Disengaging From Somalia

Instead of fighting jihad in Somalia by supporting the weak transitional government, the United States would have more success focusing on humanitarian aid and development, says democracy and governance expert Bronwyn Bruton.

March 9, 2010

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

A bloody war between Somalia’s al-Shabaab militias and the ineffectual, U.S.-supported Transitional Federal Government that is backed by African Union troops could escalate amid reports of an imminent TFG offensive. In a new Council Special Report on Somalia, democracy and governance expert Bronwyn Bruton argues that the best way for the United States to fight terrorism and promote stability in Somalia is a policy of "constructive disengagement." Not only is an approach that focuses on humanitarian aid and development less costly than the current support of the TFG, she says, a "Somalia left to itself is in many respects less threatening than a Somalia that is being buffeted by the winds of international ambitions to control the country."

You argue in the report that, in many ways, outside intervention, rather than its failed state status, is what has contributed to the rise of Islamic radicals in Somalia.

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We always have concerns about failed states because they’re in a power vacuum. In the case of Somalia, crimes like piracy have tended to pop up, but the assessment of U.S. intelligence [in a 2007 West Point report] was that Somalia was actually inoculated from foreign jihadist movements, from foreign terrorist groups. They based that assessment on extensive al-Qaeda correspondence intercepted during the 1990s. During the 1990s, al-Qaeda had attempted to work with a local group called Al-Ittihad to establish an emirate in Somalia, and they found themselves really roundly defeated by the clan system and the inhospitability of the environment. Al-Qaeda’s experience in Somalia was so terrible that U.S. intelligence basically said, "There’s no way they can operate there."

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Al Ittihad in the 1990s gained traction in the wake of the massive UN intervention to rebuild the country. That was of course the period in which Black Hawk Down took place. [Mark Bowden’s 1999 book about a battle between U.S. forces and local militia after an effort by the U.S. and the UN to capture a Somali warlord in Mogadishu.] Likewise, the Shabaab has risen up in a period of increased international activism in Somalia. The creation of the Shabaab itself can be traced to 2004, the year the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was created. It really sprang up as a counterreaction to international attempts to create some kind of a political regime in Somalia. The Shabaab grew from being a fairly fringe, radical movement, to becoming a popular insurgency in the wake of the Ethiopian invasion which destroyed the Union of Islamic Courts.

Where does the TFG draw its support from? What about Shabaab?

The people who support the TFG--even though we tend to think that they are Islamic moderates--in fact are people who have an economic interest in [President] Sheikh Sharif’s success, or in the success of one of the factions within the TFG. They are not necessarily supporting the TFG because they believe in a moderate form of Islam. The same is true of the Shabaab. There are lots of people who are opportunistically linked to the Shabaab, when really they couldn’t care less about Islam, or about al-Qaeda, or about jihad. They’re really in it for pragmatic reasons.

[T]he TFG and the Shabaab are both coalitions of fortune. They’re opportunistic alliances that are very fragile and very shifting. They can fall apart very quickly under the right conditions.

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It’s very important for the United States to start unpacking those reasons, as opposed to this idea that what’s happening in Somalia is an ideological conflict. Primarily it’s not. That’s something that’s developed very recently in the wake of international intervention, and it’s a device being played by all sides to stir up support from one international faction or another. The TFG talks about the threat of terrorism, because that’s key to the support it’s getting from the West. Likewise, there are factions within the Shabaab that try to exploit the possibility of cooperation with al-Qaeda to get arms and funding from the Middle East. It really is a political game.

What should the United States be doing differently if it acknowledges that the conflict is not ideological?

The sides the United States is trying to back and combat, the TFG and the Shabaab, are both coalitions of fortune. They’re opportunistic alliances that are very fragile and very shifting. They can fall apart very quickly under the right conditions. The United States needs to be looking at how they can foster the conditions that would speed the collapse, particularly of the Shabaab. It also needs to be less worried about the fate of the TFG. Both organizations are really not capable of sustaining a victory even if they were to win. One of the major points of the report is that it’s not worthwhile for the international community to back one horse over another, because ultimately whoever wins is not going to be able to keep the peace.

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It’s important for the United States to start looking really at the longer term, the big picture. Somalia is the world’s most catastrophically failed state. Nation building is an enormous project. It requires at a base that there’s been some level of reconciliation in the country; I mean real reconciliation between clan factions.

What kind of reconciliation, and how do you achieve it?

It’s got to be a grassroots reconciliation that takes place over many years. The United States has tried time and again in company with many other countries in the international community to hold reconciliation conferences where they bring the leaders of warring factions together--basically the warlord community. They try to get them into a room to make peace, but it always turns into a cake-cutting exercise. The kind of reconciliation that Somalia needs is not something that’s likely to be sponsored by the international community, it’s going to take place over the course of many years. And in my opinion, it’s likely to be based on economic necessity rather than an agreement that’s brokered in a conference room in Nairobi

Doesn’t this reconciliation process, which could take decades, leave the country prey to Shabaab and other groups?

The contention of U.S. officials, that if you abandon the TFG you open Somalia to extremist groups, is actually illogical. It’s a false assertion that’s based on a misreading of Somalia’s history and context. Somalia’s history shows very clearly that in the absence of international intervention, the country has been quite--"inoculated" is that word intelligence operatives use--against al-Qaeda.

Is there any kind of nation-building effort in Somalia that could work?

