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What Role Should the U.S. Play in Somalia?

Discussants: Terrence Lyons, Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, and Sadia Ali Aden
Updated: May 30, 2007


Somalia's last stable central government fell in 1991. In the sixteen years since, anarchy has reigned in the nation at the tip of Africa's Horn. Warlords became the primary power brokers in the security vacuum until 2006, when a fundamentalist group called the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) ascended and threatened to topple Somalia's feeble Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Ethiopia intervened, routing the UIC and giving muscle to Somalia's weak national government. The United States, fearing the failed state would become a haven for terrorists, launched air strikes at suspected al-Qaeda operatives as they fled the Ethiopian offensive. Ethiopia's troops remain in Somalia, where a hostile population wants them out but the fragile security situation prevents their withdrawal.

Terrence Lyons is an associate professor of conflict resolution at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and interim director of the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University. Sadia Ali Aden is president and co-founder of the Somali Diaspora Network.

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Sadia Ali AdenMost Recent

May 30, 2007

Sadia Ali Aden

There is no denying that, much like Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, there were Somalis who beat the drums for the military solution—one decisive victory over UIC that would firmly establish TFG in Mogadishu. Ultimately, the enterprise proved as quixotic and as deadly as the one before it. Once again, the hawks in Washington failed to objectively assess two critical factors: who they were partnering with, and how much public support these partners have. To make matters worse, they continued applying the same counterproductive tactics such as the extralegal enterprise of running secret prisons and holding ghost prisoners.

As reported in the Independent, human rights groups say, “At least 150 people arrested in Kenya after fleeing violence in Somalia have been secretly flown to Somalia and Ethiopia, where they are being held incommunicado in underground prisons.”  

The military invasion of Christmas 2006 was a failure not only from the Somali and U.S. perspective, but also from the Ethiopian one. 

His triumphant façade notwithstanding, Prime Minister Zenawi’s attempt to divert attention from his ailing regime has suffered a serious blow. Ethiopia is now in the international spotlight. The latest Amnesty International report condemns Ethiopia not only for its abuses in Somalia but for a pattern of human rights abuses against its own people. Congressional testimony from Amnesty’s Lynn Fredriksson rattled Addis Ababa to the point that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a five-page tirade in response.

The only practical way out of this is for Washington to do the exact opposite of all that failed in Iraq. All facts indicate that Washington’s partnership with Zenawi’s Ethiopia and the TFG was ill-advised, to say the least. The byproduct of the invasion and the subsequent occupation is something in which Washington, unfortunately, shares the blame.

Like the Iraq war, the military solution is a failed solution. The military solution will only discredit if not altogether alienate the moderate elements, radicalize insurgents, and perpetuate bloodshed and chaos.

Therefore, it seems that the only way toward a win-win solution is through diplomacy and by adopting an alternative, constructive policy toward Somalia. This reminds me of the Somali adage “Jinni ninkii keeno ayaa bixiyo” (He who invited the demon shall be tasked with removing him.).

Terrence LyonsMay 29, 2007

Terrence Lyons

The spillover effects from conflict in Somalia do indeed exacerbate conflicts in Ethiopia, as seen in the attacks on Chinese oil workers last month and the grenade attacks in Jijiga (eastern Ethiopia) against an Ethiopian official over the weekend. There is a potential that these forms of violence will increase with destabilizing implications for Ethiopia and the region.

The overall relations between Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia, however, are less likely to degenerate into widespread violence. The October 2006 inter-religious fighting in Jima (western Ethiopia) referenced in McCrummen’s Washington Post article remains the exception. While many portray Ethiopia as a Christian nation, the country in fact has roughly equal numbers of Christians and Muslims. Ethnic and national identity rather than religion has proven to be the most important social cleavage. It is possible, of course, that religious divisions will grow as an additional spillover from Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia. This is another reason why settling this conflict is imperative.

