Time for a new Somalia policy

Published: January 8, 2010

In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 21, 2009, Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, set a broad agenda for Afghanistan from which Senator Corker interpreted that Mullen was calling for “nation-building”.
Mullen was asked why the US was focusing on Afghanistan while al-Qaeda has spread its wings throughout the region, including Yemen and Somalia.
Mullen responded that Afghanistan is critical because that is where it all began.
History of failure
Mullen’s response played more to domestic political considerations on what the US public will support rather than strategic thinking about dealing with the problem at hand.
The unanswered question is what Washington can and should do in order to reduce the threats stemming from other stateless countries such as Somalia?
US policy toward Somalia has been a continual failure since 1978 when Zbigniew Brzezinski, the then US national security adviser, declared that the Cold War was being lost on the sands of the Ogaden desert when Soviet-supported troops were helping its ally Mengistu Haile Mariam, the president of Ethiopia, to defeat the Somali army that had captured the Ogaden region.
During President Bill Clinton’s era Operation Restore Hope was turned into the nightmare known today as Black Hawk Down.
Under George W. Bush outsourcing the ‘war on terror’ to warlords to assassinate al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia backfired – forcing the Islamists to unite under the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which brought order to the country but disorder to Washington’s counter-terrorism tactics.
The US also supported Somalia’s warlords by providing money, information and legitimacy even though the Somali government had pleaded with Washington for help.
President Abdullahi Yusuf’s government tried to secure financial and military assistance from the US in 2004 and 2005, although, interestingly, the Bush administration opted for the warlords, directly undermining the government.
Compounding the error, after the Somali Islamists defeated the warlords in 2006, the Bush administration supported the Ethiopian invasion in order to destroy the ICU and uphold a transitional Somali government.
Apparently, Washington was not aware that one of the few things that can unite Somalis is an effort to undermine Ethiopian dreams for regional domination.
A failed state
I believe that the US has an interest in doing better than this. The pay-off from reducing the threat of piracy off the coast of Somalia and defeating the uncompromising threat to both Western and Somali interests posed by Somalia’s extremist groups and the country’s statelessness would be great.
The US’ national security strategy during the Bush administration focused on fighting terrorism, which it defined as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents”.
According to this strategy, Washington considered failed states a threat to its security.
The rationale was clear. Since al-Qaeda used a failed state – Afghanistan – as a base and attacked Western interests, the US should treat all failed states, especially in the Muslim world, as a security threat.
Piracy and poverty
The Somali state’s failure has yielded other public problems. The upsurge in piracy and the increase in extremism that has drawn in foreign fighters are two examples.
In 2008, Somali pirates attacked 111 ships and hijacked 42 of those they attacked.
This led to significant increases in insurance rates for ships and products that travel through the Gulf of Aden.
Additionally, many countries sent war ships to patrol the area, thus affecting their military budget – there are currently about 23 ships in the area helping to protect the ships passing through.
Still worse for the local population is the fact that piracy affected the humanitarian aid and business goods reaching Somalia.
Foreign fighters
Moreover, the presence of non-Somali fighters in Somalia is becoming a glaring fact.
Abul-Yazeed, the leader of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, gave an interview to Al Jazeera in which he talked about the relationship between al-Qaeda and al-Shabab, one of Somalia’s radical Islamist groups.
He confirmed that the two groups had good relations although they are not united under one organisation and also mentioned that some of al-Qaeda leaders in the region, such as Abu-Dalha al-Sudani, were killed in Somalia while fighting Ethiopian forces.
Muqtar Robow, al-Shabab’s former spokesperson, and Ali Fidow, the group’s current spokesperson, have said that al-Shabab shares the same objectives and enemies as al-Qaeda.
Both sides are proud of their collaboration and openly talk about it.
Some al-Shabab leaders went to Afghanistan and fought there while al-Qaeda sent fighters to Somalia to help al-Shabab.
The time when most analysts misunderstood the relationship between al-Shabab and al-Qaeda has long passed.
Foreign abuses
The statelessness in Somalia has also made the country and its people vulnerable to foreign abuses.
European-based companies typically use Somalia as a dumping ground for toxic waste.
After the Tsunami hit the Indian Ocean in 2004, a mysterious disease killed many Somalis. Somalis named it “Kaduudiyow” – which is best translated as describing how a person shrinks.
There has also been widespread illegal fishing in Somali waters and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that 700 vessels fished illegally in Somali waters in 2005.
Somalia’s pirates take advantage of this fact to justify their piracy – calling themselves coastal guards and arguing that piracy began as a response to the abuses that foreign fishing companies committed against Somali fisheries.
Somalia’s misery, neighbours’ gain
All of this is being further complicated by the fact that Somalia’s neighbouring countries have exploited Somalia’s miseries for their own gain.
Both Ethiopia and Kenya have played a role in perpetuating the Somali conflict.
Ethiopia has been intimately involved in setting Somali clans against one another by arming clan warlords for the purpose of permanently making the Ogaden region its own and to allow it to rule Somalia indirectly through its proxy warlords.
Kenya benefits from the chaos in Somalia, despite the cost of housing refugees, through the presence of thousands of middle class Somali merchants.
Furthermore agents from international organisations, foreign embassies and NGOs operate from Kenya – filling up its hotels and making Nairobi the de facto capital of Somalia.
Somalia is also a landmark case when it comes to how a collapsed state environment can threaten civilian lives.
For the past 20 years, tens of thousands of Somalis have died because of the civil war and drought.
According to the Save the Children Foundation, one in every 10 school age children go to school.
Malnutrition is also rampant because the world has neglected Somalia since Black Hawk Down.
Misguided policies
Interestingly, even though the US national security strategy claims that failed states are a threat, Washington has supported the forces that have perpetuated statelessness in Somalia – that is Ethiopia – which has been meddling in Somali politics since Somalia became independent in 1960 – and the Somali warlords.
Moreover, Washington’s misguided policies toward Somalia have strengthened the forces it claims it is trying to defeat.
The Bush administration helped to destroy the ICU under the pretext that al-Shabab was part of the heterogeneous groups that expelled the warlords from Mogadishu. At this time, al-Shabab was a minority group within the ICU and did not even dare to openly reveal its programme.
Ironically, the Washington-supported Ethiopian invasion replaced the conditions that favoured moderates with conditions that favoured al-Shabab and other radical elements.
Interestingly, when he came to power, Barack Obama ordered inter-agency policy review in which he asked all of the agencies that worked on Somalia to revisit previous strategies.
The committee doing this review is expected to finalise their recommendations and policy guidelines within the next few months.
Now, with the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia, the accommodation of the moderate Islamists to the peace process and the government’s decision to adopt Sharia, those conditions that favoured the radicals have been reversed and the opportunity for defeating extremism has presented itself again.
So the Obama administration should capitalise on this, rectify previous bad policies and do all it can to support the establishment of a strong state in Somalia.
Dr. Afyare Abdi Elmi teaches international politics at the Qatar University’s International Affairs Department and is the author of a forthcoming book, Understanding the Conflagration of Somalia: Identity, Islam and Peacebuilding by Pluto Press.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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