A state-building effort, if you want to do it properly, will require an enormous investment of U.S. resources. The general rule of thumb for the number of peacekeeping troops that would be required of a country of Somalia’s population [estimated by the United Nations in 2003 at 9,890,000] and its mix of permissive and non-permissive environments is approximately 100,000. It’s impossible to imagine the international community coming up with those kind of numbers for Somalia.

Think of the amount of money that’s been spent in Afghanistan. Somalia is worse off than Afghanistan. It has less government infrastructure; there’s less consensus on the ground about what government should look like. There’s a greater humanitarian crisis, and there’s probably a greater hostility to the West. So you are looking at a situation in which you would be pumping billions and billions of dollars a year into Somalia for over a decade. I don’t think there’s any lawmaker or intelligence operative who would say that the threat that Somalia poses merits that kind of an investment at this stage.

So really what you’re looking at is an alternative between the status quo and sort of just trying your best to let Somalia be. And trying your best to let Somalia be doesn’t mean that you give up on counterterror activities. I think that there’s been some recent incursions by the Obama administration, particularly the attack against Saleh Ali Nabhan [head of a Qaeda cell in Kenya responsible for the 2002 bombing of an Israeli hotel, who was killed in Somalia by American commandoes in September, 2009], which were very successful. U.S. operatives managed to go into Somalia, they killed Nabhan and a couple of his colleagues, and they didn’t kill any Somali civilians. And the Somali reaction to that was pretty much, "Oh." It barely caused a ripple.

So there are occasions when the United States can and should intervene militarily in Somalia?

The TFG talks about the threat of terrorism, because that’s key to the support it’s getting from the West. Likewise, there are factions within the Shabaab that try to exploit the possibility of cooperation with al-Qaeda to get arms and funding from the Middle East. It really is a political game.

The U.S. should feel entitled to use force against foreign operatives who are looking to exploit Somalia’s conflict. My sense is that the majority of Somalis would not object to that, as long as Somali civilians are not caught up in the crossfire. The Shabaab is broadly perceived by Somalis as a foreign movement promoting foreign goals, and I don’t think that many Somalis are going to have a very hard time accepting that some guy that’s come to Somalia bringing guns, disorder, and chaos is going to be wiped out by the United States

How can you advocate talking with Shabaab, yet also talk about taking action against them militarily?

You can’t really use the Shabaab as a broad category. There are people in the Shabaab who are pro-al-Qaeda who want to launch attacks against the United States, who are ideologically motivated. Those individuals are a threat to U.S. interests, and they need to be dealt with militarily. However, the vast majority of the Shabaab are thugs, and people who are opportunistically trying to make a fortune, a profit, in Somalia’s conflict. Those people need to be treated differently. The United States has made that recognition in Iraq; it’s made that recognition in Afghanistan, between people who are internationally oriented and people who are locally oriented. A major problem with U.S. policy in Somalia is that that sort of logical leap hasn’t been taken.

Describe the approach that you call in your report "constructive disengagement."

The constructive disengagement approach is grounded in the realization that Somalia’s internal conflict is entrenched, and that international efforts to step into it and try to pick political winners is to do more harm than good. It proposes that the best thing that the United States can do is to try to lay the groundwork for a future reconciliation effort. At bottom what that consists of is humanitarian relief and development assistance, using the local authorities that exist on the ground.

The report recommends that development and humanitarian assistance can be applied to help stabilize the conflict, and to allow Somalis to return to that trajectory that they were on in the pre-2006 period, where they were slowly working towards a grassroots national reconciliation. And that they need to re-achieve the circumstances that will allow them to continue on that path. If they do that, it’s likely that extremism in Somalia will dry out, or go dormant, as it has in the past. The United States can help that along with some very, very cautious counterterror activities, like the one that was aimed at Saleh Ali Nabhan. But, other than that, the goal of the international community should really be to leave Somalia to itself to sort out its own political conflicts.

Is there a concern in this scenario that humanitarian aid or development funds won’t reach the people they’re intended for?

That’s a risk in any environment, particularly in any post-conflict environment, and there are best practices that you can employ to try and minimize that. The situation is no harder in Somalia, except the security situation is a bit worse, but aid officials have that problem in the Congo, they have that problem in Afghanistan, they have that problem in Haiti. They have that problem anywhere. Basically anywhere that you have an aid project and guys with guns.

Who could the United States partner with in trying to foster an environment in which Somali reconciliation could happen?

This is the biggest challenge. The United States can’t go it alone in Somalia. Constructive disengagement can’t work if it’s only the United States that’s disengaging. There has to be something of an international consensus on the trajectory of the Somali conflict, about the causes and effects of the rise of extremism. There has to be an agreement about focusing on economic development. To that extent, the United States might have to invest some political capital in resolving this crisis--in persuading the African Union for example or the United Nations to support an approach that does not involve the TFG. The report has suggested it might be useful and necessary to make one final push, to try to reform the TFG into an institution that can credibly govern Somalia.

I tend to think that the TFG might have to run its course before the constructive disengagement strategy can work. But the fact of the matter is that the TFG’s prospects are so grim that I think it’s only a matter of time. AMISOM [African Union Mission in Somalia] troops haven’t been paid in nine months; several of them have died of malnutrition. The number of casualties that they are taking is sky rocketing. They can’t stay in Mogadishu forever. The Ethiopians were pushed out of Mogadishu; AMISOM will be pushed out as well. That’s an embarrassment that the U.S. really should want to avoid, and I’m urging the current administration to start thinking on those terms. The current strategy has an expiration date.


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