December 22, 2009

Turning Somalia's Tide

Sun Tzu says that defending lies with yourself and attacking lies with your enemy.

“Being unconquerable lies with yourself; being conquerable lies with your enemy. Thus one who excels in warfare is able to make himself unconquerable, but cannot necessarily cause the enemy to be conquered. Thus it is said a strategy for conquering the enemy can be known but yet not possible to implement.”

America should dwell deeply on his words. Just because someone is unconquerable doesn’t mean they can conquer all, and just because a strategy is known doesn’t mean it can be implemented. America has fallen for that trap numerous times.

US policy in Somalia is halting the bleeding of a fatal wound at best, completely failing at worst, because of Sun Tzu’s forecast. America has mainly attempted to open holes and create weaknesses instead of waiting for them to open.

Mixing Special-Ops, weapons shipments, and diplomatic cash to support Somalia’s transitional government and counter al-Shabab, the primary insurgent group, achieved deceptively poor results. Several al-Qaeda leaders have been killed, but the insurgency responded by gaining more territory. Piracy remains rampant.

The ghosts of Black Hawk Down, which conjure up anti-Americanism sentiments too strong to be tested, still obstruct US policy. Whether the alternative is billions in aid, US military/civil engineers, or combat troops, risk is always calculated as too high and too hazardous.

al-Shabab is, in effect, unconquerable, rendering any attempt to militarily destroy it futile. America couldn't implement the right strategy if one existed and Somalia is rightfully perceived as a death trap. Yet for all the reasons why a limited policy fails and US officials fear expansion, the tide may have finally turned on land.

“A civilian uprising against Al-Shabab seems to be under way,” reported IRIN, a news agency that specializes in humanitarian issues, last week. Correspondents covered street demonstrations in Mogadishu on December 7th, and in camps for the internally displaced (IDPs) on December 8th. On both occasions the group's black flag was burned.

Four days earlier a suicide bomber infamously detonated himself during a medical school's graduation ceremony, killing three Somali ministers and 23 people in total. Though al-Shabab denied responsibility and blamed the attack on foreigners, people might be tuning out for good.

Abdi Mahad, a civil society activist who organized an anti-Al-Shabab demonstration on 7 December, told IRIN the attack was, “a wake-up call for all. Up to that point, everybody assumed they were fighting foreigners and the government, but we realized on Thursday [3 December] that they are at war with us; it was the last straw.”

"They are killing our best and brightest,” he said. “They are the enemy.”

And just like that, bricks shook loose from al-Shabab’s wall without America firing a hellfire missile. No US attack could ever match the damage al-Shabab inflicted upon itself, no strategy could cause the enemy to be conquered. al-Shabab overreached - not knowing itself - thus allowing itself to become conquerable.

Naturally events must be allowed to play themselves out in order to let a trend to develop, or not. One observer at an al-Shabab protest wondered whether this is, “the beginning of the end for them [al-Shabab] or just a small hiccup.”

But he added, “if I was them I would really be worried. The people seem to be ready; it is now up to the government to show leadership and take the initiative.”

The same goes for America. If ever there were a time to re-engage Somalia in earnest, now is that time. Still going slowly, President Obama should put feelers on the ground to monitor US and al-Shabab public perception, maybe front a public poll. Watch for whether Somalis remain against al-Shabab, whether al-Shabab lies low and attempts to mend its image.

Watch for a noticeable improvement in American popularity and decrease in al-Shabab’s.

If the tide really is turning, America might be able to lift its platform in Somalia. Fear of being seen as occupiers inhibits the urge to speak out publicly and mobilize an international, militarily-humanitarian operation. If this perception reverses and turns al-Shabab into the outsider, America should be able to assume a more visible public position.

A true counterinsurgency/reconstruction plan could then be developed in partnership with Somalia and, ideally, Somaliland and Puntland.

Massive increases in US/international aid could begin to flow into the government, provided an accountable system be put in place from the start, which would be used to mobilize the entire population. Roads must be built, mosques restored, jobs developed, and all by local Somalis, not foreign contract laborers. US troops could be needed to secure surviving pockets of the insurgency.

All options are high-stakes, but Somalia has never seemed readier for foreigners, and because of al-Shabab’s mistake, not American supremacy. Cheaper, easier, riper - Sun Tzu remains a master of war.

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