In a brilliant piece of analysis, one of America's leading experts on Somalia, Professor Michael Weinstein of the University of Purdue, has spotlighted how clumsy the United States has been in conducting its "war on terror" in that country and how damaging it has been to Somalis' own efforts to patch their country back together. Far from achieving its goal of defeating "radical Islamists" by supporting Ethiopia's brutal invasion and occupation of the country, the U.S. has built a fire under radicalism, greatly complicated the task of political reconciliation, and produced a groundswell of anti-American feeling. Meanwhile, worthy U.S. attempts to help alleviate the awful humanitarian crisis gripping the country have been hamstrung by the political chaos and social fragmentation that the invasion and its consequences have caused. The chief losers, of course, are the million or so Somalis who have fled their homes in the face of the fighting and are now huddled hopelessly in refugee camps.
As Prof. Weinstein makes clear, Somalia's plight is one that the "world's only superpower" seems incapable of alleviating, and its meddling has only made matters worse. "Washington has placed itself in the role of a negligent [prison] warden depending on abusive guards," says Professor Weinstein, referring to the Ethiopian troops and the feeble Transitional Government they are propping up. "It is not a pretty picture and it will not change until Somalis are released from captivity."
Professor of Political Science, Purdue University
What is Washington's policy towards Somalia? That question is difficult to answer, because there might not be a policy at all, but an incoherent set of tendencies instead. Disaster is a harsh, if not extreme word; it is used here analytically and with regard for precision. What else do we call the results when an actor with significant influence over events ends up not only failing to achieve its objectives, but with an outcome that approximates its worst-case scenario?
Washington, of course, does have an official policy for Somalia. Stung by criticism that it was solely focussed on anti-terrorism, the U.S. State Department issued a "Fact Sheet" in mid-March — coincident with its placing of the al-Shabaab jihadists on its list of foreign terrorist organizations — in which Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer insisted that fighting terrorism was not Washington's sole priority, but was part of a "comprehensive strategy" to reverse radicalization, encourage dialogue between Somalia's contending political forces, and improve governance, rule of law, democracy, human rights, and the country's economy. An essential component of the strategy, she concluded, is to "isolate" those who "refuse dialogue and insist on violence."
If those are, indeed, Washington's aims, rather than anti-terrorism packaged in pious platitudes, there could be no greater distance between aspiration and reality. Radicalization is on the rise in Somalia, with the primarily Islamist armed opposition seizing towns throughout the country for the first time since the Ethiopian occupation began at the end of 2006. There is no "governance" on a national level; power has devolved to regions and localities that are often split by competing factions. There is no functioning court system and Somalia's high court is inoperative. There has been no progress toward democracy; the transitional parliament has not begun work on a constitution that is essential if, as projected, elections are to be held in 2009 — indeed, the parliament has not acted at all since it approved the cabinet list of Somalia's new prime minister, Nur "Adde" Hassan Hussein, prompting its speaker, Adan Madobe, to threaten to resign. Human-rights organizations and journalists document human-rights abuses committed by Ethiopian and government forces on a regular basis.
Somalia's economy is declining, plagued by drought, hyper-inflation, internal displacement, continued impairment of commerce, and violent conflict. Dialogue between the transitional government and its political oppositions has failed to get off the ground, because the oppositions demand that Ethiopian occupation forces withdraw from Somalia before they enter negotiations, and the militant jihadis forswear discussions altogether. Far from being isolated, the militants of al-Shabaab collaborate with the other oppositions militarily against the occupiers, although they have not gained widespread support for their program of an Islamic state based on Shari'a law.
There are a number of possible reasons why such a yawning gap between rhetoric and reality has opened up. Perhaps Washington is serious about its professed goals and dedicated to achieving them, but the situation in Somalia is simply too intractable to allow for success. If so, far from being the world's only "super-power," the United States is powerless to begin to have its way, even in a poor and vulnerable country. Perhaps Washington could do more, but Somalia is low on its list of priorities and it is unwilling to expend the necessary resources. If so, then its goals are simply rhetorical and it has decided to live with its worst-case scenario. Perhaps Washington is cynical and has other goals than the ones that it proclaims officially. If so, what are those goals?
- Anti-terrorism stripped out of its comprehensive cocoon is surely one of them.
