Somalia: Constructive Re-Engagement Required, Not Disengagement

13 September 2010
guest column

Washington, DC — Somalia increasingly represents a direct threat to U.S. national security.

On July 25, the U.S. Justice Department indicted 14 individuals, including American citizens, accused of providing "money, personnel and services" to al-Shabaab, the Somali militant organization that is seeking to overthrow the internationally-recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

It is estimated that two dozen men, many of whom were born and lived in the United States, have gone to Somalia to join the organization. This group includes an al-Shabab commander killed last week in a battle in Mogadishu, according to ABC News, and the first known U.S. citizens to carry out suicide bombings. A Somali-American suicide bomber attacked African Union forces in Puntland, northern Somalia, in 2008, and last September another Somali-American suicide bomber attacked the African Union headquarters in Mogadishu, according to the July indictment.

Two weeks before the indictment, al-Shabab carried out suicide bombings at two locations in Kampala, Uganda, killing more than 70 people watching the World Cup final. This devastating attack is the latest indication of al-Shabab's determination and growing capability to wreak havoc outside Somalia.

How to Respond?

There is little consensus on how to respond to the crisis in Somalia.

A recent publication from the Council on Foreign Relations advocates a policy of "constructive disengagement." This would have the U.S. and the international community cut ties to the beleaguered TFG and the 6,300 African Union troops (AMISOM) in Mogadishu while continuing humanitarian relief and the "occasional" raid against terrorists.

More recently, at the African Union Summit in Kampala, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni vowed to "sweep them (al-Shabab) out of Africa." He endorsed calls from other leaders to increase the African Union force to 20,000 and to change its mandate to an offensive "peace-enforcing" strategy.

In a speech to the summit, Attorney General Eric Holder promised to "maintain," but not increase, U.S. training support for the AU forces in Somalia.

While there is a need for a new strategy for Somalia, the answer is not to be found in disengagement, a massive African Union military force, or maintaining the status quo.

If the U.S. and its European and African allies were to disengage, this would effectively cede Mogadishu to al-Shabab and threaten the 50 percent of the country that is relatively stable.

An outright victory over the TFG would embolden al-Shahab to carry out more suicide bombings in East Africa and elsewhere, and would also enhance the operational presence of its primary patron, Al-Qaeda, in the Horn of Africa.

Inevitably, an escalating cycle of violence will attract more disaffected Somali-American youth to support the jihadist cause in Somalia and, given their American passports, possibly in the U.S.

Similarly, force alone will not solve the country's problems.

Constructive Re-Engagement

If there is to be stability in Somalia it will be the result of the United States and its partners pursuing a strategy of "constructive re-engagement," predicated on political reconciliation, more effective governance and the development of a viable security force.

American policy, therefore, should seek to empower various local actors opposed to al-Shabab, such as the semi-autonomous governments in Somaliland and Puntland, as well as the local authorities and clans in south-central Somalia, who reject the jihadists' draconian fundamentalism.

Continued engagement with the TFG is also essential, despite its poor track record and the exceedingly fragile and dangerous security environment in Mogadishu.

For all of its shortcomings, the TFG provides the only political framework for dialogue, coalition-building and advancing the Djibouti process of multi-party negotiations.

At the same time, too little attention is paid to accentuating divisions within al-Shabab, which has become an externally-dominated military force allied with Al-Qaeda and in opposition to the moderate form of Islam embraced by most Somalis.

The suicide bombings at the Shamo Hotel in December 2009 and the Hotel Muna on August 23, which together killed government ministers, parliamentarians and civilians, are the most recent examples of al-Shabab's determination to create as much destruction as possible in Mogadishu.

In Somalia, clan and sub-clan interests are paramount. Most clans, as noted by Andre Le Sage of the National Defense University, are hedging their bets for survival, waiting to see whether the TFG or al-Shabab prevails.

Undermining al-Shabab

The key element of a constructive re-engagement strategy is building a coalition of clan elders, moderate clerics and opinion makers, inside and outside the country, to counter al-Shabab's extremist ideology and its determination to destroy any semblance of stability or progress.

A counter-insurgency strategy is also vital to exploit al-Shabab's vulnerabilities. UN-backed financial and travel sanctions against key al-Shabab supporters and financiers are as important as targeted military operations.

While ensuring the TFG's survival, AMISOM has been notable for its failure to train a new security force.

If the U.S. and AMISOM's partners cannot foster a coherent security organization with a sense of mission that transcends parochial clan concerns, a large number of new troops will have little value.

Al-Shabab does not have a broad base of support in Somalia. Its influence is derived from intimidation and fear and its relative ability to provide services and security in the areas it controls.

To defeat the jihadist organization, there is a need for a new calculus of incentives based on political and economic actions as opposed to an over-reliance on military campaigns or selectively disengaging.

Witney Schneidman was U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs and co-chaired the Africa Experts Group on the campaign of President Barack Obama. He is president of Schneidman & Associates International. 

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