Little more than a month ago, the situation in Somalia seemed hopeless. The Islamic Courts Union was consolidating its Taliban-style hold on the country, foreign jihadists were pouring in and a new terrorist haven appeared to be emerging. The CIA’s attempts to finance a coalition of secular warlords had failed, and the moderate transitional government was under siege in the provisional capital of Baidoa.
Then, on the day before Christmas, the armed forces of Ethiopia—a Christian state threatened by the ultra-Islamists next door—crossed the frontier. Ethiopia maintains the most formidable military in the region, thanks in part to American arms, aid and advisors. Not only did the United States share intelligence with the Ethiopians, there have been reports that a small number of U.S. Special Operations troops were on the ground.
Within days the seemingly invincible Islamists had been routed. As the jihadists fled south, an American AC-130 gunship based in Djibouti got into the act, strafing suspects linked to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. U.S. intelligence agencies had been tracking these terrorists for years, but it was only when they were flushed out of their sanctuary that they became vulnerable to attack.
Although most of the foreign policy debate in the U.S. has been riveted on Iraq, some within the Pentagon have been touting recent events in Somalia as an alternative model of how to fight Islamo-fascists. Everyone recognizes that there will be scant appetite in the near term for sending huge numbers of U.S. troops to occupy any more Middle Eastern countries. Might not the U.S. be able to achieve its goals by taking advantage of local allies backed by American airpower and small numbers of commandos and intelligence agents?
Such a low-intensity approach—used to overthrow the Taliban in the fall of 2001—has much to recommend it. But a few caveats are in order.
First, indigenous allies are not always reliable. They are often pursuing agendas different from our own. Remember how Afghan gunmen allowed Osama bin Laden and his followers to escape from Tora Bora in 2001? Or look at the difficulties we are now having in working with the Maliki government in Iraq.
Second, it’s easier to play offense than defense. It doesn’t take that many troops to rout the Taliban, the Iraqi Republican Guard or the Islamic Courts Union, but successfully holding a country as large as Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia is a much more manpower-intensive task. If the U.S. or our allies don’t provide those soldiers, where will they come from? Ideally, they’ll be locals trained and armed by the U.S., but, as we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, standing up effective security forces is a laborious, long-term process. It’s a race against time: Can the government consolidate control before the Islamists launch an effective guerrilla campaign?
This danger is particularly acute in Somalia, where the Ethiopians have made clear that they have no interest in a long-term occupation. Once they leave, Somalia is likely to sink back into the clan warfare that has predominated since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. There is a moment of opportunity now for the international community to step in and stabilize Somalia. What’s needed is an effective foreign peacekeeping force along with a large influx of aid to the transitional government. If that’s not forthcoming—and odds are it won’t be—the Islamists will find it easy to stage a resurgence.
A third caveat: In fighting terrorists, the U.S. won’t always have the freedom of action it enjoys in Somalia. Terrorists find shelter not only in ungoverned spaces like Somalia but in anti-American countries like Iran and Syria, in ambivalent countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and even in pro-American countries like Germany and Britain. For various political reasons, the potential for swashbuckling, Jack Bauer-style counter-terrorism in such states is less than in non-states like Somalia or Afghanistan, where anything goes. Indeed, a team of CIA officers faces indictment in Italy for snatching a terrorist suspect off a Milan street in 2003.
So, by all means let us celebrate the achievements in Somalia, even while recognizing the likelihood that we have not heard the last of the Islamic Courts Union. In contrast to setbacks in Iraq, Somalia shows that jihadist insurgents are eminently defeatable. But realize that the “Somalia model” is not easily exportable elsewhere. We need to tailor different approaches to different theaters of this global counterinsurgency. This is not a one-size-fits-all war.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.