"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


somalia: what now?

In the light of Sunday's horrific bombings in Kampala, it was only a matter of time before proposals for a U.S.-backed invasion and/or bombing of Somalia started popping up, along with less specific calls to do "more." A few thoughts on this:
  • If everything you know about Somalia you learned from Black Hawk Down, it's probably best that you stop providing commentary. You don't know the territory, you don't understand the political situation there, and it just makes you look ignorant to continue pontificating.
  • If you think Afghanistan is a quagmire, you ain't seen nothing yet. Somalia would make Afghanistan seem like a walk in the park on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.
The al-Shabab threat is real and it is very, very serious. More than seventy people lost their lives on Sunday, and it's likely that more will lose their lives in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and/or Burundi before this is over. Supporting the Somali government will not do much to mitigate the threat from al-Shabab. Let's be clear: Somalia's current, internationally-recognized federal government is a joke. It does not control its own capital city. It operated out of a hotel in Nairobi for several years. It would not exist were it not for the presence of foreign troops and substantial U.S. backing.

As G. Pascal Zachary notes, we are long past due for a reckoning on America's policy vis-a-vis Somalia. The insistence on the part of the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the White House that the best means for stabilizing the situation involves maintaining Somalia's fictional territorial integrity represents the same sort of thinking that got us into a mess there in 1993.

So what should happen with respect to U.S. policy in Somalia? A lot will depend on the decisions taken by the African Union at its summit in Entebbe next week. Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda have gone along with U.S. plans for the region in exchange for support, training, and materiel. Will they be willing to continue to do so in light of the fact that al-Shabab now has the capacity to threaten civilian lives in their own countries?

Finally, there is the question of Somaliland, the autonomous entity in northern Somalia that has all the attributes of statehood save the most important one: international recognition. Somaliland just held successful elections that will apparently result in a turnover of power from one party to another. It is a functioning state with a growing economy and a solid modicum of territorial control. It's long past time that the U.S. stopped dithering around in Mogadishu and worked with those who are actually capable of governing in the Horn.

Zachary advocates for the recognition of three "autonomous provinces" in the region. Puntland is probably not strong enough to govern outside of a few strongholds, but Somaliland most certainly is. Recognition would allow the U.S. to train Somaliland soldiers, and, more importantly, potentially provide a base for operations that is far more stable than the volatile border in Kenya.

Will doing so solve all the region's problems, particularly the threat from al-Shabab? Of course not. But it's high time we stopped kidding ourselves that the current m.o. will ever work. It won't.

In the days to come, look for Ken Menkhaus' thoughts on the current situation. Menkhaus is the smartest American academic working on Somalia today; I'm sure he'll have much to say.


Anonymous Ranil Dissanayake said...

I really don't know a thing about Somalia. Can you explain why exactly no-one wants to recognise Somaliland, despite the points you raise above (and Lee's point that they have 'bi-o-met-ric' passports, which seems pretty advanced, too).

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 6:21:00 AM

Blogger Bayless (Billy) Parsley said...

Hey Laura,

I don't think there is anyone out there who would disagree that the current policy in Somalia is not going to turn the place into a prosperous democracy, but I do disagree that there is somehow a better alternative out there.

The issues of recognizing Somaliland and combating al Shabaab are non-sequiter. Somaliland as a base of operations against al Shabaab wouldn't improve the ability of anti-jihadist forces to combat the group. A better question than than why the U.S. won't recognize Somaliland is why the African states themselves refuse to do so. Africa is a good ole boys network to the tee, and no leader there wants to open up the can of worms that recognizing such a separatist region would represent. For the U.S., with its bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, there really isn't that much about Somaliland that makes it care, at all, whether it remains in its current state or becomes more legitimate.

About these calls for a "new tack" in Somalia -- I just haven't seen any actual suggestions put forth that I could even make a judgment on whether or not they would be preferable. Labeling any strategy as "Bush era," of course, makes any argument unassailable. But what can Obama do? Okay, abandon support of the TFG. Then what? Ethiopia would simply re-invade the country if Mogadishu fell again, and we'd just continue this same dance over and over again.

Al Shabaab poses a serious threat within Somalia, and has now proven that it can also strike at targets beyond its borders. Kenya is probably shitting itself right now, and the Ethiopians are like "fuck, I KNEW this would happen at some point." But there will be no impetus for the U.S. to care (and I mean really and truly care from a national security perspective, not a humanitarian one) about Somalia until al Shabaab is seen as capable of hitting targets in Europe or CONUS.

The U.S. will not send any troops to Somalia under the current conditions (though I think the geography of the country would actually make an occupation easier than Afghanistan, but that is a moot point because both places would suck ass). Washington will also pray that the Ugandans and Burundians do not react to Kampala as Spain did to Madrid, because that will = the al Shabaab takeover of Mog, which will = an eventual invasion by Ethiopia.

Here is the sad reality about Somalia, as I see it: it is strategically not important enough to make the U.S. really care that much about its fate. If this were the days of American invincibility, maybe Washington would act more recklessly and start bombing the place. But we're not in that moment anymore, and a fight in Somalia is the last thing we want. The TFG option sucks, but it's just so ... convenient.

