Saturday, December 30, 2006

Questions from a close friend

Following message from a distinguished diplomat and close friend reached me yesterday (my reply follows):

I confess that I have great difficulty understanding what is happening in Somalia. It is not self evident to me that restoration of the so-called official or recognized government is necessarily undesirable, although the downsides are clear enough: continuing long-term insurgency, a refugee mess in Kenya, uncertainty to say the least about the motivation and intentions of Meles Zenawi, further international opprobrium for the Bush Administration. But "victory" for the Islamists would result in miserable continuing problems for poor Somalia as well, would it not, and perhaps for the US also? Are the Islamists in fact patriots with any realistic hope of unifying the country?

What, practically, could diplomacy accomplish in these circumstances beyond a temporary pause in the bloodshed? USG encouragement of warlords and Ethiopian invaders is distasteful, but I am not sufficiently informed to evaluate the options.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dear ______,

. . . . None of us has a whole lot of trustworthy information about what's happened in the last few weeks. Still, the broad outlines are pretty clear and need to be aired and discussed among people who really care about the country and its future. The outcome just might be an improvement in understanding all around, not least of all among members of the press and policy makers in government. . . .

A few points in response to your questions:

-- There will be no "restoration of the so-called official or recognized government," whether desirable or undesirable, because it was never ousted or overthrown. Actually, it has been an extremely frail flower from the start, unable -- until now, at least -- even to agree on where to base itself, much less on how to govern the country. That's because it's a hodge-podge of contending, quarreling faction leaders, old-line politicians and warlords, deeply split among themselves over how and whether to relate to the Ethiopians, Kenyans, Saudis, etc. From their standpoint, the Islamist movement has served as a "common enemy" helping them overcome their differences, at least temporarily, but it remains to be seen how long they'll hang together if that enemy disappears.

-- It's worth noting that although the media are calling the TFG "internationally recognized" -- presumably because it's been allowed to occupy Somalia's seat at the U.N. -- no major state that I know of has in fact extended it formal recognition. Certainly the USG has not -- and probably won't as long as the issue of Somaliland's jealously held independence remains unresolved. (Ironic, isn't it, that we've been promoting and sponsoring a government we don't recognize while ignoring another Somali government that's pretty much put its house in order?)

-- A "long-term insurgency" by the Islamists seems unlikely to me right now, in part because so few Somalis are really religious zealots (I simply don't buy the notion that the Islamic Courts movement was captured or even very strongly influenced by the handful of radicals with alleged ties to al-Qaida who came to the fore after the mainline clerics gained power in Mogadishu). But a great deal depends on what happens next. A return to the feudal anarchy of nine months ago and a failure of the TFG to get its act together and impose order could very well result in rekindling the Islamist movement -- probably more radical than ever -- as an alternative to secularist bumbling. Somalis really want an end to anarchy.

-- Are the Islamists really "patriots with any realistic hope of unifying the country?" If the operative word is "realistic," probably not. But in the minds of many Somalis , they seemed to represent a significant step above and beyond eternal clan feuding, especially when they showed they could bring order and a semblance of tranquility to Mogadishu after fifteen years of bloody anarchy. Clan rivalries and enmities run deep, however, as we'll soon see when the TFG itself attempts to "unify" the country. I predict the road to unity will be a long one.

-- What can diplomacy do? Well, diplomacy literally created the TFG during more than a year of mediation and arm-twisting in Nairobi (with grudging support and encouragement from Washington, by the way). With a little more backing from the international community, the TFG might actually have got on its feet, had not the Islamic Courts lost patience with the politicians and taken matters into their own hands. Diplomacy will now have another chance, thanks (?) to the Ethiopian army, and Somalia's real friends should press hard now for amnesty, reconciliation, a withdrawal of foreign troops, full enforcement of the arms embargo, an increased physical U.N. presence, both political and humanitarian -- and, above all, an end to the fruitless search for al Qaida in the sands of Somalia.

-- The very worst thing the U.S. could do is take sides in the disputes that inevitably lie ahead, as Somalis try to sort things out. Funding and encouraging the despised villain warlords out of fear that Somalia could become a breeding ground for Muslim extremists was incredibly stupid and engendered enormous resentment toward the U.S. Any pressure on the TFG to round up the rebels or crack down on "insurgents" would be foolish and counterproductive. At a minimum, the U.S. should avoid meddling in Somalia's byzantine politics and clan feuds, resist giving advice on how to build democracy, keep its Special Forces troops off Somali soil, and give the Somalis themselves a chance -- two or three decades, at least -- to figure out how to put their country back together again.

All the best,


Irene - Italy said...

Dear Frank,
i happened to read your blog today, following the link from the BBC website. It was the best thing i've done today. I'm an Italian freelance journalist, who usually writes and follows African issues. In past weeks I had to struggle to have a space on Italian newspapers i'm working with and eventually lost the battle. Why? My point of view and analysis of Ethiopia's intervention and UIC's role in Somalia is not "in line" with the mainstream interpretation of my colleagues in the high rank of Italian journalism, who (to be kind) know very little about Africa. From the complete indifference towards Somalia's destiny editors-in-chief turned to an "armed" interest as soon as they realised that everything was about (again!) fighting islamic international terrorism. When I wrote last week, while Ethiopian MIGs were bombing Somalia, that the islamic terrorist connection was most probably a good excuse for Ethiopia to go unpunished and that UIC hadn't done that bad in Mogadishu and other areas they controlled for six months, I was "censored": the article I'd been asked to write was never published. That's why reading the answer to your diplomat friend made me feel better.
Thank you, Irene

Frank said...

I'm delighted to learn you happened across my Somalia blog. But I'm very disappointed that your perceptive analysis of the UIC's role in Somalia and Ethiopia's outrageous intervention against them had been "censored" in the Italian press. I'd have thought that the Italians, moreso than any other Westerners, would have a more balanced and thoughtful view of these developments, given Italy's historical involvement there. Wrong again, I guess.