Among the most challenging predictions, if not the holy grail of COIN, is when a government or insurgency reaches the point of true collapse. Either can die and be revived by a foreign influence. Often their “end” never occurred in the first place. Some insurgencies are so mixed up that the state appears dead, and yet continues to live.
The US Joint Forces Command’s Operating Environment 2010, which repeatedly but superficially addresses insurgencies, briefly highlights this last phenomenon.
“There is one dynamic in the literature of weak and failing states that has received relatively little attention, namely the phenomenon of ‘rapid collapse.’ For the most part, weak and failing states represent chronic, long-term problems that allow for management over sustained periods. The collapse of a state usually comes as a surprise, has a rapid onset, and poses acute problems.”
The JOE 10 then directs its attention away from rapid collapse, at least in its civilian copy, forcing us towards other sources. As luck would have it RAND cites the venture of predicting rapid collapse in its study, How Insurgencies End.
One of RAND’s main conclusions, after amply referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: governments generally prevail as time passes, “contrary to conventional wisdom,” but a state’s collapse is also quicker than an insurgency’s.
“Insurgents lose slowly; as their effectiveness declines, it does so at a decreasing rate,” reads the report. “Governments, on the other hand, lose more quickly; the end comes with a dramatic thud as the state collapses on its own disintegrating foundation.”
This is the “rapid collapse” theory the JOE speaks of and it certainly demands more attention. That’s our job.
If questioned a week ago, without knowledge of yesterday, which failing state is closest to an absolute breaking point, Somalia would have been my answer. But yesterday waved a huge red flag yet to be flown: Unpaid Somali soldiers desert to insurgency. And in RAND’s study desertions, defections, and infiltration are key indicators to a collapse on either side.
“The rates at which these phenomena occur, as well as changes in these rates, often indicate significant trends and, occasionally, tipping points.”
According to the Associated Press, “Hundreds of Somali soldiers trained with U.S. tax dollars have deserted because they are not being paid their $100 monthly wage, and some have even joined the al-Qaida-linked militants they are supposed to be fighting.”
About half of the 1,000 French-trained recruits being paid on an unfulfilled $2 million have deserted, said Somali army Col. Ahmed Aden Dhayow. "Some gave up the army and returned to their ordinary life and others joined the rebels.”
Somalia's state minister for defense, Yusuf Mohamed Siyad, wouldn’t reveal a number but confirmed some trainees had joined al-Shabab. He said guarantees should have been given before programs begin.
"If this is not done, then we shouldn't even start. Otherwise the soldiers will just join the opposition.”
The need for urgent examination and preparation for a toppled Somali government doesn’t appear to be an overreaction in light of the AP’s discovery. Though al-Shabab is turning off Somalis with its excessive violence, the Somali government already suffers from multiple signs of collapse including brain drain and uncoordinated foreign support.
Al-Shabab’s monolithic nature matched against such a weak government allows it to expand relatively unchecked.
Military speaking Somalia is looking worse than ever as al-Shabab continues to seize towns and territory, even putting pirates in their sights. The government’s counter offensive in Mogadishu, where it now controls only a few blocks, stalled without the necessary manpower and equipment.
America must have realized that no amount of Special Forces could tip the scale, as it's already looking ahead.
The AP reports, “The desertions raise fears that a new U.S.-backed effort beginning next month to build up Somalia's army may only increase the ranks of the insurgency.”
“How can observers and practitioners detect whether the conflict’s end game is under way?” asks RAND. “As the end approaches, people ‘vote with their feet’ in hurried attempts to avoid being on the wrong side of the struggle as it draws to a close, thus creating a ‘negative bandwagon’ effect.”
Ultimately the effects of these “deserters” will be decided by who exactly they are. The JOE and RAND are certainly right about the lack of attention and understanding of rapid collapse. It’s staring us right in the face: Unpaid Somali soldiers desert to insurgency. A grammatical impossibility, soldiers cannot “desert” to anything.
RAND writes, “In analyzing the trends associated with defection and desertion rates in particular, it is important not to confuse definitions... If deserters do not also defect to the other side, this may indicate disillusionment with both sides.”
RAND points out the obvious that, “officer desertions may have greater value than foot-soldier desertions. It cautions, “Simple desertions should not necessarily be taken as a significant indicator of success for one side or the other.”
This doesn’t seem to be the case in Somalia, at least not yet. But an alternative could be just as deadly to the government: what if those fighters defecting to al-Shabab were the same meant to fight it in Mogadishu?
We do know that Somali troops sound bluer than al-Shabab’s.
“During a recent AP visit, dejected-looking soldiers sat under dust-covered thorn trees at the government's main military base, Camp Jazira, which lacks toilets, a clinic or even a perimeter fence. They had not been paid, some for months, they said, adding that their wages were intercepted by senior officials.”
Considering that these men are supposed to counter al-Shabab - one of the most dangerous jobs in the world - for peanuts, it’s possible that they’re switching to the perceived “right side.” If this trend continues it could actually become the straw that breaks the TFG, paving the way for al-Shabab rule or another weak government entity.
Three years ago this outcome wouldn’t be so big a problem for America and the West. Until relatively recently al-Shabab was issuing national rather than transnational goals, a stance that chafed with al-Qaeda. But US operations inside and outside Somalia drove them to merge.
The door has been opened for the nightmare scenario: an attack on US soil, planned by al-Qaeda in the al-Shabab ruled deserts of southern Somalia.
To get a fresh taste of plausibility, al-Shabab just attempted a not-so-successful suicide attack on an African Union base in Mogadishu. Dubious as the claim may be, al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Rage said the attack was in retaliation for US military operations in Iraq.
"This attack was a retaliation for the killing of our mujahedin brothers Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu al-Masri... in Iraq."
We have no doubt that al-Shabab and al-Qaeda want America to occupy Somalia and will try to goad Washington through international provocation. No longer will al-Shabab topple the TFG and then sit around.
Their sanctuary could shift al-Qaeda back on the offensive.
For so long Somalia has survived as a weak state, but could its government be on the verge of a real collapse? The US Joint Forces Command is stressing over that question right now.