from Center for Preventive Action

United States Should Pursue New Approach to Somalia, Argues CFR Report

March 10, 2010

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As the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) prepares to launch a major offensive against the Islamist opposition group, the Shabaab, a new Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Special Report warns that the "odds of the TFG emerging as an effective body are extremely poor." The author of the report, Bronwyn Bruton, a 2008-2009 CFR international affairs fellow, asserts that current U.S. policy, which provides limited, indirect diplomatic and military support to the weak TFG, has only "served to isolate the government, propel cooperation among previously fractured and quarrelsome extremist groups." The report calls on the United States to make a final attempt to help the Somali government build public support by drawing in leaders of the principal Islamist groups, but urges the Obama administration to consider policy options should the TFG fail or continue to be marginalized to the point of powerlessness.

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The report, Somalia: A New Approach, provides a recent political history of Somalia, which "has been a failed state for the better part of two decades; bereft of central government, cantonized into clan fiefdoms, and wracked by deadly spasms of violence." Repeated attempts by the international community to establish a viable national government have failed. The creation of the UN-brokered TFG in 2004 "produced a violent counterreaction in Mogadishu, where a radical youth militia group--the Shabaab--developed and began assassinating TFG members and supporters." Because it is perceived to be a foreign-controlled authority, the Somali government has never gained legitimacy among the local population and is unable to improve security, provide basic services, or move toward an agreement with clans and opposition forces that would provide a stronger basis for governance.

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Bruton analyzes U.S. interests in Somalia, including piracy, humanitarian issues, and broader regional stability, and identifies terrorism as the principal threat since 9/11. She argues that "to date, however, there is no clear evidence of Somalia being used by al-Qaeda or other transnational terrorist groups as an operational platform to carry out attacks beyond its borders. And while the Shabaab has expressed a rhetorical commitment to al-Qaeda and has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, there is little to indicate that the group shares al-Qaeda’s larger transnational goals."

Bruton maintains that the current U.S. approach is counterproductive, alienating large parts of the Somali population and polarizing its diverse Muslim community. "The Shabaab is an alliance of convenience and its hold over territory is weaker than it appears. Somali fundamentalists--whose ambitions are mostly local--are likely to break ranks with al-Qaeda and other foreign operatives as the utility of cooperation diminishes. The United States and its allies must encourage these fissures to expand."

The report, sponsored by CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, says that "U.S. policy options for Somalia are typically reduced to three alternative courses of action: continuation of current policy, increased military intervention for stabilization and reconstruction, and an offshore counterterrorist containment strategy." It concludes that each of these choices suffers from serious shortcomings, and calls for "constructive disengagement," a policy in which the United States would "disengage from any effort to pick a winner in Somalia." The administration should "signal a willingness to coexist with any Islamist group or government that emerges, as long as it refrains from acts of regional aggression, rejects global jihadi ambitions, and agrees to tolerate the efforts of Western humanitarian relief agencies in Somalia."

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Specific recommendations for the United States and the international community include:

- Adopt a population-centered approach to counterterror strategy: "Future operations in Somalia must be conducted with extreme care to avoid the civilian casualties that undermine other political and development objectives."

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- Encourage disaggregation of radical movements by adopting a position of neutrality: "The United States should indicate strong support for a UN or African Union dialogue with any member of the armed Islamist opposition that is willing to talk... U.S. officials must assume an inclusive posture toward local fundamentalists yet indicate a zero-tolerance policy toward transnational actors attempting to exploit Somalia’s conflict."

- Pursue development without regard to governance: "Until there is meaningful political reconciliation between the clans, attempts to construct governance arrangements will be a recipe for conflict...New development initiatives should be pursued in a decentralized fashion that involves collaboration with the informal and traditional authorities that are already in place on the ground." This approach has "the potential to rapidly separate pragmatic, locally-oriented fundamentalists from their international jihadi counterparts."

- Increase diplomatic efforts to engage regional and international partners: "The United States does not want to own the Somali crisis, and it must lead a robust diplomatic effort to harness European and Middle Eastern assistance to support stabilization of the conflict and to address Somalia’s extensive humanitarian and development needs." Cooperation with Middle Eastern partners would also help to combat the perception of U.S. hostility to Islam.

- Restrain Ethiopia: During the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia from 2006-2009, "Mogadishu was reduced to a level of human suffering, violence, and disorder unknown since the civil war." The potential escalation of the long-standing conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea also poses the greatest risk to broader regional stability. Washington should be prepared to dissuade Ethiopia from reinvading Somalia should the Shabaab capture Mogadishu. As anti-U.S. sentiment in the region is linked to the perception of U.S. complicity with Ethiopian human rights abuses, the United States should also urge the Ethiopian government to cease such abuses, implement democratic reforms, and resolve its border dispute with Eritrea.

- Resist politicizing the piracy problem: The emergence of strong pirate networks in the central and northeast regions of Somalia has become a significant threat to the international shipping industry, and potentially to local stability, but Bruton advises against "overwhelming use of force, such as the bombing of pirate strongholds in Hobyuo, Haraardheere, or Eyl," warning that it "could politicize the piracy issues, which would likely increase public tolerance of pirate activities."

Bruton concludes that "a strategy of constructive disengagement entails risk, but the alternatives are far more dangerous. Unless there is a decisive change in U.S., UN, and regional policy, ineffective external meddling threatens to prolong and worsen the conflict, further radicalize the population, and increase the odds that al-Qaeda and other extremist groups will eventually find a safe haven in Somalia."

For the full text of the report, visit:

Bronwyn Bruton is a democracy and governance specialist with extensive experience in Africa. She was a 2008-2009 CFR international affairs fellow. Bruton was born in Swaziland and spent most of her childhood in Botswana. Prior to her fellowship appointment, she spent three years at the National Endowment for Democracy, where she managed a $7-million portfolio of grants to local and international nongovernmental organizations in east and southern Africa (priority countries included Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Sudan). Bruton has also served as a program manager on the Africa team of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives, as a policy analyst on the international affairs and trade team of the Government Accountability Office, and as a program officer at the Center for International Private Enterprise. She holds an MPP from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.

CFR’s Center for Preventive Action (CPA) seeks to help prevent, defuse, or resolve deadly conflicts around the world and to expand the body of knowledge on conflict prevention.


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