, 2010 he made a very important distinction about the threat of Shabaab. He said (2010), "On the other hand, a number of 'game changers' could lead to major changes in Somalia. One would be a Shabaab terrorist attack in a neighboring state or in the U.S. To date, Shabaab has threatened to launch terrorist attacks outside Somalia, but has not done so" (Menkhaus 2010). Less the four weeks later on July 11, 2010 nearly 70 spectators of the World Cup final at two different locations in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, were killed by two near simultaneous blasts (Harnisch 2010). Al Shabaab unequivocally claimed credit. As Chris Harnisch reported in a Critical Threats.org analysis, "The attack demonstrates al Shabaab's capability to follow up on its threats to strike internationally and its desire to remove barriers to its control of southern and central Somalia" (Harnisch 2010). The question the international community needs to answer now is whether the Uganda terrorist attacks by al Shabaab were in fact a "game changer."
    Those attacks were certainly an international strike of terrorism and not just a cross- border attack. Uganda is two states away from Somalia. The events had to be well planned, orchestrated, funded and executed. The fact that al Shabaab executed an attack in Uganda is consistent with its stated intent to follow through with threats. In cataloging some of al Shabaab's threats, Chris Harnisch (2010) says:
It should come as no surprise that al Shabaab managed to follow through on its threats against Uganda.  The group is perhaps more adept than any terror group in the world at executing on its threats.  It conducted twin suicide bombings on September 17, 2009 at the African Union headquarters in Mogadishu, for instance, less than a week after it vowed to avenge the death of al Qaeda in East Africa leader Saleh Ali Nabhan. Similarly, the group attacked a college graduation ceremony in December 2009, killing around 20 graduates and the Minister of Education, just three months after it warned the Ministry of Education about using un-Islamic textbooks. Al Shabaab has also followed through on several threats made against non-governmental organizations operating inside Somalia, including the World Food Program and the UN Mine Action Service. (Harnisch, 2010)
    These threats should be taken seriously. There is a strong case to be made that the threat from the Taliban was not taken seriously. It was not a matter of ignorance that the world did not know about the threat posed by the Taliban. The Taliban threat leading up to 2001 was well known and well documented. A Lexis-Nexis search of articles between 1999 and 2001 shows that many people were talking about it. In January 2000 Peter Tomsen warned, "The chief danger to U.S. interests is the rising tide of Islamist militancy and international terrorism emanating from bases in Afghanistan" (p. 181). If al Shabaab continues its "tide of Islamist militancy," or worse, joins hands with al Qaeda, the world will be watching the Afghanistan effect all over again. So what should the international community do?

International Intervention

    The international community should do something, and it should do something now. There is no time to wait and see if this impending threat will manifest itself outside of the African continent. Because the U.N. and the U.S. and others have tried repeatedly to intervene in Somalia, there remain essentially three options.

Do Nothing

    There is the approach of doing nothing. Doing nothing is really a status quo approach to maintaining the current course of attempting to legitimize the TFG. Additionally it entails maintaining a trickle of humanitarian assistance where needs are critical. To a certain extent this approach is a policy of containment. There is some merit to this strategy if what is being contained has a reasonable chance of either deteriorating to the point of non-existence or turning itself around after having run its course like a bad cold.
    Unfortunately, the situation in Somalia is far from a bad cold. It is a metastasizing cancer with the potential to spread through terrorist vectors. The risk of trying to contain potential international terrorists is extremely high. It could be possible through a sophisticated effort of intelligence and military special operations. This would be akin to a counterterrorism strategy whereby the focus is on defeating specific individuals within al Shabaab. The theory is that by defeating the individuals, al Shabaab could be dismantled or completely dissolved.
    To strengthen this tactic would require the TFG to become a truly legitimate governing body. As was already mentioned, the TFG is not a governing body and they are woefully inept. Therefore, the international community would need to direct focused efforts at bolstering the TFG leadership, structure, resourcing, and particularly its rule of law. Ultimately this approach to essentially do nothing hinges on the TFG. It assumes that in time and with continued minimal effort, the TFG will turn itself around and so too will Somalia.