I would like to return to a comment you made in your first message regarding the importance of engaging the Somali diaspora to build peace in their homeland. Diaspora groups in certain cases play a role in polarizing conflicts, in part because their attachments to the homeland focus on symbolic issues and because they do not suffer the consequences of militant positions in the same way as that their brethren on the ground. By the same token, diasporas can be a major force for peace, as when the Irish-American diaspora shifted its support from the most violent factions toward those who endorsed the Good Friday peace process.

Somali politics is transnational, with important leaders and organizations based outside of the homeland. These diaspora networks participate in political debates and the generation of political strategies. Some Somalis in North America have put forth constructive proposals to resolve the current crisis while others have been more divisive and polarizing. Washington and other governments and international organizations should engage leaders from across the Somali community as they search for ideas and channels to promote peace.

Sadia Ali AdenMay 25, 2007

Sadia Ali Aden

Admittedly, it is very difficult to fathom that Washington—having been the propelling force that made the Ethiopian invasion possible, and concurrently staging ferocious air attacks by AC-130 gunships in areas around Ras Kamboni that killed hundreds of Somali villagers and countless livestock—could actually bring about a positive change.

By no means is Washington’s record immaculate. However, the two nations direly need each other to save one another. 

And, in order to move forward, avoid yet another failure-bound foreign policy, and avoid creating a dangerous hotbed of anti-Americanism in the Horn of Africa, it behooves Washington to objectively reassess its partners in its strategic adventurism in Somalia. The company that it currently keeps is a grave impediment to lasting peace in Somalia, and some of its political undertakings may further radicalize the region.

The hybrid of Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopia and the warlord infested TFG, who are currently under investigation for committing war crimes violations in Mogadishu, have proven a heavy liability and reckless political arsonists who seem to start more fires than they can putout.

The recently aborted campaign to ban Somali women from wearing hijabs (Islamic veils), where armed TFG and Ethiopian soldiers forced women in Mogadishu to publicly unveil and burn their hijabs, has not only outraged the majority of Somalis but Muslims around the world.

If their haphazard decision-making trend continues, I am afraid not only will anti-American sentiments in the region and around the globe be galvanized, but a bloody inter-religious war could be ignited.

In Ethiopia, inflammatory rumors are already spreading like a wild fire. There currently is a fear-based atmosphere of inter-religious distrust directly feeding off of the inflated threat of terrorism in general and the Islamic courts as they are projected by Meles’ Ethiopia and the Western media.

The condition is so volatile that it can explode any time. “Muslims were said to be training to attack Christians. Christians were said to be stockpiling weapons for an assault on Muslims,” wrote Stephanie McCrummen of the Washington Post in her recent article that sounded the alarm.

Perhaps McCrummen’s most intriguing revelation is the fact that only two months earlier, Christians and Muslims had an episode of violence that had “19 people killed and five churches and 600 houses burned, according to a government report.”

Terrence LyonsMay 23, 2007

Terrence Lyons

Sadia Ali Aden and I agree on the interlinked imperatives to make the transitional government more inclusive and to find a mechanism to withdraw Ethiopian forces from Somalia. A robust UN peacekeeping force with a strong mandate could play a constructive role but the challenges in deploying the Africa Union force and the memories of the UNOSOM experience in the early 1990s make this an unlikely outcome. Furthermore, I remain more skeptical than Ms. Aden that Washington is likely to play the key role in sponsoring talks between the TFG and elements of the UIC.

Washington’s recent engagement in the region has left it with little credibility to broker such discussions. The United States took a series of actions that signaled its opposition to the UIC, including Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer’s characterization of the UIC as “controlled” by al-Qaeda and the promotion of UN Resolution 1725 in December 2006 that clearly favored the TFG over the UIC. Furthermore, in January 2007 the United States used AC-130 gunships to attack targets in southern Somalia, in an unsuccessful effort to kill key UIC leaders. While the regime in Addis Ababa intervened in Somalia in pursuit of its own security interests, the close military and political links between the United States and Ethiopia further compromise Washington. I fear that it will require contortions beyond merely “bending over backward” to convince many Somalis of Washington’s “even-handedness.”