- Or is Washington also eager to protect the interests of its ally in Addis Ababa?
- Perhaps, finally, Washington is confused and ambivalent, and has no coherent policy, rendering its action and inaction ineffectual and self-defeating. If so, it is not a credible actor that can be trusted by the other players.
Except for the first possibility — that Washington is doing everything that it could do for Somalia (which was only posed to show its absurdity) — the others are in some measure compatible. Somalia is low on Washington's agenda, given a looming recession at home, panicky financial markets, entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan, a reported resurgence of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, nuclear issues with Iran and North Korea, the rise of left populism in Latin America and efforts to mediate the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Washington is also probably disingenuous about its "comprehensive" strategy, and is placing its major emphasis on anti-terrorism and is unwilling to discipline Ethiopia, which prefers a divided Somalia to a unified one that would not be its satellite.
Most of all, however, Washington is confused and ambivalent; it does not know what to do with a catastrophe that it has in great part created and for which it refuses to bear any responsibility.
The root of Washington's failure to act constructively in Somalia and, instead, to undermine its own proclaimed interests and the interests of the Somali people is a tension between a focus on anti-terrorism and a supposed commitment to nation building, which encapsulates its other official goals. Curbing terrorism and nurturing stable institutions are not, in principle, contradictory aims, but they have become increasingly so in the particular circumstances of contemporary Somalia.
From the moment that Washington gave its blessings to and assisted the Ethiopian invasion and occupation of Somalia in the name of anti-terrorism, it both excluded itself from being a partner in nation building and insured that it would create the very "terrorist" movement that it was pledged to prevent. That judgment is not made from hindsight, but was expressed by a host of political leaders, journalists, analysts and Somali intellectuals from the outset, including the present writer. It was obvious that using an occupation force from a rival state to prop up a weak and divided transitional government that lacked legitimacy would cause Somalia to fragment politically and would spawn a liberation movement with an Islamic revolutionary component — just as happened in Iraq after the United States invaded and occupied that country.
By backing Addis Ababa, Washington could not play the role of honest broker and has since then simply dithered, allowing a catastrophe to unfold under the watchful eyes of the surveillance aircraft that it constantly flies over Somalia, one of which crashed at the end of March, documenting the practice conclusively. (The plane went down in the Lower Shabelle region, where Ethiopian forces were conducting search operations for "terrorist bases" — they failed to find any.)
A grim scenario of ineptitude and confusion. A brief sketch of Washington's reported actions during March shows a scenario, which — were it not so grim — could pass for a comedy of blunders:
- At the beginning of March, U.S. forces fired a missile into a house in the town of Dhobley in the Lower Jubba region targeting one or more "terrorists." According to different reports, three women were killed and/or injured in the attack, along with livestock, but no terrorists were hit. U.S. Defense Department spokesman, Bryan Whitman, announced: "As we have repeatedly said, we will continue to pursue terrorist activities and their operations wherever we may find them." Opposition spokesman Sheikh Mukhtar Robow replied: "Americans bombed the town and hit civilians thinking that they were Islamist hideouts." Even United Nations Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, who normally follows Washington's lead, criticized the raid, saying that it might lead to an escalation of hostilities.
- In mid-March, Washington placed the national-liberation and Islamic revolutionary al-Shabaab movement on its list of foreign terrorist organizations, allowing the U.S. to freeze the assets of any individual or group supporting the jihadists. Analysts agreed that the designation would have no material effect, because al-Shabaab receives little, if any, backing from U.S. citizens; but that — as Steve Bloomfield of the British newspaper The Independent put it — it will "derail any hope of a negotiated solution." Robow responded to the terrorist listing by welcoming it and warned: "We were not terrorists. But now [that] we've been designated, we have been forced to speak out and unite with any Muslims on the list against the United States." Frazer was reduced to saying that many Somalis with a "nationalist agenda" are "not aware of how strong the al-Shabaab links with al-Qaeda are." Her remarks were nuanced by former diplomat and now professor, David Shinn, who characterized al- Shabaab to Voice of America as "the point of the spear," but not the whole insurgency, adding that some of its members have ties to al-Qaeda, but "certainly not all of them." Shinn concluded: "But there's just enough of a connection there ... that I think this was the element that caused the United States to put al-Shabaab on this list."