The sad part is that Somalia will continue to look exactly the same until this calculus changes.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 8:08:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Bayless, excellent points all around.

Ranil, Bayless pretty much explained why maintaining Somalia's territorial integrity is so important to policy makers - it's directly related to the 1963 OAU charter's requirement that the boundaries be respected as they were at independence.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 11:15:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow...self-important much? Your two points at the top of this post almost made me stop reading as they were asinine but I am glad I continued because after your self-gratifying little rant you went on to made a couple of important points. Also your comment regarding US involvement in Somalia making Afghanistan look like a Sunday walk in the park is similarly fatuous. If you believe that al-Shabab is any more of a dangerous foe to American forces as Al-Qaeda or the Taleban then you are making the same false assumption yourself that you are warning others not to make about Somalia. We are talking about organizations who prior to 8-9 years ago were capable of coordinating global acts of terrorism whose body count topped over 3000 in a single attack on US soil. If you are implying that a medium sized wing like al-Shabab is any more dangerous than that...or if you are somehow implying that the tribal/political control over Somalia is somehow more fractured or complex than Afghanistan was a few years ago/still is then it is you who sounds ignorant and you who has not done your homework. Somalia is a dangerous place indeed, but don't try to somehow sensationalize it by attempting to somehow downplay the complexity and dangers the US had to overcome and are still fighting today in the Middle East.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 11:47:00 AM

Blogger Save somalia said...

Your ignorance of the situation is seen by advocating for Somaliland as basion of peace. You should put underconsideration the fact that the founder of Alitihaad the mother of Al Shabaab is coordinating the affairs and the monitory requirements from Burao, somaliland. The sleeper cells for Shabaab are in Tugdheer region. Please reassess your recomendations and find the facts first do not listen to those who want to secede. Carving Somalia into small entities wont solve the problem. Holistic approach with genuine solutions for Somalis should act as starters. Remote control of the affairs and listening to those who want to advance their causes and leave the masses to vend for themseleves is the reason Shabaab are able to find supporters. The policy should be how to counter Alshabaab for sole of the masses.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 12:03:00 PM

Blogger Chris Waluk said...

Your post makes it sound like the US is some sort of puppet master for the ring of countries near Somalia. I tend to think these countries are calling their own shots and using the U.S. for help where they can.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 2:05:00 PM

Anonymous Said said...

I am a somalilander originally but work and live in North America.
If there is one country that sees Al-Shabab as the ultimate threat it is Somaliland. Some of you may have in-depth strong knowledge about the region's political and social issues and therefore may be allowed to comment. However, for those of you who don't have such credentials, I would advise you to save yourself from ridicule.

Without getting into a lenghty comment, I would say this.
We, in Somaliland, have decided to move on and establish the best democracy in Africa. We understand we find ourselves in a complicated situtation when it comes to securing a recognition. Almost all countries say that Somaliland deserves to be recognized and no single country wants to be the first. US and Europe can't wait for Somaliland to be a sovereign country, but they prefer the African-Union to be the first. African Union memebers (most of which are also favorable) are scared that they will attract huge problems to their own country (because of cross-border tribal settlements all over Africa). Apparently, they don't want to set a precedent. So, everybody is waiting for one country to start and the domino-effect will happen. But all these countries (US, Europe, Most African countries-Ethiopia being first) who wants Somaliland to be recognized are looking at the wrong direction and approach. Here is what African-Union members shall do about the issue of Somaliland, the problems of Somalia and the threat of Al-Shabab. Instead of wasting money, efforts and lifes of their own soliders to protect a weak useless government (but recognized---how ironic)in a country (ie.Somalia)that has become the base where every terrorist (mostly non-somali) come from every corner of the planet, African-Union shall encourage, advise and push this weak internationally-recognized somali government in Mogadishu to RECOGNIZE Somaliland first. In that case, the issue becomes entirely different from what African-Union is afraid of and perfectly aligned in the charters of the AU and UN.
Somaliland is the key to resolving the somalia problems. Somaliland has become expert in grass-root conflict resolution. They have done it in early and mid 90's and they will take that approach to somalis in mogadishu provided the International Community help us in keeping the non-somali terrorists out so that the somalis from Somaliland can help the somalis from Somalia rebuild with the proven techniques that we have mastered.
Until the above happens, I understand and support why Somaliland wants nothing to do with Somalia..We see ourselves as being two different countries. One is a growing peaceful democracy(though we had our share of tough times and we are a poor country) and the other is the new safe-haven for International Terrorism...but then again most outside world see the two as one and the Status Quo continues and Al-Shabab has vowed to come to Somaliland, then to Djibouti, then Ethiopia, now they went to Uganda, then God knows where. Can US and UK afford to sit and wait till they come in a neighberhood near you. 9/11, 7/7..no more.
Now you see why Al-Shabab is the ultimate threat for Somaliland. It is the beast next door. Lack of Recognition make us feel like the lamb that has been thrown into to the Lion's Cage. But Somaliland is determined to survive and stay on course.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 9:43:00 PM

Anonymous Fatima said...

I couldn't agree with you more Said.......

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 11:09:00 PM

Blogger Steffan said...

Thanks for this.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:19:00 PM


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