There are, however, other related opportunities that may offer greater promise. One of the dynamics that makes violence in Somalia potentially so explosive is that it feeds into and in turn feeds off of other conflicts in the Horn of Africa region. These include internal conflicts within Ethiopia, as seen in the attack by the Ogaden National Liberation Front on the Chinese oil workers in April. The unresolved conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea has led these two rivals to support opposing sides within Somalia, thereby creating conflict by proxy. Implementation of the Algiers Peace Agreement that ended the brutal 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is off the rails and tensions along the highly militarized border are rising without an effective international framework in place to manage the conflict. Washington’s close relationship with Addis Ababa may provide it with the kind of access and leverage that can promote peace on these fronts, and thereby reduce the potential for the Somali conflict to spread throughout the Horn.

Sadia Ali AdenMay 22, 2007

Sadia Ali Aden

While I agree with Prof. Lyons on his assessment of the failed Ethiopian/TFG partnership to maintain peace and order in Mogadishu and the brutality of their heavy-handed campaign, I differ with his perception that “the window of opportunity opened in early 2007 has virtually closed.”

I am of the opinion that Washington still has a golden opportunity to help restore peace and order in Somalia and re-cultivate a relationship based on mutual respect and indeed interest without sending American soldiers to Somalia.

This golden opportunity does not exist because the TFG might be willing to hold a “reconciliation conference” in Mogadishu (when the said entity itself is a party to the conflict), but because the U.S. is the only stakeholder who has the necessary capacity and clout to bring both the TFG and the UIC to the negotiation table. It is the only actively involved external stakeholder whose strategic interest is directly dependent on the stability and the reconstitution of the Somali state.

Both the timing and the environment are conducive to constructive engagement. All attempts to enforce peace through military might have proven a failure. The only opportunity remaining is through direct diplomatic engagement.

The brutality of the Ethiopian forces has dwarfed any previous American sponsored acts of violence. Nevertheless, Washington’s foreign policy remains suspect in the eyes of the majority of Somalis and Muslims around the world. 

With this backdrop, Washington may have to bend over backwards (if necessary) and demonstrate its commitment, and more importantly, even-handedness in helping build a broad-based government.

Certainly the newly appointed Special Envoy for Somalia [John Yates] could play a major role. That is if he prudently avoids the pitfalls that ultimately discredited other diplomatic officials from the State Department.

In the immediate term, here are some alternatives that ought to be considered:

  1. Developing a clearly articulated policy on Somalia. (Washington can neither be ambivalent in its commitment nor haphazard.)
  2. Pressure Ethiopia to disengage and immediately end its military occupation and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to rapidly replace them with Blue Beret forces.
  3. The State Department should tone down its alienating rhetoric vis-a-vis the moderate leadership of the UIC and those former parliament members (including the former Speaker of the Parliament) who now oppose the TFG.
  4. Engage and empower the Somali Diaspora. This block offers untapped influence and the will to fix their homeland of origin.

Terrence LyonsMay 21, 2007

Terrence Lyons

Five months after the Somali Transitional Federal Government and Ethiopian troops ousted the Union of Islamic Courts, it appears initial hopes of a stable regime have been replaced by disappointment and frustration. Conditions in Somalia have deteriorated and there is evidence that an organized insurgency has coalesced in Mogadishu. The TFG remains narrowly based and unpopular. Violence in March and April reached tragic heights as Ethiopian troops used heavy artillery and mortars against neighborhoods it claimed housed Islamic militants. According to UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes, 300,000 have fled the city and “in terms of numbers and access to them, Somalia is a worse displacement crisis than Darfur or Chad.”