- Towards the end of March, Washington's ambassador to the U.N., Zalmy Khalilzad, announced that it was too early to contemplate sending a U.N. peacekeeping force into Somalia to replace the under-staffed and ill-equipped African Union mission, and to allow for an Ethiopian withdrawal. Rumors flew that Washington was negotiating on peace talks with the political opposition, the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, in Nairobi. Rumors also flew that the State Department had sent a team to assess an airstrip in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland for possible military use, and that Frazer was working to persuade African states to recognize Somaliland's independence. Somaliland's president, Dahir Riyale Kahin, was quoted as saying: "If the U.S. wishes to have a presence in Somaliland, we will welcome them and accept them."
All of the events of March betoken ineptitude and confusion. Far from isolating the "terrorists," Washington succeeded in increasing their prestige and damaging its own credibility. If, indeed, Washington is making overtures to Somaliland, following earlier official diplomatic exchanges, it is undermining the transitional institutions, which are based on the principle of a unified post-colonial Somalia, and alienating Somali nationalists. Washington might also be giving false hope to Somaliland, but, then again, it might genuinely be changing its strategy. Without taking sides for or against Somaliland's international recognition, it is clear that Washington's current equivocations are a sign of a dangerous indecisiveness. As for negotiating with the opposition, Washington is unlikely to make any headway as long as it fails to come up with a commitment to Ethiopian withdrawal. A U.S. journalist who – for good reason – must remain anonymous, has told this writer that State Department officials complain that they talk to opposition leaders who make encouraging promises and then fail to follow through. That would only make sense in light of Washington's ambivalent disposition.
It becomes increasingly apparent that Washington's blunder was to bless the Ethiopian occupation and to fail to negotiate seriously with the Islamic Courts movement when it controlled most of south-central Somalia. Disaster in Somalia and for U.S. interests in stabilizing the Horn of Africa proceeds from continuing to back the occupation, which has been brutal and unpopular. If Washington is to salvage anything from this disaster, it must arrange for an Ethiopian withdrawal, whether or not Addis Ababa's forces are replaced by an adequate international security force, and it must stop its own meddling in Somalia's conflicts. Its concentration should be on helping in the provision of humanitarian aid, and it should give Somalis breathing space to work through their incredibly complex web of conflicts.
Are Washington and the Western powers that have fallen into following its lead capable of resolving those conflicts or are they inhibiting conflict resolution by their interference? Can they really contribute to solving the question of Somaliland's status? Do they have a coherent position on what is to become of Puntland? Are they willing to give Nur "Adde" the material and diplomatic support that he needs to achieve the "open reconciliation" that they have insisted that he pursue? Do they have a plan for what should happen if the transitional institutions fail to write a constitution, as will likely be the case, voiding the possibility of elections in 2009? Will they arrange yet another conference to create yet another transitional government? Do they have any power or will to aid in overcoming Somalia's severe regional and local fragmentation? Can they curb al-Shabaab by "isolating" it?
Simply to pose those questions shows how little power the external actors have as long as they treat Somalis as wards of the "international community." Washington has placed itself in the role of a negligent warden depending on abusive guards. It is not a pretty picture and it will not change until Somalis are released from captivity.
In mid-March, Shinn appeared before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he remarked that in the absence of a "national unity" government in Somalia, an Ethiopian withdrawal "would result in even more chaos in Mogadishu than exists now." Can we be sure of that? How much more "chaos" can there be? If the jihadis are to be "isolated," might that not be more likely to happen if they cannot march under the banner of national liberation? How much worse could the humanitarian catastrophe become if a brutal occupation that has been instrumental in causing it is removed? Somalia has already returned to its pre-Courts condition of devolution, but now it is also under an occupation that has sparked an insurgency with an Islamic revolutionary component; would it really be more chaotic if the occupation was removed?
If Somalis were given some breathing space, they might at least find out the relative strength of the political forces in their fractured society and then they might be able to settle on the structure of a political community or several political communities. It is unlikely that al-Shabaab would come out on top in such a process.
It is also unlikely that external actors will give Somalis breathing space. They are addicted to trying to exert control half-heartedly; they are guilty of gross negligence, especially so the "world's only super-power," which plays the part of the proverbial "gang that can't shoot straight." Read more!