Do Something Similar only Different

    A pragmatic look at maintaining the status quo reveals that the prospect of a future functioning TFG are slim at best. An alternative then, is an alternative to approaches that have been taken in the past twenty years. Crafting yet another strategy for Somalia's well being comes with a proven probability of failure. Some things could be done differently, though. First, any effort needs to be unified under a central mandate, presumably through the U.N. The strategy would need to be clear with clear objectives and clear lines of communication. A streamlined command channel would facilitate the implementation of ideas.
    Second, the effort would need to be bold and determined to withstand resistance. One of the great failures of a moderately unified U.N. & U.S. approach in 1992-1993 was the lack of will to withstand resistance. The "Black Hawk Down" incident completely ruined any international hope of further progress let alone any internal hope of Somalis that the world cared about them. Resistance should be expected and even heavy fighting may ensue. But persistence by a significant U.N. member state coalition would be essential to any restoration.
    Third, an approach at top down government should be abandoned. Every attempt at government intervention, 14 as of 2009 (Gettleman, 2009) has failed. Instead, what some offer as a bottom-up system of rule and governance may be more suited to the highly fractioned and clan-based society. Seth Kaplan (2010) suggests, "The international community should abandon its attempts to impose a top-down, centralized, and profoundly artificial state model and begin to work with, rather than against, the grain of Somali society" (p. 89). This could even mean, then, considering deals with militant groups. Bronwyn Bruton (2010) additionally says, "The use of a presidential model in a country fractured along clan lines, and lacking any credible national leaders over the past thirty years, should be abandoned" (p. 24).
    Finally a different alternative would also require a heavy military presence. To allow the state of Somalia to right itself from the bottom up would require security against militant groups seeking to turn the country upside down. There is no doubt that an insurgency would rise from any international effort to help Somalis regain their independence from themselves. As with the second point of persistence, a military security presence would entail occupation for quite possibly a long time (several years at least) by member states of the U.N.

Take a Radical Approach

    Ken Menkhaus (2010) suggests that, "We face poor choices and high risks in Somalia no matter what we do" (Menkhaus, Horn of Africa: Current Conditions and US Policy, 2010). Therefore, if we face high risks of failure as an international community, and there is also a high risk of facing international terrorism from Somalia, a more radical approach to dealing with the country may offer some chance for success. One such radical approach may be to dissovle the state of Somalia altogether and create three distinct states.
    The northern region of Somalia is not as bad as the southern capital region. In the north are the regions of Somaliland and Puntland. Both claim relative independence. Both claim separate semi-functioning governments. Both even claim separate forms of currency. None of which is formally recognized by the U.N. or other member states.
    By dividing the country into three separate states, positive state-building efforts can be applied to the Somaliland and Puntland regions respectively. Then, a tighter, more narrow containment strategy can be applied to the southern region of Somaliland. If Somaliland and Puntland can grow economically and demonstrate signs of growth, there is good reason to believe that neighboring partnerships can be forged to further contain Southern Somalia. This is an initiallly simplistic concept of a radical approach to Somalia. Regardless of the approach, something radical may prove better than the aforementioned two which have proven poor track records. Whatever the international community does needs to be done now if we wish to avoid the results of a second Afghanistan.


    The signs are all there. Somalia looks like the next international threat. Somalia exhibits some of the same characteristics Afghanistan did in the 1990s. The world watched what was happening inside Afghanistan during the 90s but did nothing constructive to stop it. What happened? The state dissolved into anarchy. The Taliban seized the country. They cultivated an environment for terrorist growth. Al Qaeda took advantage of it. Then the world watched in dismay as terrorists flew passenger planes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
    Is the world merely watching what is happening inside Somalia? Is it the case now that "Violence in Somalia has raged for so long that the conflict rarely grabs the world's attention" as Malkhadir Muhumed suggests? Should the international community finally pay serious attention to what is currently going on in Somalia? Arguably yes the world should. As Afghanistan became somewhat of an international afterthought in the 1990s, Somalia too has become a vacuum of international interest. The state is a festering wound that requires more than a bandage to heal. There should be little doubt that al Shabaab is attempting to gain control of Mogadishu to expand their influence internationally. So, what will the international community do? Will we watch and see what happens? Or, having seen this show before, will we turn it off so the credits do not roll again?
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