The primary issue in Somalia remains finding a sustainable basis for an inclusive government that can provide security. The TFG did not seize early opportunities to reach out to disaffected members of the Hawiye clan that dominate Mogadishu or to moderate UIC leaders. A promised reconciliation conference has been postponed and is unlikely to encourage broader participation if it convenes in Mogadishu where some key leaders refuse to meet until Ethiopian troops withdraw.

The TFG would not be in control Mogadishu and other parts of southern Somalia without the support of Ethiopian troops. Many in Mogadishu oppose the TFG, viewing it as a narrow clan coalition and as a client of Ethiopia and the United States. The challenge today, as it was in January, is to get the Ethiopian troops to withdraw without creating a vacuum that will spark further bloody conflict.

From the beginning of the intervention Ethiopia pledged to leave quickly. Washington, Addis Ababa, and others have endorsed a plan developed by the Africa Union to bring in a relatively small peacekeeping force to replace Ethiopian troops. A first contingent of some 1,600 troops from Uganda has been in Mogadishu since March. Other potential troop contributors, however, are reluctant to join the mission without a clearer political strategy. Four Ugandan peacekeepers were targeted and killed by a roadside bomb on May 16, making it less likely that other African states would join in the AU mission.

With the process of political reconciliation yet to begin and with the prospect of a viable AU force to replace Ethiopian troops dimming, it seems that the window of opportunity opened in early 2007 has virtually closed. The lack of a workable political or security plan is leading events to spiral toward greater violence with the potential that conflict will spread further. Ethiopia seems trapped: On the one hand it cannot withdraw without leaving behind chaos while on the other its presence makes the formation of a broadly inclusive government difficult.


From Anthony Shaw:

This debate is suffering from a severe lack of accurate information from the region; much of what does reach the US has been refracted through the distorting prisms of international media reporting from Nairobi or input from Somali opposition sources. Many Somali web sites can be classified, as one Somali commentator has put it, as "tabloids of tribal malevolence"; one of the more balanced is; alternative views can be found on Ethiopia sites such as where two of my articles 'PINR and the Realities of Somali Politics' (Feb. 2007); and 'Ethiopia in Somalia, Perceptions, Comments and Realities' (December 2006) are still accessible.

The debate demonstrates a failure to understand either the regional concerns or the reality in Mogadishu and in Somalia. This Washington perspective essentially ignores Somali clan politics. It underestimates the levels of support for the TFG and overestimates the level of opposition. It is only the Hawiye, and indeed only a fraction of the Hawiye, that is opposed to the TFG. It exaggerated the level of support for the Islamic Courts in its post-June 2006 extremist configuration, and still does; to insist on TFG power-sharing with the ICU without qualification merely demonstrates ignorance. It appears disinterested in the level of Eritrean involvement in Somalia.

These differences are important. They lead to the sidelining of local and regional political realities which must be understood if the US is going to counter extremism and terrorism, an aim shared by most Somalis as well as regional powers, or achieve regional political stability.

Washington must base its strategies on factual reality. One such fact, ignored by both participants in this debate, is that the situation in Mogadishu has vastly improved since the defeat of al-Shabaab in late April, ending its capacity to organize any large-scale activity. There are occasional suicide bombings (two actually), roadside mines and assassinations, but terrorist activity in Mogadishu has greatly reduced. Police now patrol the streets replacing the Somali army; all the 16 district police stations have been reopened; neighborhood watch groups set up; tens of thousands of IDPS have returned to the city; schools reopened; aid is flowing in, unchecked; there have been a series of successful discussions between TFG and Hawiye sub-clan elders.

It might also be mentioned that the TFG, and Ethiopia, do have a political strategy to allow Ethiopia to withdraw its troops (and more troops will be joining AMISOM very shortly) and provide for political stability. The basis is the charter agreed at Mbagathi which allows for a reconciliation process and an election in 2009. This is what the international community, and the US, should be supporting while avoiding any suggestion of manipulation.


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