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Somalia’s Forgotten Crisis

Should the United States change its policies in the Horn of Africa to avoid further humanitarian crises?

February 27, 2008

Should the United States change its policies in the Horn of Africa to avoid further humanitarian crises?

Although Somalia has been nudged out of the global spotlight, the ongoing political turmoil there may well shape the fate of the world.

The ongoing humanitarian emergency there has served as an inauspicious beginning to the new direction of United States-led counter-terrorism policy in Africa.

With intense fighting in Mogadishu and over one million Somalis displaced and in dire need of emergency assistance, the situation is reminiscent of the worst years of the Somali civil war.

While local politics and regional power struggles drive the conflict, the current political quagmire in Somalia is also part of a larger story of failed counter-terrorism policies — and the United States government’s renewed strategic interest in Africa.

Somalia’s situation of state-collapse became a national security concern for the United States when suspects from the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi used Somalia as a staging area.

Since then, the United States has cooperated with local partners in Somalia to assist in counter-terrorism operations.

However, using warlords to outsource their terrorist bounty hunting had its drawbacks.

The shaky alliance of Mogadishu warlords and businessmen that the United States assisted in early 2006 — not-so-subtly named the Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism — used United States’ support to further their own parochial agendas.

The popular backlash against the abuse of ‘counter-terrorism’ to eliminate rivals led to the success and support of the Council of Islamic Courts later that year.

While the Islamic Courts brought a degree of order and stability not seen in Mogadishu for decades, the more radical Islamic elements within the Courts made the international community, particularly the United States — and regional ally Ethiopia — wary.

The militant wing of the Courts, the Shabab (Arabic for ‘youth’) began to dominate decision making, and in poorly calculated brinksmanship diplomacy, brought the Council of Islamic Courts to war with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and their Ethiopian allies.

In late December, 2006 — after a rapid advance from their stronghold in Baidao — the TFG, heavily supported by Ethiopian tanks and air support, easily smashed through thousands of newly recruited fighters loyal to the Islamic Courts and installed themselves in Mogadishu.

To Western observers unnerved by the Islamic credentials of the Courts, the triumph of the internationally recognized administration was hoped to be the beginning of a new era for Somalia.

But, in a painfully predictable turn of events, the TFG — with its narrow clan interests, divisive leadership, and unpopular Ethiopian allies — soon faced a violent insurgency.

A year after their ‘triumph’, the TFG is still fighting to control Mogadishu. The Shabab and other hardliners, whose power waned after their defeat in early 2007, are now re-empowered by their lead role in the insurgency.

The heavy-handed tactics of the Ethiopians and the intransigence of the TFG in maintaining a narrow set of interests in their leadership have driven mainstream Hawiye clan leaders — the dominant clan in Mogadishu — into the insurgency as well.

In September of 2007, opposition leaders met in Eritrea to recommit themselves to combating the TFG and the presence of Ethiopian troops.

Meanwhile, checkpoints staffed by predatory clan militias, eliminated under the Courts regime, reappeared throughout Mogadishu and surrounding areas. Nearly daily clashes between government troops and insurgents have caused huge segments of the city’s population to flee their homes.

The humanitarian situation is dire, but due to difficulties and violence from both the TFG and the opposition, most international relief organizations have pulled out their non-Somali staff.

In many ways, the United States repeated their mistake with the ARPCT by unswervingly supporting the TFG and their Ethiopian allies.

By viewing a complex conflict through the narrow lens of counter-terrorism, they threw their weight behind Ethiopia — a regional power with a questionable human rights record — and the TFG — a weak administration representing a narrow cabal of clan interests seeking to impose on a “victor’s peace” on their rivals in Mogadishu.

The role of the United States in this conflict cannot be ignored. In addition to giving diplomatic, economic, and military support to Ethiopia, United States warplanes bombed terror suspects while Ethiopian tanks rumbled into Mogadishu in late 2006 and early 2007.

Considering the real progress towards stability made by the Islamic Courts, and the deep unpopularity of the TFG and their Ethiopian muscle, many in the Muslim world have interpreted United States involvement as a knee-jerk response against Islam.

The negative effect on the image of the United States in the Muslim world far outweighs the benefit from apprehending or killing a handful of terror suspects — and makes Americans less safe at home and abroad.

The Department of Defense now sees Africa as the newest front in the war on terror. This new strategic appreciation of Africa has led to the creation of the Africa Command (AFRICOM), uniting formerly dispersed command units dealing with Africa.

Many commentators, both within the United States and abroad, are wary of this new military approach to Africa’s troubles, despite AFRICOM’s broader mandate to apply ‘soft-power’ to preempt conflicts, i.e. promoting development and good governance.

But if AFRICOM is to have success in future counter-terrorism endeavors in Africa, it must learn from the recent mistakes in Somalia.

Exclusively applying military solutions to regions where poor governance and a lack of economic opportunities are the real security threat is a recipe for disaster.

Additionally, when counter-terrorism is the sole objective informing United States security policy, financial and military support is easily redirected to suit the political aspirations of local partners.

In Somalia, the United States sees itself supporting a legitimate government against an extremist-led insurgency.

However, many Somalis see the United States supporting the Darood clan, the dominant power behind the TFG, against the Hawiye clan of Mogadishu.

But there are signs that AFRICOM ‘gets it’. The Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership, meant to counter the growing threat of terrorism in floundering West African nations like Chad and Mauritania, acknowledges the role that poverty and poor governance have on fostering radical ideologies.

It is also an example of inter-agency cooperation between aid agencies and the military. If the deep pockets of the DOD can be redirected to improving governance and augmenting economic opportunities in unstable nations, AFRICOM may yet play a positive role in Africa.

But this can only happen if AFRICOM realizes that long-term investments in Africa’s stability are more valuable than short-term gains in the war on terror.

In Somalia, counter-terrorism would be better served by making international support for the TFG contingent on its efforts to create an inclusive administration.

If the TFG wants to move forward, they must convince Hawiye clan leaders that their interests are better served in supporting the government and kicking out the hardliners than by continuing their destructive insurgency campaign.

If the United States continues to blindly support the TFG and their Ethiopian allies in order for short-term counter-terrorism gains, it will be at the expense of long-term stability in Somalia.

Unless the United States veers away from its single-minded quest to root out terrorism, it runs the risk of sowing the seeds of radical Islamic activity in the Horn of Africa for decades to come.

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Takeaways

AFRICOM can play a positive role in Africa only if it realizes that long-term investments in Africa's stability are more valuable than short-term gains in the war on terror.

With intense fighting in Mogadishu and over one million Somalis displaced and in dire need of emergency assistance, the situation is reminiscent of the worst years of the Somali civil war.

Counter-terrorism would be better served by making international support for the TFG contingent on its efforts to create an inclusive administration.

Unless the United States veers away from its single-minded quest to root out terrorism, it runs the risk of sowing the seeds of radical Islamic activity in the Horn of Africa for decades to come.

Nearly daily clashes between government troops and insurgents have caused huge segments of the city's population to flee their homes.